Reimagining Work: Step 1

With fall school schedules uncertain and people working from home for longer than we imagined, it’s clear that the temporary fix of transferring in-person office habits to a virtual environment isn't going to work long-term. We’ve got to reimagine the whole way we work.

Since we’re having to reimagine work anyway, why not reimagine a much better version?

It starts with developing a new capability: Asynchronous collaboration. (Alert: this is NOT synonymous with shooting off tons of emails all day and night and stressing out everyone else on the team.)

First, the definition: Asynchronous collaboration is the art and science of producing an outcome together, with most of the work done through individual deep work or via groups of 2–3 people at a time, rather than group meetings.

Next, the benefits:

  • Asynchronous collaboration honors different chronotypes: Early birds do their best work first thing in the morning; night owls are hit with inspiration after their household has gone to bed. That critical meeting at 2 p.m. isn’t great for either.
  • It creates the necessary flexibility for team members who are juggling kids at home or splitting the workday with their spouse; most are prepared to put in a full day, but need to work it in around a host of other commitments. 
  • It drives productivity. According to our own research, about 32 percent of meeting time is wasted. The more we move work to other modalities, the more we can claw back that lost time.

There are three essential ingredients for effective asynchronous collaboration:

1. A good system. We use Basecamp, which works extremely well for us—and our primary use case is asynchronous collaboration. We love the philosophy behind the product and the company. However, whether you use Basecamp, Microsoft Teams, SlackAsanagSuite, or others, the key is to commit to a primary communication and collaboration tool for your team. Invest the time to make sure everyone knows how to use it and that you have strong team norms. For example, if you’re using PowerPoint, be diligent about declaring who has the master at a given moment. If you’re using Google slides, decide how you’ll avoid undoing another person’s edits.

2. Precise communication. The key to efficient asynchronous collaboration is directed, high-quality communication that moves the work forward. Some specific tips:

  • When making a request of a team member,  use the @mention so everyone knows when they have an action without having to read through every message.
  • Make clear requests, such as: @sara, can you please check the data on page 5 and revise the summary on page 9?
  • Make clear agreements, such as: I am on-point for a final proofreading, which will be done before Thursday at 4 p.m. Pacific.

3. A mindset of generosity. If asynchronous collaboration is the engine of progress, the team’s generosity to one another is the oil that makes it run. This takes two forms:

  • An assumption of positive intent: when someone else drops the ball or delivers below expectations, go to curiosity, rather than building resentment or becoming passive-aggressive. Ask questions like: Why do we think this broke down and what could we do differently? I understood you were planning to develop the financial model before Friday. How did you see it?
  • A strong sense of personal accountability: On the flipside, hold yourself to high standards of accountability. Make agreements you can keep, use the time and space to deliver great work, and when the inevitable surprises arise, be explicit about re-contracting.

The goal is to shift the balance away from meetings, but not to eliminate them all together. Here’s when hopping on a virtual meeting is your best bet:

  • The context is complex or constantly changing
  • Any kind of “tone” creeps into the asynchronous dialogue
  • A curve-ball comes in that requires an all-hands-on-deck approach
  • A particular problem is best solved by “thinking together”

We invite you to experiment. Maybe even gamify it. Give yourselves a challenge of producing an exceptional outcome with the least amount of time in meetings possible.

These extraordinary circumstances are forcing us to reinvent work. Let’s use this opportunity to make it better than ever.