According to a Microsoft Work Trend Report, the 9-to-5 workday is disappearing, as the increase in remote work has allowed for more flexible hours. Employees are increasingly working asynchronously, completing tasks on their own schedules, which may be different from those of their colleagues. Asynchronous work is now essential to being part of a modern, digital economy, staying competitive in the war for talent and building a globally distributed workforce.
Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the book "Remote Work Revolution," told me, "Companies have to profoundly rethink what it means to be part of a modern work structure. This idea of 9-to-5 or face time culture is actually not helpful for a digitally advanced economy." She highlighted that underlying face time culture is the need to monitor or see people in order to feel like work is advancing. However, the assumption that being productive requires seeing people do the work is not only limiting, but also fallacious, as technology and automation are increasingly used to get work done and are inherently not as observable. So how does an organization shift its culture to break out of the traditional 9-to-5 and move to an asynchronous way of working? Here are several strategies:
Start at the top
Whether you are looking to shift to an asynchronous way of working at the team, department or company level, change needs to start with leadership. Not only does it require senior leadership commitment, but leaders also need to walk the talk and model working asynchronously. Conversely, a lack of support from the top can impede or altogether kill this cultural shift.
Focus on outcomes
Identifying clear goals and outcomes will allow employees working asynchronously to focus on the desired results as opposed to when, where or how the work is done. Likewise, focusing on outcomes will enable employees to be more efficient, aligned and empowered.
Clarify what needs to be synchronous
Distinguish which tasks and activities are better conducted synchronously. These tend to be things like project kickoff meetings to set roles, responsibilities, expectations and deadlines, as well as client meetings. At my own leadership firm, given the limited time the partners have together, we reserve partner meetings for topics that require more in-depth discussion and debate or involve high stakes decisions to be made. Anything that doesn't fall into these categories is posted on the appropriate Slack channel for others to read and respond at their convenience.
In addition, activities such as conducting one-on-ones and providing others with coaching, feedback and mentoring, as well as some onboarding activities should also be conducted live. And with 65% of people now working remotely and feeling less connected to their colleagues, fundamental activities like team building are important to schedule synchronously.
Challenge existing norms and assumptions
A work culture is full of unwritten rules and unexamined assumptions regarding how, where and when things get done that often go unquestioned. Newer employees, who are not yet fully indoctrinated into the organisation's culture, may be able to more easily observe these and reflect these back to the team. Likewise, an outside facilitator can help the team identify, articulate and challenge these existing rules and assumptions so that the team can let go of them. This is recommended since the team leader is a key part of the current system and may find it challenging to question elements of the status quo, even if they support working asynchronously.
These unwritten rules may include what is considered an acceptable response time, what topics require a meeting, the standard length of meetings and how those meetings are run, how long people take for lunch, by what time people are at their desk working, how available someone is outside of standard work hours, etc. Our often unexamined assumptions can determine our feelings about what happens when people behave outside these norms — those "if I can't see you working, then you must not be working," "If I log off at 3 p.m., then I'll be letting others down if someone needs something," "she's working a lot of hours, so she must be getting a lot done" or "he's not responding as quickly as I'd like, so he must not be that committed" judgments.
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Make clear agreements and hold each other accountable
In discussing new ways of working, team members can conceive of how they'd ideally like to construct their day and still get things done. This will likely be different for many people. Identify dependencies for various workstreams and stakeholder needs. How will these be met? Make clear agreements around several elements, such as the use of various technologies and when these technologies are shut off, acceptable response times and how urgent issues should be handled. Holding people accountable to these agreements is equally important.
Experiment, assess, and adjust
Making the shift to asynchronous work is not a one-and-done event, but an iterative process that will likely require adjustments and fine-tuning over time to successfully enact the change. Anxiety around such a shift is normal, but starting with an experimental mindset can help win over people who are more resistant and turn them into promoters, once they experience positive outcomes, both personally and professionally. Start small by experimenting with new behaviours and see what works; what doesn't and how it feels. You might go food shopping at 2 p.m. or start your workday at 11 a.m. or try working only in the evening if you are a night owl. There will be some people who have an easier time adjusting than others.
Keep an eye on inclusion
Asynchronous work comes with both advantages and challenges with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion. On the plus side, Neeley said, "Asynchronous work, and in particular, flexible work where you can get talent from anywhere without asking people to move is incredibly important for the purpose of diversity … We have many more pipelines from which to hire people, and from an equity and inclusion standpoint, people will feel happier when they're not extracted from their home communities, if they can remain there and still be productive at your organizations."
The task will be for leaders to be thoughtful and intentional with respect to inclusion. Creating awareness and offering training for managers and leaders on inclusive leadership can help set up the shift to asynchronous work for greater success.
The future of work points to more asynchronous ways of working, with multiple benefits for both employees and organizations. Using the above strategies can help make the shift from the traditional 9-to-5 a smoother and more productive process.
Written by: Rebecca Zucker
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