Building a collaborative asynchronous work environment
“Quick question for you…”
Is there anything more annoying to hear when you’re elbows deep in a hairy bug?
When I was working as a software engineer a few years ago, I remember putting on headphones with no music, just to keep people in the office from disturbing me when I really needed to focus. It’s frustrating, and disruptions waste a lot of time. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine points out that it can take over 20 minutes to get back into a complex problem after being jolted out by a distraction.
While remote work might make it easier to carve out focus time, it depends entirely on the company. Some still expect software engineers to be ready to respond to chat or email messages at any moment, and those who are slow may suffer professionally for it. Others bring developers into so many meetings that they rarely have an hour away from video calls to get any deep work done.
So when I started my own business a couple of years ago, I decided we would do things a bit differently. I wanted to build a company that allowed me to have time for deep work, time to take walking breaks in the middle of the day, and time to pick up my son from school. Even more, I wanted to create a work environment that gave my employees the same privilege.
The working model we developed is a form of asynchronous remote work. In an asynchronous environment, all or most of the work is done at the employees’ preferred working time. Employees use asynchronous work tools to communicate, and there are typically very few real-time meetings.
Draft.dev remains almost completely asynchronous, even as our team has grown to over 12 full-time people and 300 technical writers. We don’t use real-time chat tools, and by letting people work in their own timezones, we are able to hire employees and contractors in over 50 countries around the world.
I’m not alone in embracing asynchronous work though. There is a growing trend in companies of all sizes to adopt this style of work because of the productivity, lifestyle, and hiring benefits it affords.
For this piece, I interviewed several founders and leaders of asynchronous-first companies. You’ll hear more about why they adopted this work style, what they’ve learned about making it effective, the tools they use, and some of the challenges that arise in asynchronous work environments. Whether you’re looking for a job and curious about what it might be like to work at an asynchronous company, or you’re a leader who is considering rolling this out with your team, there will be some good takeaways here.
Why asynchronous work?
Initially, my reason for making Draft.dev asynchronous was personal. My partner and I had recently had our first child and with daycares closed during Covid, I needed to be home to watch him most days. I would try to schedule sales calls during his naps or in the evenings and spend most of the day watching him, responding to emails when I had little gaps of time.
As I started hiring more people though, I realized there were other benefits to being all remote and mostly asynchronous.
“The original reason we went asynchronous was the timezone distribution and the need to respect each individual’s productive time,” Sameera Perera, a manager at CloudExtend told me. He pointed out that his company of 44 is located around the world and some are night owls, while others are early risers. They have a few real-time meetings per week, but 90% of their workday is done asynchronously.
My team’s experience has been similar. While we have some roles that need to be available for meetings with clients, most of our team spends their day focused on deep work like writing, editing, or coding.
I’ve also found that in some regions of the world, it’s almost impossible to work at certain times of the day. For example, rolling blackouts in South Africa often force our team members there to move their workdays based on when they have power.
Access the global talent pool
Probably the most common reason technology companies move to asynchronous work is that it gives them access to the growing global talent pool. This was certainly a factor for me when I started Draft.dev. We grew from 0 to 80 clients in just two years, so I couldn’t find enough software engineers in the United States to write the volume of content we needed.
Rishabh Kaul, Head of Marketing at Appsmith, had a similar experience as they had to hire quickly too. “After the first five employees, we decided to hire globally to access a broader talent pool,” he told me. “We have users from 140+ countries, with the top six all being from different time zones,” he said, adding that by hiring globally, they have support employees ready nearly 24/7.
Improve documentation and collaboration
A less obvious benefit to working asynchronously is having a record of almost every conversation that happens in the company. While private email or chat threads aren’t ideal for documenting decisions, there are a few purpose-built tools I’ll discuss later for building documentation or training material from past discussions.
“We end up documenting or having a trail for all discussions,” Rishabh Kaul told me, “which makes it easier for people to help themselves.”
“We encourage documentation and regular updates in a public forum like Slack or Notion,” Ronak Ganatra, Marketing Director at Lano added, saying that they “try to minimize ‘important’ projects being kicked off in 1-on-1s,” because they don’t want any details to get lost.
A common objection to asynchronous work is that collaboration is harder, but Brian Casel, CEO of ZipMessage said that he sees the opposite.
“We actually collaborate much better because we are async,” told me, pointing out that everyone gets time to think about and organize their thoughts before they speak or write. “All messages are logged,” he told me, “so it’s really easy for us to link back to something someone said.”
