Volkswagen van parked on a beach at sunset

Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

August 11, 2021 Collaboration and Productivity
David Lavenda
By David Lavenda

It’s been 10 years since Volkswagen announced a 'no email during off hours' policy. That email was encroaching on our personal time was not a new phenomenon, but new smartphones were making it worse. Volkswagen was just the first global company to take a public stand. The story received broad coverage in leading business outlets like the BBC, the Washington Post, NPR and others.

Remarkably, a flood of companies didn’t follow in Volkswagen’s wake. So when the BBC revisited the topic in a 2018 article entitled, "What would happen if we banned work emails at the weekend?" Volkswagen was still the poster child for neutralizing ‘off-hours’ email to promote a healthy work–life balance. Although seven years had passed since Volkswagen’s announcement, the article’s sage weekend advice for workers was to “delete your work email account from your inbox, and leave the worries until Monday.”

Enter the New Breed of Asynchronous Tools

Email is the poster child for asynchronous collaboration tools. According to technology market research firm The Radicati Group, over 4 billion people use email worldwide — and that number is still growing. Email’s allure is that, as an asynchronous technology, it allows you to communicate with people who are not currently connected to the platform. Email is also universal. People can connect, regardless of their email service provider. Plus, email affords the time to reflect before formulating a response.

Email is but one of a number of asynchronous collaboration tools, but it the oldest, and as such, the most popular by far. So it was surprising to see the number of new articles suddenly extolling the virtues of asynchronous collaboration. This publication alone has posted no fewer than 10 articles related to the topic in the last two months, including "Asynchronous: The New Trend in Collaboration," and "A Step-By-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration."

The advantages of asynchronous collaboration are simple:

  • You don’t need to be on at the same time as your partner to communicate.
  • You have time to formulate a response before answering.
  • You can communicate with multiple parties in parallel.

Much of the new interest follows the rise of next-gen asynchronous collaboration tools like WhatsApp, Slack, Teams chat and GChat for business use. These tools’ lightweight SMS-like approach provides a faster, easier experience than email. Much of what you can do with chat has been available in email for years. Sure, there are new features like rich media sharing through audio and video snippets, easier access through cloud-based apps, and ubiquitous high-speed internet to speed things up. So is something else different? I think so, but it isn't the technology.

Related Article: Avoiding Employee Burnout in the Always-On Workplace

Is Asynchronous Collaboration Different This Time?

Organizations adopted Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet en masse as a way to provide connectivity between colleagues and keep businesses humming during the extended periods of lockdown. The unprecedented adoption rates tell the story. Microsoft Teams went from 13 million users pre-pandemic to 250 million users in July 2021, while Zoom jumped from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million daily meeting participants by April 21, 2020 according to Statista.

Critically, the lockdown changed not only the tools we use but how we use them. With everyone working from home, there was a new expectation for workers to be "always on."  Video conferences became the new way to stay connected. But sequestering with family also required a new daily routine, with the need to take periodic breaks to deal with household duties. So, organizations became flexible with work schedules.

But that flexibility comes at a price.

And here is where the new asynchronous tools enter the story. Because when you are home, you are expected to work a longer day than while at the office.  A 2021 Guardian survey found that U.S. workers' daily work hours increased by more than two hours a day since the beginning of the pandemic. A Microsoft study pegged that number at three additional hours per day.

You probably aren’t at your desk 11 or 12 hours a day. So, unless you have email notifications on your phone, you won’t see incoming emails. But you DO see incoming chat messages. And that’s what makes WhatsApp and the others so intrusive. They reach out and grab you the same way the first Blackberry email appliances did a generation ago. In fact, the aforementioned Microsoft study found a 52% increase in chat messages between 6pm and midnight since the COVID-19 crisis began.

So, what’s new isn't asynchronous collaboration at work. We’ve had that for years. No, what’s new is how companies have allowed the promise of asynchronous tools to be corrupted into turning the ‘always on’ business culture into overdrive. It’s not the tools’ fault. It once again comes down to a gap in leadership.

Will Asynchronous Collaboration Live Up to Its Promise?

What is new is the level of user adoption of these tools and underlying business culture promoting that adoption. In pre-pandemic days, if someone sent an email or chat message during business hours, they expected a quick response. Messages sent after work or over the weekend could wait until the next workday. Now, with people working flexible hours, expectations have changed. You may be excused for not answering immediately, but you are expected to respond to messages late into the evenings. And the easiest way to stay connected is now using chat.

Does it matter? It might. A Martec Group survey found a big drop in those working from home's mental health status, level of job satisfaction, and job motivation since the beginning of the crisis. How much of that is related to the increase in 'on-time'? It's hard to say. And while this is only one study and it is still early days, our long history with increased stress from email usage should teach us a thing or two.

Related Article: Overloaded, and It Feels So Good: How Information Overload Affects Us Today

Where Do We Go From Here?

We are currently in a state of flux. And in times of flux, there is always a period of adjustment before things settle down. 

What will that look like? Will answering work messages become a 24-hour activity?

Common sense says we need to implement guardrails early to maintain our sanity. I am curious who’ll be the first company to turn down the dial on the always-on expectations. Give people that time to breathe, think before they respond and get work done in a timely — but not immediate — manner. Volkswagen, there’s still time to be #1 again.

About the Author

David is a product expert with extensive experience leading information-intensive technology organizations. His specialty is helping organizations “do it right the first time”— get to market quickly and successfully through a structured process of working closely with design partners from day one.

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