Mastering Asynchronous Collaboration in the Digital Workplace
Nearly 25% more people chose to work remotely in 2022 compared to 2021, and 16% more people choose to work in a hybrid capacity, according to Owl Labs.
The people interested in returning to the office? That number dropped by 24% over the same period.
Remote and hybrid work is here to stay, even with companies threatening to send workers back to offices. In fact, if the ability to work from home is taken away, two-thirds of workers said they'd start looking for a new job immediately, and 39% said they'd simply quit.
With a change to the way we work, it's only natural that we must also change how we collaborate. The result has been a surge in virtual collaboration tools, with a spotlight on asynchronous collaboration.
What Is Asynchronous Collaboration, Exactly?
Asynchronous collaboration is a form of teamwork where employees work independently of each other, often in different geographic locations and time zones, and communicate and collaborate through digital tools — email, messaging apps, project management software, etc.
Unlike synchronous collaboration, where team members work together in real-time, asynchronous collaboration allows for more flexibility and autonomy in work schedules, a necessity for remote teams.
But it also requires more careful planning and communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and progress is made toward shared goals.
Why You Need to Get Asynchronous Collaboration Right
The digital workplace comes with a unique set of challenges. Each typical office task — a meeting, a client phone call, a project brainstorm — now requires new tools, new styles of communication and innovative approaches.
Collaboration is one of those necessary tasks that requires a new approach. With hybrid and remote teams separated by distance and time, collaboration is no longer as simple as walking down a hallway and popping your head into a cubicle.
Companies that are serious about making collaboration work for today's remote or hybrid digital workplace need to adapt to new approaches.
Some reasons to prioritize collaboration in 2023? According to a recent Asana report, teams with strong collaboration are better prepared to do their jobs effectively. Other key insights included:
- 55% of workers at strong collaborative organizations reported revenue growth over the past three years, compared to only 28% at weak collaborative companies.
- 79% of workers at collaborative organizations feel prepared to respond to challenges, compared to only 20% at non-collaborative companies.
- 92% of workers at collaborative organizations say their work has value, compared to only 5o% at non-collaboration companies.
Related Article: Want to Encourage Collaboration? This Change Model Shows the Way
A Caveat to Collaboration's Benefits
Many studies tout the benefits of teamwork and collaboration, but it's important to note that there can also be too much collaboration.
A study from 1991, which reviewed over 800 teams, found that brainstorming groups were significantly less productive than nominal groups (people performing individually with no interaction) in terms of both quantity and quality. It also revealed that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of ideas when they don't interact with others.
It's unclear how modern digital work impacts this data, though. What it means to "interact" today has changed, with workers able to communicate and collaborate without the need to occupy the same space or the same timezone.
Still, evidence shows that too much collaboration, or hyper-collaboration, can have negative effects. For instance, more recently, a 2009 study from Morten T. Hansen, professor at UC Berkeley, found that hyper-collaboration can hinder performance and slow down teams and projects.
"The push for hyper-collaboration drains people. It creates collaboration burnout and may be just as likely to undermine performance as to enhance it," said Gustavo Razzetti, CEO at Fearless Culture and author of "Remote, Not Distant," among other titles.
Razzetti said this doesn't mean eliminating collaboration entirely. "The key to building a thriving organization is knowing when collaboration isn't necessary."
Related Article: Don't Let Your Hybrid Work Model Be the Worst of Both Worlds
How to Master Asynchronous Collaboration
The fundamentals of smarter collaboration haven't changed, said Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, business expert and author of "Smarter Collaboration."
"It’s just as important today to bring in the right people at the right time to achieve your top objectives."
However, remote and hybrid working have brought up some new challenges, all of which require updated best practices to tackle them.
Establish Trust Among Teams
Gardner said hybrid working means it's more difficult to establish the two kinds of trust that are essential for successful collaborations: competence trust and interpersonal trust.
