Fewer meetings, more memos: the future of asynchronous work

Detailed handover notes and emails are increasingly replacing meetings in workplaces where colleagues rarely meet. Photograph: iStock

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“This meeting could have been an email” is a common workplace complaint. For some companies, it is now a guiding principle.

Since the pandemic cut ties to the office, more people are working when and where it suits them best, rather than the standard nine to five. This “asynchronous” approach means colleagues overlap less and have to communicate in different ways to do their jobs effectively.

That means fewer meetings – whether in person, hybrid or virtual – and more detailed memos, instructional videos and collaborative documents, as colleagues record their work in shared online workspaces that are available 24/7.

“It’s just about ensuring that when I sit down to work, I have the information I need to start,” says Kyle Daigle, chief operating officer of GitHub, a Microsoft-owned developer platform. Many of the company’s approximately 3,000 employees work asynchronously.

Many professional workers are used to keeping slightly different hours to colleagues: they make it work by sending overnight emails, or creating handover documents so overseas colleagues can continue working on a project.

But in a fully – or almost fully – asynchronous workplace, employees have to embrace unfamiliar habits: resisting the temptation to call so many meetings; documenting their activity and decisions in detail for colleagues to see; and granting companywide access to their work.

“Knowledge is trapped in people’s heads … What we’ve had to do is adapt to sharing that knowledge without getting people together in meetings in real time,” says Scott Farquhar, co-CEO of software company Atlassian, which has more than 11,000 employees working in 13 countries.

So far, tech firms have led the way in adopting asynchronous working patterns. That is partly because writing code lends itself to long periods of solitary focus, but also because asynchronous work depends heavily on online processes tech workers are familiar with already.

Scoop, a hybrid technology company that monitors the work policies of almost 6,000 US-headquartered businesses as part of its “Flex Index”, says 32 per cent of those companies require no office time from their employees. These are predominantly working asynchronously, says Scoop chief executive Rob Sadow.

Several companies, such as Notion and Atlassian, have sprung up offering asynchronous tools, enabling colleagues to create internal reference materials, delegate tasks, monitor the progress of projects and collaborate on work at any time, wherever they are.

About 1,500 companies use Slite, a Paris-based document management platform that enables workers to create documents and quickly find information, says chief executive Christophe Pasquier. “For the vast majority of our users, it becomes an asynchronous work tool.”

Slite allows users to sift through the large amount of data produced when staff document almost everything they do. “When you have a real team that works really in async, especially the remote ones, it’s shocking how much data there is,” says Pasquier. “There is so much stuff that you can’t find the stuff that matters.”

In theory, asynchronous working patterns make it quicker for rank-and-file employees to collaborate without meetings or supervision: everyone works directly on projects in a shared workspace, that allows companies to have a thinner management layer.

“Essentially, managers are just transmissions of information … all of that is accessible by everyone in the organisation all at the same time,” explains Liam Martin, co-founder of employee monitoring company Time Doctor. He estimates that asynchronous companies tend to have about half as many managers. “A lot of the classic things that managers were doing are essentially redundant inside of async [organisations].”

Yet a shift to this new form of working is not easy. When Martin supported some 20 firms to shift to asynchronous working during the pandemic “it was a big failure”. The flop, he says, was partly due to a lack of enthusiasm from executives and the fact that employees were reluctant to write up their work in detail. When they did, colleagues rarely read the notes.

“In one company, we identified that 98 per cent of the documents that were written out had not been accessed more than twice,” he says.

Even the most strident advocates of asynchronous work acknowledge that some situations need a quick discussion. Working to different schedules “doesn’t mean you don’t ever hop on a Zoom call”, says Daigle, adding that innovation is still “much easier” when it involves personal communication or live meetings.

To build a team spirit and create more organic connections, many asynchronous organisations schedule video “coffee chats”, or set aside time in calls to replicate the chit-chat of in-person meetings. Many also bring staff together for away days.

“Our belief on distributed work is not that you never need to get together,” adds Atlassian’s Farquhar. “It’s that you don’t need to sit next to someone in a cubicle every single day to build trust.”


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