If the last year has taught us anything about remote working, it’s that we all do it differently. Some people work best first thing in the morning and are most productive at their kitchen table. Others rise later and stay at their desks until late, taking the opportunity of the quiet hours to get things done.
As we’ve moved away from shared offices and into our own spaces, many of us have transitioned to “asynchronous working”. Put simply, this means the information we are exchanging is happening ‘out of sync’ rather than in ‘real-time’. Working asynchronously means we’re working to our own schedules, instead of the traditional 9-5.
Career coach Valerie O'Hanlon of Clarence Consulting says there are two definitions of asynchronous working. “One is ‘not existing or occurring at the same time’ and the other is ‘controlling the timing of operations.. when the previous operation is completed rather than at regular intervals’. Both are merged together in relation to asynchronous working,” she says.
“An example of this is if I am more productive in the mornings and evenings, I might interact with Asia in the morning and the west coast USA later,” O'Hanlon says. “I would like to take some of the hours in the middle of the day to go for a bike ride and pick the kids up from school. There are meetings scheduled, so instead of attending in person, I forward my thoughts and questions and I view the recording of it later in the day when I'm back at my desk.”
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On the one hand, asynchronous working gives people more freedom to work in a way that suits their lives. It also allows businesses to work across time zones freely, which is helpful if staff are located in offices around the world. However, some argue that working so independently can impede the way we communicate, making it slower and less effective. So what are the pros and cons – and how can employers tackle some of the challenges of asynchronous work?
“The benefits are that you can control the timings of what you do,” O’Hanlon says. “If you're a morning person, you can get up early and get started on the tasks that suit you or perhaps you're a night owl and are more productive in the late afternoon or evening, then you can leave those difficult tasks to later in the day.”
Having control of your time rather than trying to match the schedule of someone else will make you more productive and more engaged with work. Multiple studies have suggested that greater flexibility at work is linked to increased productivity, in part, because workers are happier and more engaged when they are working to their own timetables.
It means people can work at their own pace, regardless of their location, while juggling other responsibilities like childcare. “I can also schedule my homelife around the middle of the day,” O’Hanlon says. “The employee basically has a great deal more autonomy than they would if they were working 9-5 in the office.”
That being said, there are downsides to asynchronous working. Firstly, making the switch to asynchronous work isn’t an easy transition as it involves unlearning some ingrained corporate behaviours and expectations.
It can feel counterintuitive to cut back on meetings - which require people to work synchronously - and inefficient to wait for someone to respond to something in their own time. To make it work requires a high level of trust between employers and employees, which doesn’t always come naturally.
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Asynchronous work can also be tricky if people’s schedules are completely out of whack with their colleagues, says O’Hanlon. “There may be times when your personal attendance is a definite requirement at a Zoom call, or others may not like you recording the sessions.
“If you are a night owl, your colleagues may not appreciate getting emails from you at 10pm and might feel pressured into answering them at that time,” she adds. “Your boss or your colleagues may not be fully aware of your asynchronous way of working and may feel that you're slacking during the day.”
This kind of working also requires finding the right communication tools that let workers access work on their own terms too. “Employers need to give some leeway with meetings and their methods of communication, embracing new technologies in communication,” she adds. “Attendance at meetings should be for those that are specifically needed.”
Employers should think carefully before committing to asynchronous working - and it needs to be planned well to gain the most benefits. “If asynchronous working is going to be rolled-out, then a policy outlining the parameters and boundaries must be put in place, including a ‘right to switch off’ from emails and calls, so that employees don't feel obliged to answer them,” O’Hanlon says.
There must also be a top-down approach to asynchronous work. If employers want to promote it with their workers too, then managers and senior employees must be seen to use it themselves, and be accepting and encouraging of their employees using it.