The way we work is changing. Freelancing is booming. New tools - like project management apps, AI assistants and the metaverse - are digitizing our workflow. And the majority of workers never want to go back to the 9 to 5, office-based model. As the workplace evolves, mastering async working will be essential to your team’s success.
What is async work?
Synchronous work is a bit like a football match. It involves multiple people engaged in the same thing simultaneously or communicating in real-time. That could mean an in-person brainstorming session around a table, a Zoom meeting to plan a project or even the expectation of an immediate answer to a question you’ve pinged across. It’s the kind of work that’s pretty easy to achieve if everyone works in the same office during set work hours.
Async (or asynchronous) work on the other hand involves collaborating on a task without engaging in it at the same time. It’s a bit more like having a jigsaw puzzle on the kitchen table, with people adding a few pieces whenever they come by. Chances are your team is already doing some async work, even if it’s not conscious. That could be drafting a document together using Google Docs, setting up a meeting using a calendar invite or sending questions to your colleague via email instead of picking up the phone.
Why is it beneficial?
According to a global survey, 90% of employees in corporate legal departments want more flexibility in both where and when they work. 54% say they’ll quit if they don’t get it. After a year where resignations hit record highs and firms battled to attract associates, it’s safe to say that employers should be taking those preferences seriously. ‘Flexible’ might mean taking a break to watch your daughter’s soccer match, spending a week working remotely from a Greek island or starting at 5 am so you can study in the afternoons. It might also involve working with a mix of full-timers, part-timers and freelancers. Async working makes it possible to collaborate even if every member of your team is on a different schedule.
Optimizing personal productivity
You may have noticed that you’re more productive at certain times of the day. A study of 500 thousand exams taken by university students found that they performed best at exams that started at 1:30pm. Another study found that 10:54 on a Monday morning is the perfect time to focus. Tim Cook, Richard Branson and several other hotshot business leaders claim that 4 or 5am is the magic hour.
Our circadian rhythms impact when we feel in the mood to focus and when we feel like resting- but our ‘focus hours’ are also affected by individual traits like genetics, social environment, diet and caffeine. In the UK, 36% of millennials say they feel most productive either before 9am or after 5pm which suggests that enforcing the traditional workday on all your staff is a bad idea.
If we want to maximize efficiency, we should tackle tasks that require deep focus at the time of day when we are most concentrated. Becoming fully immersed in what you’re doing is also good for your mental health and can leave you feeling motivated and fulfilled. But that’s impossible if your day is packed with meetings or you’re constantly interrupted by calls and notifications. Async working can help create space for periods of uninterrupted deep focus.
Cutting down on meetings
We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a meeting and thinking ‘When is he going to stop talking?’, ‘Why do I need to be here?’ or even ‘This could’ve been an email.’ In 2019, there were an estimated 55 million meetings per day in the US. Professionals attended around 15 meetings per week and executives spent 50-90% of their time in meetings. But, 70% of senior managers viewed meetings as unproductive.
There are lots of reasons why a meeting might waste time. Around half of employees surveyed say that meetings happen too frequently, are badly run, and too long. This may be because of Parkinson’s Law which says that work expands to fill its allotted time. If you schedule a 1-hour meeting, you’ll make it fill the hour, even if you’ve solved the problem after 42 minutes. Research shows that when people feel meetings are ineffective that feeling correlates with low job satisfaction.
Thankfully, there's another way to get things done. Most tasks that happen in meetings can happen asynchronously. For example, PowerPoint presentations can be viewed in your own time, tasks can be allocated using project management software and brainstorming can happen on a digital whiteboard.
Clarity, Transparency and Accountability
Email chains, workflow software and tools like Google Docs leave a trail. You can keep track of who was allocated a task or who made an edit and when it was done. This can make your workflow clearer and make it easier to pinpoint the source of a problem. Communicating asynchronously also gives you more time to reflect before you say things. Working in your own time gives you a sense of ownership over your work which can make you more invested and ultimately more satisfied.
Nearly 2 million working moms considered downshifting or leaving the US workforce during the pandemic. While 79% of fathers felt efficient working from home, less than 40% of moms felt the same. Async working gives primary caregivers the freedom to work when it suits them and stick with their careers.
Async work is inclusive in other ways too. Video calls are great for Chatty Cathy but not so helpful for Introverted Ivanka. Async working takes the pressure off people with conditions like social anxiety and makes it easier for quiet team members to have their say.
How to become an async pro
Know when to go sync
Mastering async working doesn’t mean abandoning all synchronous work. The two should go hand-in-hand. Urgent or complicated matters may be better resolved with a phone call and sync teamwork can spark creativity and build relationships. It helps to know your team. You might have an extrovert who needs sync interaction to get fired up about a project. Or you might have a shy newbie who is too scared to ask for help when they need it. A video call might be good for both of them. Even before the pandemic, around 20% of people in the US and UK said they felt lonely often - so it’s worth bearing in mind the value of real-time human interaction.
Use the right tools
Like most tasks in life, async work is easier when you have the right tools. Here are some of the best ones:
- Google Docs for collaborative document drafting
- Digital whiteboards like Conceptboard and Whimsical
- Workflow software like Notion and Asana
- Slack for communication
- And Ironclad for contract management
Give your team time to focus and disconnect
You can set a few hours of the day when you need everyone to be online. The rest of the day, leave your team to work solo. Encourage staff to turn off notifications when they are not available on chat and schedule phone calls rather than ringing unannounced. Before calling a meeting, think about whether you really need one and keep it small. Take your team’s preferences into account before scheduling synced activities.
Changing habits is difficult and predominantly async workflow won’t be the right fit for every team. But there’s a reason that so many people are adopting this way of working. Burnout is a major threat and people are leaving their jobs in record numbers. Now more than ever we have to nurture our work-life balance and create space for flexibility. Async work could be the answer.
At Lawtrades, it’s never been easier to go async. We house a fully integrated ecosystem that allows you to interview, message, and check real-time work, & spend updates as soon as your engagement is started.