You might forget what someone said in a video call three months ago, but if you can go back through your message history, you can avoid losing important organizational knowledge.
Increase team autonomy
One of the benefits my team talks about most often is the high level of flexibility and autonomy they get thanks to our asynchronous environment. Employees are able to work around their lives, but also in the way they work best.
“People are happier when they have flexibility, and when they are happier they are more productive,” Kiran Shahbaz, founder of GrowWell Ventures and Goodwork told me. “Our team really values the freedom and autonomy that remote and async work provides.”
As a manger, having an asynchronous team means that I really can’t rely on metrics like hours worked. Whenever possible, I try to use output-based metrics, which encourage team members to get more efficient at their jobs rather than maintain the status quo.
How to make asynchronous work
One thing that I find challenging about asynchronous work as my company grows is that I can’t get answers to all my questions immediately. I know that’s probably a good thing (because I’m not constantly interrupting my teammates), but it’s required an adjustment to my expectations around work and forced me to get better about processes.
In addition to the mindset shift required, there are a few other things you’ll need to do to go async:
Strengthen your writing skills
“[We ask everyone to] have everything posted on public channels to increase transparency,” Rishabh Kaul told me, adding that this means they often have to “train people to emphasize the written word.”
Brian Knoles of Bellawatt’s advice was similar. “Writing is more time consuming than speaking,” he said, “but it also helps to clarify thinking in a different way. We’ve all had an ‘aha!’ moment while typing up something we were confused about.”
I’ve always thought that writing was an incredibly important skill for software developers, and Harvard neuroscientist, Juliette Han says the same is true for everyone:
“The most underrated skill that successful people, especially introverts, have is the ability to write clearly. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you are a thoughtful and strategic writer, you’ll be more confident in your interactions—in emails, public speaking or even just small talk.”
So whether your company is asynchronous or not, it’s worth investing time to become a better writer, but if you join an async company, this is doubly true.
Build processes and documentation
As writing becomes more ingrained in your daily life at an asynchronous company, it’s only natural that some of that writing will turn its way into documentation. “We document everything that is done more than once,” Kiran Shahbaz told me. “Because we don’t have the luxury of ad-hoc questions and answers, these need to be prepared beforehand.”
Of course, not all documentation is written. “We record a lot of calls,” Rishabh Kaul said, “Many meetings are recorded, especially meetings that have more than two or three people.” These recordings then serve as a library of context for people who couldn’t make the meeting and want to review it afterwards.
Finally, we’ve found that automated processes also really help our team at Draft.dev. Using tools like Zapier and Airtable, we’ve been able to automate many of our internal communications, allowing our teams to work more efficiently at their own time.
Choose the right tools
While there are a handful of tools that just about every office worker is familiar with (Zoom, Slack, Google Docs, etc.), there are some tools that work especially well for asynchronous teams.
For example, Stack Overflow for Teams offers a collaborative place for teams to ask and answer questions without interrupting each other in real-time chat platforms. Similarly, Twist is organized around threads and works more like a traditional forum than a real-time chat tool.
My team uses a daily standup tool called Status Hero to record what we’re working on each day without all having to hop on a call in real-time. Other teams I spoke to use tools like Metro Retro to capture and share their agile retrospective notes both synchronously and asynchronously.
Finally, I’ve gotten to be a big fan of leaving async video messages through ZipMessage. While real-time calls are useful for collaborating quickly, a lot of meetings could be replaced by video messages.
The challenges asynchronous work introduces
While I think a highly asynchronous environment can work for the right type of team and business, it introduces its own set of challenges. Having tools and metrics will help you, but ultimately, it’s not the right work environment for every company in every kind of business.
Trust is key
First, if employees are allowed to work when, where, and how they want, you have to be able to trust them. “Async only works with 100% reliable team members,” Kiran Shahbaz told me. Ronak Ganatra agreed, adding that everyone must be “accountable and independent.”
That last part can be tough for some managers to accept. I have worked for a few managers who didn’t believe people working from home were “really working,” and async won’t work in a low-trust environment.
For me, the key is having good work and result-tracking measures in place. For some roles, employees log and report their hours weekly, while other roles are paid on an output basis. This allows managers to compare performance objectively, even if they’re not able to meet with each employee face-to-face every day.
Hiring employees who are used to working asynchronously also helps. I look for people who have worked remotely and independently in the past. For example, a lot of freelancers tend to succeed in an asynchronous environment because they know how to motivate themselves and stay focused without a boss looming over their shoulders.
