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Asynchronous Communication in Remote Work: Adjusting Your Management Style

In the last few weeks, there's been a lot of content floating around focusing on what it means to work remote.

But one thing that many of these articles have assumed is that even if everyone isn't working at the same place, they're all working at the same time. Once you've given up all going to the same office, it's worth asking, do you even need to keep the same office hours? As a manager, can you effectively manage people through asynchronous communication, team members who aren't even online at the same time as you?

[Scroll to the bottom of this article to download a free e-book full of advice on Going Remote or a WalkAround tool for Analyzing Business Decisions in a Crisis.]

Now if you're already struggling to shift to remote work, you might ask why add to the disruption with asynchronous work.

But there are a lot of good reasons to consider it.

Lots of folks are struggling with the fact that their kids are at home too, and they might need to focus on childcare during normal working hours. And as many folks are realizing, being on video conferences for hours at a time can be exhausting.

Leaning into asynchronous remote work can help you flex to accommodate your teams needs and replace remote meetings with more effective kinds of communication.

So how do you manage effectively when your team members might not be available at the same time? Ultimately it comes down to 4 things that we've summarized in this simple WalkAround exercise.

  • A: Workspaces
    • Virtual "Spaces" and "Documents" that the team agrees to serve as "sources of truth" and "meeting places" (Slack, Google Drive, JIRA, etc)
    • URL Addressable and easily bookmarked in your browser
  • B: Rituals
    • Regular activities that the team commits to participate in
    • These can be meetings, daily reports, workspaces to check for updates, etc
  • C: Written Communication
    • Focusing on providing comprehensive written updates
    • Using empathy to anticipate questions and concerns proactively
    • Get quick temperature checks with narrow questions and polls
  • D: Synthesizing Results
    • Regular synchronous rituals specific focused on bringing it all together
    • Show and tell, re-alignment, refocusing the team

Workspaces

The first part of an effective asynchronous remote team is to establish a set of effective workspaces. These are virtual tools that the team agrees should be the primary means of communication. These can be documents and "sources of truth" like Google Drive or Trello, or they can be conversation focused "meeting places'' like Slack, or Google Hangouts. The key is that the entire team commits to being in the same set of "workspaces" on a day to day basis, and doesn't do their work through private side channels like 1-1 emails or phone calls.

These workspaces should generally allow you to bookmark individual pieces of content and share links with co-workers, so you can easily be looking at the same thing, even if you aren't both online at the same time.

If you're a manager setting up a potentially asynchronous remote team it's important you not only define your team's workspaces clearly, you also need to provide clear instructions on how to use them.

On the Herrmann Platform team, we define "Channel Rules" for all our key channels in Slack to set clear expectations for how folks on the team should engage and interact in each channel. This includes things like:

  • Always post a link to the relevant issue in our ticket tracker when discussing a bug or feature
  • Thread discussions to make it easier for folks to quickly catch up on topics relevant to them
  • Ensure you're up to date on all non-threaded conversations in this channel once a day

What rules your team needs is ultimately up to you, but having those rules clearly established and written out for everyone can help ensure people stay on the same page and understand what's expected of them.

Rituals

The second part of an asynchronous remote team is to agree upon a series of regular "rituals." Ultimately a ritual is anything the team does on a regular, consistent basis. Rituals might include:

  • Submitting a daily report of what you did
  • A weekly planning and review meeting
  • A weekly independent review of cross functional activities to share out to other teams

In normal synchronous work, especially in traditional office settings, most rituals are either face-to-face meetings or "implicit" rituals (stopping by an employee's desk to ask what's going on while on your way back from the coffee machine).

But in asynchronous remote work, we have to find other ways to create the same regular cadence for our teams. A good starting point is giving your team a standard set of questions for a daily update. Here at Herrmann we use the following:

  • What did you do today?
  • Where can we go to see your work?
  • What do you plan to do tomorrow?
  • Where are you blocked?

Everyone is expected to put their answers to these questions in our main department Slack channel before the end of the day. It's a simple lightweight ritual that creates something that everyone on the team can quickly look at to see what's going on.

In general the team should have a handful of key rituals that cover things like:

  • Providing regular updates on the work each team member is doing
  • Providing feedback on other peoples work
  • Coordinating with others to plan what's next

Written Communication

One of the biggest shifts for many folks in both remote work, and asynchronous work, is a shift from verbal to written communication.

Even in this day and age of texting, social media, and other written mediums, it can still be a real shift to move professional communications into a written medium.

However, the shift to writing actually has a number of big advantages if you can help your team adjust.

The first is simply that written communication gives you much more time to craft your message. You can think carefully about your audience and settle on the message that will be most impactful to them. If you know their HBDI® profile, you can focus on refining a message that speaks directly to their preferences.

And if you're working asynchronously you really should take the time to slow down and think carefully about what you're writing. If your team has questions, you may not be online to answer them in the moment.

You want to avoid costly back-and-forth exchanges that span across days and frustrate everyone. Instead, try to use what you know about your team members to anticipate their concerns, questions, and objections, and address those upfront from the start.

Here at Herrmann, using the HBDI® profile can really help with that process by providing a quick way to evaluate how to best address the preferences and concerns of each team member

Synthesizing Results & Decisions

One of the biggest challenges of asynchronous communication is the sense of conversations that happen in little trickles and never seem to push towards a final, big-picture resolution. This kind of synthesis tends to happen naturally in synchronous communication because eventually you all have to stop talking and move onto the next thing. However in asynchronous communication you have to force a decision point through other means.

One mechanism is just to switch back to synchronous communication for key decision points and resolution. This can be handled by having a few regularly scheduled meetings that are at times that work for everyone.

You do a lot of hard work to set context, prepare the agenda, and give everyone a chance to voice their initial perspectives asynchronously before the meeting, and then the meeting becomes an efficient, focused drive to synthesis and a decision.

For smaller issues, you can use simple polls to force a decision. Present people with a few options, force them to respond with a simple vote for a particular option.

You can make the actual decision democratic, by directly using the results of the poll, or you can choose to use the poll as guidance, but reserve the right to make a final decision yourself based on other information and priorities you might have.

Either way, you've gotten everyone's final perspective on the matter and equipped yourself with the information you need to make a decision and move forward

Hopefully this gives you a good sense of how you can add effective asynchronous communication to your team's capabilities.

As a final suggestion, if you are interested in trying to introduce more asynchronous workflows into your team, it's often a good idea to look to your introverts for suggestions and guidance.

Introverts often really excel and enjoy asynchronous communication or work styles because of the way it provides them extra time to think and reflect. You may find that once you create the opportunity, they will really step in and surprise you with skills and capabilities you didn't realize were there. It's just another benefit to this having this way of working in your team's repertoire.

This post was a contribution from one of the Herrmann team, Andrew Swerlick, Senior Director of Platform Technology.

For more tips from our company about working from home, download the e-book, "Going Remote: A Whole Brain® Guide For Remote Management & Distributed Productivity."

You can also download our guide to Making Leadership Decisions in a Crisis by filling out the form below.

Tags: Leadership Advice, Management development, Whole Brain Thinking, Remote Work, COVID-19

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

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