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Chapter 20 - Work asynchronously

Being in sync is overrated. Efficient communication means fewer interruptions.

Your team will work more if you chat less

“A little less conversation, a little more action please All this aggravation ain’t satisfactionin’ me”

  • Elvis Presley1

Even “The King” knew that to get more done, we need to talk less. From my 13+ years of experience leading an all-remote team, I believe the number one skill that we’ve perfected is learning to work asynchronously.

Why not in sync? What is asynchronous work?

It means that one person is working on one thing while the other is working on something else. They might know what kind of task the other one is tackling at the moment, but they don’t necessarily know the nitty-gritty details and are not tracking each others’ progress in real time.

It’s what I’m doing in this moment. I’m writing this chapter of the #NoOffice book. Magda, my editor, knows that this is the next chapter I’m going to write, but she doesn’t know exactly how far I am (hint: I’m just getting started). She even doesn’t know when I’m going to write it (hint: it’s 11pm – she probably thinks I’m sleeping, but I just got inspired!).

She trusts that I will write this chapter and, once I’m done, I’ll let her know and she’ll have a chance to review it. And this dynamic will continue later on. Her job will be to review this chapter, but again, I don’t need to know when she’s going to do it. I can communicate by stating when I want to have it done, but that’s it. I trust she’ll do her work, she’ll edit it well and she’ll let me know when she’s done.

It’s asynchronous work because we’re not sitting next to each other and constantly updating one another on the status of our tasks. We’re doing our work and we post updates once we’ve got something meaningful to communicate.

Even when the team is fully remote, it’s tempting to be “in sync” thanks to chat and notifications

Just as in Chapter 18, I’ll be using the word trust a lot here. The key is to be able to trust that the other person is doing their work. Only then will you be able to give them the time and space needed to actually do what they’ve been asked to get done.

The problem when working remotely is that you don’t physically see the other person working. Because of that, many inexperienced managers interrupt their colleagues by sending too many chat messages, requesting frequent status updates, or worse yet, asking them to join a video conferencing session to be able to actually see them work. It’s ridiculous.

When I wrote in Chapter 6 about not using email for internal communication, many people thought I was explicitly endorsing changing it for internal team chat. While I believe chat apps2 have their place as an internal team water cooler and a way for people to exchange infrequent direct messages, they have one serious flaw:

Chat creates an expectation of immediate response

This doesn’t let people concentrate on their work. The constant influx of messages interrupts everyone and encourages them to keep participating in the virtual conversation and not really get stuff done. This is contrary to what real work is all about: focus.

Multitasking is a myth. You can work only on one thing at a time!

Many people brag that they’re excellent multitaskers. No, they aren’t. Study after study has shown that people can’t really multitask.3 They can only quickly switch between tasks, but even this skill is overrated.

It’s been proven over and over that people are actually faster when they work on one thing, finish it and then switch to another task. It’s also much more efficient, as their tasks are completed with their full attention. Compare that to working on many things at once but not finishing off anything. Sure, you may be busy working on many things, but you’re not actually moving forward in any direction.

Do the work and turn notifications off

This is the first piece of advice I give to an overwhelmed person. Stop being reactive; be proactive and guard your uninterrupted time. This will help you work on one thing at a time.

Most of the tools I use daily have notifications turned off.

I only get a notification when someone delegates a task to me, messages me directly or mentions me somewhere. And when I really want to focus on a task, I even turn these notifications off until I’m done. I just put all my devices into do not disturb mode.

I don’t need these notifications anyway, because people trust me that after some time I will open my project management app or chat app or email app and check what’s going on and reply to them. I’ll do it when I’m ready. Not when they want me to. And how often does something really urgent happen? (And when it does, people know how to get a hold of me.)

Be a team player and give good feedback

Working asynchronously teaches everyone to give much better feedback. Just like you should give people time and space to do their work, they also need the same environment to let you know what they think of your work.

Instead of doing something and then immediately jumping on a call and asking What do you think?, you let the other person take their time to really study what you’ve done. This way instead of a short: Great job!, you might get a more thoughtful: Well done, but have you thought about… response.

Yes, I get it, we live in an always-on world that promotes instant gratification, so receiving shallow praise from a co-worker or a boss feels great. The question is: will your work get meaningfully better?

Taking the time to give feedback benefits everyone. It creates a culture of trust. It motivates people to dig deeper. It inspires them to be better. It also improves everyone’s communication and writing skills.

That’s why we use software that enables commenting. We post comments on tasks in our projects, paragraphs in documents, lines of code or parts of a design. It takes time to write a thoughtful comment, but a good comment thread can be an invaluable resource that ultimately improves the original work.

More thoughtful feedback leads to fewer meetings

The best part about a culture of feedback and commenting is that it leads to much fewer meetings. Very often I’d get a task from someone asking me for feedback. I’d take my time to analyze everything and write a lengthy comment to express what I liked about their work and where I see improvement opportunities. After that, I’d ask them if they wanted to schedule a short chat to go over my feedback, and usually I’d get a response that my comment was clear enough and no chat is necessary. They know what they have to do. They can get back to work right away.

Moreover, written comments create a great feedback loop that helps iron out the details of a task, study all nuances and find out all edge cases. It’s much more efficient than an impromptu brainstorming meeting.

Good work and great feedback means more respect

When you’re working remotely with people, there are very few situations when you can impress someone.

Unlike in a traditional office, you can hardly impress anyone with your latest outfit, new hairstyle, designer purse or a fancy gadget, because they most likely can’t even see it.

All they see is your work. And the feedback you give them to their work.

And believe me, we respect people who deliver great work or take their time to write a thoughtful comment on our work.

When there’s great work, there’s respect. Impressive work means an impressive person.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be surrounded by professionals who are all doing amazing work and helping you get better at yours? Isn’t that the best definition of a good working environment?

Patience is a virtue when expectations are clear

Working asynchronously doesn’t mean you can’t have expectations. You can and should learn how to communicate with them. And it works both ways. People working together asynchronously need to let the other person know when they expect a task to be finished. The other party should also be very frank if this is feasible and if not, they need to communicate if they’d have to drop something else to be able to accommodate the request. As you can see, it has to work both ways or else a trusting work relationship will turn into an annoying control-and-command type of battle.

The one thing: learn to work asynchronously.

It’s a skill, and everyone on the team needs to learn it to have enough time and space to do great work and give meaningful feedback. Working like this creates a culture of trust and respect in a team and makes everyone feel like they’re in the same boat, rowing in the same direction towards a common goal.

Yes, sometimes you do need to meet or chat, as I explained in Chapter 10 with the Pyramid of Communication, but usually you can just focus on delivering great work together while not being in full sync. And that’s ok.

For further reading on dealing with notifications, the feeling of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and working in a focused way, I recommend a second book by Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism4.

  1. From Elvis Presley’s 1968 song: “A Little Less Conversation” 

  2. Like Slack - which we use ourselves in my Nozbe team, or its copycat, Microsoft Teams which our kids’ schools were forced to use. 

  3. Research article on Cognitive Control in media multitaskers 

  4. “Digital Minimalism: Choosing Focused Life in a Noisy World” by Cal Newport 

Next: Chapter 21 - Set up your home office

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