Asynchronous Collaboration: How Distributed Teams Win

We’re all trying to do more with less. Get more done in less time. Get more done with fewer people.

But, for many of us, a rise in distributed work has thrown a wrench into our workflow.  We used to tap our colleague on the shoulder to ask a question; now, we’re on back-to-back Zooms while being barraged by incoming Slack notifications.

Few people know more about distributed work than Annie Dean, VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian.  Recently, she joined Looking Forward to talk about what well-executed distributed work looks like.  And Annie started by reframing what distributed work really means:

“It’s not about where people are located.  It’s the idea that a modern company operates by distributing information across a well-connected network.” 

Here at Worklytics, we’re seeing that shift in information flow in real-time.

Co-located teams tend to have tightly concentrated connections.  People on co-located teams frequently collaborate with one another, but have weaker ties to those outside their office site.  

Distributed teams, on the other hand, have a looser but broader network.  People on distributed teams have fewer in-team collaborative touchpoints, but a greater number of ties to colleagues in other locations or departments. 

From collaboration data, we see that high-performing distributed teams have a common superpower:  They do more than 75% of their work asynchronously.  

Here’s how they do it. 

Understanding the Opportunity

For knowledge workers, one of the strongest predictors of self-reported productivity is Focus Time – uninterrupted periods of time where you can do deep, focused work.  

The biggest constraint on Focus Time is synchronous (or real-time) collaboration.      

Teams that collaborate synchronously have significantly less Focus Time than those who work asynchronously.  As a result, employees report feeling less productive, less effective, and more overwhelmed.

Diagnosing the Problem

Meetings – both scheduled and unscheduled – account for the majority of synchronous collaboration on most teams.  Meetings require everyone to gather at the same time to discuss the same topic.  One person effectively controls the time of several others in order to complete a task or communicate some information.

But a sneaky source of synchronous work is Slack (or Teams) DMs.  

At its heart, a collaboration tool like Slack is about making information more transparent and easily searchable.  It first took off as a way to reduce email volume;  Slack pulls information out of inboxes to make it easier to find – a key imperative of distributed work.  

But since the pandemic, we’ve seen an explosion in real-time Slack messaging back-and-forths.  If a Senior Manager sends a Slack DM, the employee is treating that as an immediate ask that needs to be responded to in-the-moment.  Pressure to be responsive crushes Focus Time.

Implementing Solutions

  1. Name Your Norms

Let's say you need to make a decision about a key investment for your organization.  You could..

Option A: Call a meeting to discuss it real-time.  Schedule a follow-up meeting to debrief on the first discussion.  And continue meeting until you reach a decision.

Option B:  Write a document describing the problem and share it with your group over email.  Enable the comment features in Office or GSuite to collect feedback & surface questions on the draft.  Schedule one final meeting to close off the discussion & reach your decision.

I know which option I’d pick. 

In addition to modeling the behavior that you want to see from the team, you’ll want to explicitly name those norms.  Some norms to consider:

  • Our team responds to comments or JIRA requests within 24 hours. 
  • Our team picks up the phone if it’s really urgent.    
  • Our team shares notes.

  1. Agree on an Organizing Principle

For asynchronous collaboration to work, your team needs to have easy access to all of the information that’s relevant for their role.  With most of us on multiple teams at any one moment, that can be easier said than done.

Rather than creating email threads for every could-have-been-a-meeting, the best asynchronous teams have an explicit organizing principle they use to keep themselves sorted.  For instance: 

  • In a sales team, you might have separate Slack channels related to each of your named accounts so that cross-functional partners can easily find & chime in on relevant client details.

  • A marketing org might have a master GDoc that outlines each campaign and links to shared folders with the relevant creative, metrics, and audience demographics for each.

  • Facilities might be organized by building on the HR org chart, but decide that their biggest collaborators are cross-site workstream peers.  As a result, they may choose to organize their GDrive based on Food Service, Custodial, and Security work teams. 

  1. Have the Right Tools in Place

To work asynchronously, you need digital collaboration tools that allow people to share ideas, provide feedback, and ask questions.  Here are some of our favorites:

  • Instant Messaging:  Whether you use Slack, Teams, or Flock, your team needs a way to communicate quickly without filling up your Inbox.

  • Document Collaboration:  You’ll need a collaborative writing platform where you can edit & add comments to docs, spreadsheets, and slides in real-time. Google Docs, Sharepoint, Dropbox Paper are popular options.  
  • Asana or Trello:  Having a shared priority list gives everyone visibility into what each team member’s currently working on & how far along they are into that work. 
  • JIRA:  Sometimes little things suck up a lot of time.  JIRA helps us track one-off tasks (ex: bug fixes or specific customer requests) so we’ve got data on how often we’re saying “just this once.”
  • Loom:  Skip the meeting, but share the voiceover.  We love using Loom to talk through slides.
  • Miro:  Sometimes you need to be able to draw or doodle to show the relationship between things.  We use Miro the way you’d use an office whiteboard – added plus: no one’s going to unexpectedly erase it when you run to grab a coffee.   

Additional Resources

There are tons of great resources out there for teams looking to shift to asynchronous work.  Here are some of our favorites: 

How to Communicate Effectively” by the Dropbox Team

8 Steps to Write an Effective Project Status Report” by the Asana Crew

How to Run Better Meetings with Async Pre-Work” by Atlassian University

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