"First, people must demonstrate their abilities, which can happen by answering questions in their company's online communities or posting their work outcomes on knowledge platforms," Gardner said.
Then, people must work extra hard to prove interpersonal trustworthiness and integrity. That could mean actively sharing credit for joint projects, she explained, and being open about your emotions or limitations.
Julie Nickerson, an industrial-organizational psychologist and consultant, recommends starting with some self-reflection to better understand the rule of trust in the workplace.
She suggests asking questions like:
- Do I trust easily?
- How well do I know you? Can I trust that you'll come through, show up, respond?
- Do I trust our processes, norms and the network? With all of the new tools, do I trust you to use the right one?
- If you are working from home, is your wifi reliable? What are the expectations for the workday? Will you be available when I need you? Do I trust that you will respond quickly?
Create New Habits
One of the biggest mistakes companies made when forced to work remotely was carrying old habits into a new way of working, said Razetti.
"They continued approaching collaboration as something that needed to happen synchronously, with everyone reviewing information, making decisions or brainstorming simultaneously."
The result, he explained, was an overload of meetings, Zoom fatigue and late hours, even on weekends.
Today, businesses need to move beyond synchronous communication, where everyone is expected to show up to meetings, take calls and respond to emails immediately. Companies need to embrace asynchronous communication, which offers not only flexibility but a calmer work environment.
Razetti pointed to one software company that tackled the switch well, allowing employees to set their own work schedules, not pressuring workers to respond to messages outside of work hours and having the time and space to think about a topic and then reconvene with thoughtful responses.
Go Slowly and Gradually
When it comes to asynchronous collaboration, don’t expect everybody to change immediately, said Lynne Cazaly, modern work expert and author of "Sync Async," among other titles.
“We are expecting a really high standard and that everything will work perfectly. And then, when it doesn't, people are disappointed,” she said.
It’s important to take the process slowly, she said. It means experimenting, iterating and improving on synchronous collaboration. “We try things out and see, does this work for me? Does it work for my team?" And if it does, share it with colleagues.
There's no need for a whole organizational shift immediately, she said. Instead, allow individuals to experiment.
Related Article: A Step-by-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration
Think Beyond Tools
One big pitfall for companies is treating the change to hybrid/remote/asynchronous collaboration as a technology-adoption exercise and leaving change management to IT, said Majbritt Murmann, a digital experience strategy consultant at ROI Communication.
"Often, the IT department's excitement and notion that 'this tool can change the way we work' stands in the way of truly understanding the user's needs and motivation — which are paramount to achieving true change," she said.
The digital collaboration tools you use are important, but they need to be accompanied by updated practices, procedures and ways of thinking.
Set Team Expectations
Most people are happier and more confident when they know what's expected of them. That holds true for any type of work, whether remote, in-person or hybrid.
Nickerson said leaders should work with their teams to develop team norms for preferred communication channels, virtual tools, archiving practices, etc.
"Also establish written expectations about response times and ground rules for feedback," she said. "Have all team members commit to them and sign a team agreement. This helps facilitate trust in how we’ll show up for each other, work together and what tools we’ll use."
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Provide Knowledge and Access
Asynchronous working means giving employees the ability to "pass and pick up the baton," said Murmann, and to do that, you need access and knowledge.
Knowledge: "Move the conversation about a task to an open forum where everyone can follow along and contribute," she said. Instead of using email, that might mean tools like Teams or Slack.
Access: "Store documents and information in a shared repository where everyone can see the current state of what's being worked on," she said. Don't create a new version of a document to work in secret, even if your work isn't perfect. Be open, let others see your progress and take advantage of the possibility to leave comments in the documents.
Razzetti said good documentation provides employees with clarity, consistency and context, allowing them to understand the journey, not just the destination. Having a single source of information will ensure everyone is on the same page without needing to call a meeting.
