It's Still a Good Time to Introduce an Asynchronous Work Policy
With remote work fully entrenched in the workplace, unspoken rules of conduct are emerging among workers who work asynchronously.
But conflict and miscommunication remain a problem with asynchronous work. Miscommunication can happen in face to face interactions, yet the potential grows when communicating primarily through brief Slack messages and indecipherable emojis. If left unchecked, this can directly impact productivity and efficiency.
Leaving it up to employees to establish these rules leaves it up to chance however, so companies and in some cases, teams, are creating asynchronous work policies to mitigate potential areas of conflict. As with any employee handbook, rules of engagement will differ from one company to the next, but there are basic things leaders may want to consider to make their work environment an enjoyable — and productive — place to be.
Why an Asynchronous Work Policy?
Introducing new rules of conduct once work is already underway may seem counterintuitive. Remote work has been in place for years now, but companies that have not yet shared their expectations of an asynchronous workplace with employees should do so sooner rather than later. Having a clearly articulated work policy helps instill a coherent, seamless culture across remote organizations.
"Transparent flow of information is at the core of a productive remote culture," said Job van der Voort, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based professional employer organization Remote. "Writing down policies is essential to keeping teams on the right track and setting clear expectations. All aspects of async work require thorough documentation, and your async policy is no different."
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The Need for Adaptability
The asynchronous work policy should remain flexible because it is likely that changes will be needed on an ongoing basis. For instance, a new team member in another time zone might join the company, and communication might get more complex. That person may receive messages from management and colleagues late in the evening and feel obliged to answer. Are they expected to? Are there specific times of day when they are required to be "at work"? What happens to collaborative projects when employees are never or rarely online at the same time?
Such lack of clarity around these questions can be a significant source of stress for employees. It can lead to decreased productivity, a greater number of errors and increased departures. While employers typically set the rules in traditional settings, in an asynchronous setting employees may be better positioned to determine what works and what doesn't in the day-to-day execution of their tasks. Managers should therefore make sure the policy is adequate and effective by having open dialogues with team members.
Managers should also schedule regular check-ins with employees to make sure work continues to go smoothly and that there are no unexpected asynchronous work obstacles preventing projects from unfolding as planned. The asynchronous work environment is relatively new for most organizations, and it will take time and commitment to making it work successfully, but starting out with a set of guidelines for making it work sets the company up for success.
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5 Key Elements of an Asynchronous Work Policy
Each organization is unique in its mission and the way it conducts its business. But there are asynchronous work commonalities that are important to any field.
1. Communications Expectations
Perhaps the most important challenge of today's remote work environment is when the workday begins and ends. There's been a blurring of the lines in recent years, leading to higher burnout and exhaustion rates, as employees feel obligated to respond to messages at all hours of the day and night — and through the weekend. Plus, sending a message at a time when the recipient is not at their computer and expecting them to respond quickly can only fuel conflict.
With flexible scheduling and a dispersed workforce, however, having set times for sending messages isn't realistic. So the company policy should instead aim to set boundaries on when it's okay to send messages and when it's okay not to respond.
A good practice can be to require adding a deadline expectation in every message sent. Being clear about not needing a response until next Monday, for instance, when the message is sent on a Saturday afternoon supports the idea that the employee is not expected to interrupt their personal time to respond.
"You can encourage better asynchronous work by establishing clear deadlines for others to respond or submit outputs," said Lauri Kinkar, CEO at Tartu, Estonia-based business messaging company Messente. Kinkar reiterated that the benefit of asynchronous communication is that it enhances employee autonomy and productivity. "Employees have the freedom to organize their time and how they will complete their responsibilities on time."
Leaders should also encourage employees to turn off notifications while away from the office to make sure the rules are respected. Having employees respond to messages outside of their work schedule can set a bad example that despite the company policy, it is expected that employees should monitor emails and messages at all times. The key here is to set rules to ensure everyone gets to enjoy a healthy work-life balance.
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2. A Common Language
With a dispersed workforce, there is a chance that not all employees share the same language, or the same level of comfort with a language. Leaders should either provide the company policy in various languages, as applicable, or see to ensure that its content is understood by everyone.
The same is true of any communication within the organization. For instance, remotely working staff in different countries might not understand some of the nuances of the English language used in the US. This can isolate and depress employees, leading to increased stress and declining performance.
3. Seamless Collaboration
Miscommunication has long been a barrier to effective collaboration, and the hurdle is tenfold in a remote environment where colleagues may collaborate on a project without ever being online at the same time.
The company policy should therefore be clear on what employees are expected to document, how and when. While this differs depending on the company, documentation should typically include everything that would ensure anyone new could join the team and pick up where someone else left off, from procedures and descriptions of roles and responsibilities, to meeting notes, findings, progress and client feedback.
"In async work, everything you do should be documented," said van der Voort. "Ideally, any person should be able to step away from their work tomorrow and leave behind enough documentation to allow for someone else to seamlessly take over."
4. Tool Sharing
In a remote workplace, there's a greater chance of disparate tools that serve similar purposes. This tends to make siloed work more likely, which may harm the company in the long run. Plus, the use of different platforms to communicate and store information can cause redundancies and errors.
The asynchronous work policy should clarify what is acceptable and list the tools that are sanctioned by the company. One basic tool that has proven to be valuable in remote workplaces is the calendar. Having an up-to-date calendar that is shared with team members allows others to see when someone is busy or out of the office. Employees should be encouraged to check calendars before sending messages, as even a 2-minute disruption can throw a project off balance.
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5. Open Door Practices
Adaptability is key in today's digital workplace, and employees should be encouraged to speak up when issues arise. Mentioning problems early minimizes conflicts and improves the changes of a resolution.
The company policy should make clear what, when and how to report any potential issue, particularly if it concerns other workers. HR leaders should play a pivotal role here to help ensure there is no backlash or repercussions for reporting certain situations. Employees will be less likely to pinpoint areas of improvement if they don't feel protected and supported in the process. Having a clear procedure for reporting different kinds of issues can help.