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Remember when real-time, in-person communication was the main way business got done?

That “synchronous” work style went virtual when the pandemic hit. Online meetings, text messaging through team collaboration platforms and phone conversations replaced in-person interactions.

Yet being constantly on call took its toll on employees, with people reporting online-meeting fatigue and a continual pressure to respond in real time. That’s when “asynchronous” communication policies for remote workers came to the rescue.

Global companies like 1E had a mix of async and sync before the pandemic but had to quickly adopt an async-first approach during the lockdown, says Nick Bartlett, chief people officer at the firm, a tech-platform company based in London.

“We had [async] before, but we didn’t value it,” said Bartlett, who is based out of the London headquarters. “Then, when we went into lockdown, we decided to be remote really quickly.”

This led to a period of experimentation as quickly became evident that an abundance of real-time communication was a nonstarter.

Now, 1E sets standards for when real-time interactions are absolutely necessary. These standards align with the company’s flexible work policies, which allows employees to decide with their line managers what work schedule makes sense.

Focusing on outcomes, not oversight

While employees settled into asynchronous work habits easily, the road was bumpier for managers, Bartlett noted. The key to making it work for supervisors was having them focus on outcomes, rather than management-by-watching — which meant that managers had to develop more trust in the employee-manager relationship.

“I think what our managers underestimated is that it’s about trust,” he said. “If [as a manager] I’m really going to embrace [an] asynchronous kind of working, I’ve got to stop looking for that little green dot [or other online status cues]. I’ve got to be comfortable that I’m going to send this email … and I still haven’t had a response for two hours.”

“What we found is that when people are ‘office-based’ or working normal office hours, and you don’t get response for two to three hours, we … just assume they were busy,” he added. “But once you’re doing it from home, then it’s much more like, hold on — it’s been almost two hours.… Why haven’t I had a response? Nothing’s actually changed in that person’s working day apart from where they’re sitting.”

To help managers overcome the discomfort, 1E conducted pilot programs with teams known for their effective communications. They tested different ways of working and the best practices were shared across the business, while making allowances for different teams to choose what is best for them, he says.

“We didn’t say that we’re going to completely wipe out the traditional ways of working, because obviously you have to consider that collaboration and innovation does happen face to face, even if it is on video,” Bartlett said. “But we’ve also seen [that] some of these teams’ innovation has happened completely asynchronously.”

The antidote for burnout

At the beginning, some managers worried that not having frequent team meetings was going to make people feel isolated and lonely, but Bartlett says his company learned that too many meetings led to burnout. Async communications eased that pain.

In addition, people with certain cognitive conditions benefited from asynchronous communication, Bartlett says. It meant they didn’t have to attend daily live video team meetings and, when they did have to do a meeting, it was OK if they left the webcam off.

Emily Tschimperle, the human-resources director for the Minneapolis locations of the Marsh & McLennan Agency, a risk-management consulting company based in White Plains, N.Y., says meeting overload for remote employees has led to a reassessment of how meetings should be conducted.

“It’s shed new light on the fact that we really could do meetings more efficiently and effectively because now we just have so many more and because you just can’t go down the hall and get something solved,” she said.

Now, the company is encouraging good meeting habits such as creating an agenda beforehand, keeping to a set start and end time, deciding who really needs to participate in the live meeting, building in breaks between meetings and sending out a recap for people who couldn’t make it.

Since establishing protocols for async and real-time remote communications, Tschimperle says her company’s eight branches in the Minneapolis region feel more “like a small company.”

“We’ve leveraged each other differently and maybe it’s just because geography has become less important,” she said.

“Bringing everyone onto the same page”

Janine Yancey, CEO and founder of Emtrain, an online HR training company based in San Francisco, recommends updating code-of-conduct policies to “help set the intentions and bring everyone onto the same page” regarding communication within a company.

A good example is having a policy of 24-hour response time for emails, which puts less pressure on people to respond right away, she says.

“And [it] allows employees to feel more empowered, organized and productive,” Yancey said.

“Companies should consider setting the expectation between what is communicated on email versus communications on team chat apps such as Slack or Microsoft Teams,” she added. “Things that are less urgent should be communicated and requested by email, while urgent matters that need quick responses should be communicated via team chat apps.”

A shared understanding of how and when people are working will help establish trust between employees and managers, she notes.

“When employees have input with management and work together on things like setting up designated check-in times to give daily or weekly updates, a sense of teamwork is the natural result,” Yancey said.

The downsides of async collaboration — and how to deal with them

“Asynchronous [collaboration], when done poorly, can feel like a slowdown in productivity, as decisions and progress are broken into many threads where a single meeting could have solved it,” noted Jeff Chow, senior vice president of product for InVision, a digital product design platform company based in New York City.

“For async to be successful, there needs to be a corporate set of expectations where communication is more deliberate with clear roles and responsibilities, context and expectations,” he said.

“If some teams are together in the office and others are not, it’s harder to have ad-hoc moments without alienating the remote worker,” Chow added.

He suggests these tips for fostering async work effectiveness:

  • Set clear expectations for team member contributions and timelines to avoid slow or non-responses, which can bog projects down.
  • Develop a role and responsibilities model so people can know if they are being consulted or just informed.
  • Encourage use of “lightweight” signals that you reviewed a communication, such as a thumbs up.
  • Establish time and ways for people to develop connections and relationships with co-workers in real life or virtually to build trust.

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