Related Article: Too Many Collaboration Apps Are Bogging Employees Down
Make Meetings a Last Resort
Speaking of meetings, think twice before sending that calendar invite, Razzetti said.
"Does it have to be a meeting? Explore other collaboration options and leave meetings for meaningful team exchanges," he said.
Tools can support this process and reduce time spent in meetings, said Murmann. "But it has to start with the nature of the meeting and finding new ways to have conversations, ideate, make decisions, etc."
The "how to have great meeting" experts need to be at the center of this conversation. "Not the tools experts."
Start With the End in Mind
Gardner said smart collaboration means that people start with the end in mind. "They determine their objectives for a project or initiative; from there, decipher who are the necessary people to bring in, and at what points in the project."
If an organization wants to improve its reputation in its industry, she said in example, an initial discussion might include someone from marketing, customer service, strategy, the leadership team, etc.
"A next step could be gathering input from customers, industry analysts, consultants and people from other third parties that have a unique perspective on this issue."
Then, she said, check what other points of view would add value beyond the "usual suspects." That might mean people from different age groups, economic backgrounds, religious affiliations.
"And then, as important as getting the right people’s input early on: winnowing the group to only people who can actively contribute at that point."
Consider Technology's Role Carefully
Technology plays a crucial role in asynchronous collaboration, particularly in the selection of appropriate collaboration tools, such as messaging apps, project management software and video conferencing tools.
Recommended tools include:
- Social collaboration tool: Recommended by Murmann for communication among team members and management.
- Email: The standard email is not dead. Razzetti said email can sometimes allow for clearer communication than infinite Slack or text messages.
- Shared document repository: A single place for documents is ideal, said Murmann, and is even better if people can edit the document at the same time, with in-built version history.
- Virtual whiteboard: This tool can be a good way to change up meetings, said Murmann. They also make it possible to do some work asynchronously and reduce meeting time.
- Asynchronous video: Razzetti said shared asynchronous video platform allows remote workers to provide short video tutorials, detail information, demos, etc.
Dial Into Empathy
Empathy means being able to sense and be aware of other people's emotions. It even means anticipating what someone might be thinking and feeling.
"It may sound diﬃcult, but it can be developed by most leaders by spending time getting to know team members and understanding them," said Nickerson.
Developing empathy means going beyond what employees can contribute and understanding their work style. It means genuinely connecting with them, observing them and understanding what they are dealing with and what they need.
Leaders initially did this well with the swell of remote work, Nickerson added. "As time has gone on, empathy sensors for some leaders have been dialed down or dulled because they are focused on other things."
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Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Collaboration
It is clear now that asynchronous collaboration is necessary in the digital workplace, and digital leaders who have achieved successful asynchronous collaboration report significant outcomes.
Yet, it shouldn't be the be-all-end-all of teamwork. Instead, Gardner said their research shows a need for balancing asynchronous collaboration with meeting together virtually or in person.
"We are social beings," she explained, "and if we don’t prioritize finding ways to meaningfully connect, our exchanges will be little more than transactions."
This balance also has implications for the quality of work produced. "Is it simply a result of different people contributing their individual parts, at different stages, or is it based on a solid integration of different viewpoints from early on?"
Asynchronous Collaboration in a Digital World
Asynchronous collaboration can be challenging, but with the right strategies and technology, it can be a powerful tool for achieving success in the digital workplace.
"Managers and leaders set the stage for smart collaboration; without their commitment and execution, it’s difficult for it to permeate the organization," said Gardner. "One of the most important things they can do is practice smarter collaboration day in and day out."
For companies that can't figure asynchronous collaboration out? They're destined to fall behind, she said, losing both market share and talent.
"Today's employees expect flexibility, including the flexibility to work remotely (at least some of the time). ... If companies don't support remote working or don't know how to maximize the productivity and satisfaction of their remote workers, they will find themselves losing talent — and in turn, sacrificing the quality of their work and customer relationships."
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