But employees have to be able to trust each other too. “Team members should remember that asynchronous means someone might not be available when you want them to be,” Anthony Eden of DNSimple told me. “Team members must accept and respect their fellow team members’ schedules and work habits.”
If you can’t trust your fellow team members or your employees, then asynchronous work is not going to be a good fit.
The mindset shift
“Regular sharing is a habit that takes time to build.” – Anthony Eden, DNSimple
Almost every new employee we hire goes through a period of time where they’re still trying to wrap their head around this asynchronous work thing. For example, we use Trello for project management, so if someone has an idea for a new project, our company’s best practice is to add it to the correct backlog and tag anyone you’d like to review it for you.
But it usually takes new employees three to four months to remember that this is how they’re supposed to do it, so I find myself stopping long email threads with a reminder to move the discussion to the proper forum.
Some people struggle to get into a consistent work routine. One of our core values is that “we work at a sustainable pace,” so I often have to remind team members not to put in extra time on the weekends or evenings unless that’s when they prefer to work. Just because work is always available doesn’t mean you have to be constantly plugged into it.
Real-time tasks and roles
Finally, some tasks and roles are simply not suited to asynchronous work. Everyone I talked to for this mentioned how challenging brainstorming in an asynchronous workplace is. Many of them use real-time meetings for that work and regular team check-ins that require more back-and-forth at a quicker pace.
Our account management and sales teams are also much more synchronous than our production team due to the nature of their work. Clients expect availability in their timezones, and responding to a client question quickly can often build a lot of trust. While we encourage these teams to set boundaries, we also want to serve our clients the best we can.
The key thing is to be honest with new hires about the amount of real-time vs. asynchronous time their role entails. Most people will understand as long as you’re open about it.
For technology workers, remote work is becoming the norm, but asynchronous workplaces are still relatively rare. This working style requires total buy-in across the company and a high degree of trust between employees and managers, so it may never become the standard. That said, it has advantages, especially for engineers, writers, and other knowledge workers who need to spend a lot of time in deep work.
What do you think? Have you ever worked in an asynchronous environment? Did you like it or not? Find me on Twitter to continue the conversation.Tags: asynchronous, remote work
There’s some irony about an article about asynchronous collaboration that suggests one should be a strategic writer who documents in advance, and still leaving me jaw dropped at how it doesn’t actually really talk about the async management routine or how should a manager replicate it or even start to shift towards/introduce it. The first 10 paragraphs or so have the article start from the conclusion, trying to sell a concept that hasn’t even been established to the reader yet, and later has the gall to casually bring up multiple paid productivity solutions in one sentence without saying what exactly they do: “[with these tools] we’ve been able to automate many of our internal communications” – wow, what does that word salad even mean?
Maybe if the author was in the room I could have stopped and asked him to elaborate and keep it short before they went on several tangents that haven’t been useful; but here we are.
“We don’t use real-time chat tools” with a link to a “no Slack” article.
A paragraph later: “We encourage documentation and regular updates in a public forum like Slack” :/
This is now a common theme and I believe will be from here on. The IT industry is so desperately in need of manpower that hiring all over the world is a must now. “Async” work is here “to stay” 🙂
I don’t agree with all your assessments, but I appreciate you laying this conversation down “in writing”. Thanks
For me, either you have a very skilled, and senior team, or, which is the case most of the time (you won’t) communication is paramount. Hiring from wherever on this planet brings added difficulty regarding that communication process. A lot is lost in translation.
From my experience, if you don’t manage a team of time-hardened skilled, seniors, you have to hire a very good proj manager, team leader, etc , the party that will funnel, properly, all those communications.
But, yes, finally, the future is async. That is my vision too, and while developing solutions for others I always emphasize the need for those solutions to allow anyone to work, whenever from wherever regardless of each other’s availability.
Still,…what we want vs reality
Thx for the article (too much self-promo though 😉 , I felt)
I’m a fan of async work, but have some reservations about the general applicability of async at this level, especially for product teams in a tech-powered product company.
I also work at a fully remote, international company (currently about 50 people), which also tries to embrace async work.
However, experience has shown me that discovering and building (the right) digital products is an intensely collaborative endeavour. Some of this can be done async, but much relies on close collaboration – actually working together, not separately – to get good results in a timely way.
Maybe for the businesses discussed in this article, individual work is all that is needed for success, but I’d argue that for must software development contexts greater than a few developers, a high degree of async work is not an effective way for achieving our desired business outcomes.
If the work you do is very prescriptive, or you’re mainly focused on delivering specified output, then enabling this level of individual deep work, will probably be very effective.
But I expect this situation is the exception, not the rule.