Protocol | Workplace

The asynchronous work revolution is here. Here’s how to join.

Hello, deep work. Goodbye, meetings.

solar system of users

Protocol spoke to founders and tech execs who've embraced async and have tips on how to get started.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

Welcome to the "async-first" startup, where town halls are pre-recorded and watch-at-your-own-time, documentation is paramount and even company retreats are on your own.

Skeptics are quick to point out the downsides to this way of working. One, human connection — already hard to come by in a remote pandemic world — is hard to foster when you're not seeing and talking to people. Two, many managers just can't shake the anxiety of not having regular facetime with their direct reports — the age-old question of "Are they hard at work or hardly working?"

But for companies that have been working async-first even before the pandemic, working any other way is unimaginable. They point to sky-high retention rates, happier employees and previously-unattainable goals reached, like achieving the same output with a four-day workweek. They've spawned a whole collective to promote this unconventional way of working.

Protocol spoke to founders and tech execs who've embraced async and have tips on how to get started.

Hire people with the right skills: strong writing, independence, inner drive

"You can't micromanage across time zones," said Amir Salihefendić, founder and CEO of Doist, an async and remote-first company. That's why it's important for him to hire people who are "self-motivated" and can be "self-managed."

"Independent minds" are required for successful async work, said Vincent Le Moign, CEO and founder of Streamline, a UI asset library company that works primarily async. He looks for candidates who have side hobbies, an open GitHub project or maybe even a failed startup in their resume.

Async-first employees also have to be strong writers, able to communicate articulately and concisely in the absence of in-person or video meetings, according to Le Moign.

Find other ways to create culture and nurture community

Isolation is a risk in a meeting-less world.

Retreats are one way to combat that risk, according to Tammy Bjelland, founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a startup focused on remote work training. That's difficult in COVID-19 times, but there are also ways to make the Zoom office party less cringey and more engaging.

At Workplaceless, team retreats are a blend of async and sync activities aimed at having fun and building connection. One example was an async scavenger hunt in which participants were provided a list of items to collect: a picture of them on a swing, a picture at age 8, etc., which were then shared over Zoom at the end of the retreat.

Trust your employees

Being in the office 9 to 5 is a "vanity metric" and doesn't actually reflect an employee's output, according to Salihefendić. He urged managers to shift from thinking in terms of "butts in seats" and "arrive early, leave late" to evaluating people on their results.

Choose the right tools and use them wisely

Slack. Twist. Notion. Asana. Trello. With the rise of remote and async work came a rise in tools to support collaboration and communication within this framework.

Loom is one platform oft-cited by async enthusiasts. It allows users to record and send video messages and present their work for later viewing, circumventing the synchronous meeting. Even veteran tech companies like Dropbox are releasing similar tools to support async work.

For some, even Slack is too synchronous. There's an unspoken expectation that your message demands an immediate response. That's why more async-first companies are turning to tools like Doist's Twist messaging platform, whose motto is "Stop the distraction."

If you're stuck on Slack, there are some ways to make it less distracting: Create an #urgent channel with notifications turned on, for example, said Le Moign. Or, do as Calendly does and choose an agreed-upon emoji to signal that that a message isn't urgent. The company also urges employees to set a notification schedule for their working hours, according to Julia Betts, Calendly's head of employee engagement, communications and DEI.

Document everything

GitLab has an extensive employee handbook that is publicly available on its website. Doist has one too, internally. This type of extensive, searchable knowledge base is critical, because at an async-first company, "You can't just ping somebody. Maybe they'll respond to you tomorrow." Instead, you have to create processes and tools that allow people to onboard themselves, said Salihefendić.

At Streamline, employees start and end their day by writing what they plan on doing and what they've done that day in their team's Slack channel. That way, everyone knows what everyone else is working on. Managers can use that note to give feedback: "That's not a priority, maybe work on this instead," said Le Moign.

With more documentation, more tools have popped up to make it easier to search and sort through company data, like Glean, whose $55 million in funding highlighted the rise of remote-friendly software.

When is a meeting warranted?

When you see 10 or more exchanges back and forth in Slack, that's maybe when it's time to jump on a five-minute Zoom instead, said Le Moign.

The No. 1 thing that meetings shouldn't be used for is status updates, according to nearly everyone in the productivity space. "If you're listening to someone talk the whole time, you don't need a meeting," said Bjelland.

On the other end, developing trust and "building social capital" requires face-to-face meetings, she added. That social capital can be difficult to develop async.

When you do have a meeting, use it wisely

Take notes in your meetings. Make a list of action items for after the meeting, and make sure you're sticking to the meeting topic. Send around a pre-read when appropriate, so people can process information ahead of time, recommended Betts.

Even presentations can be given asynchronously: Consider using a tool like Loom to record yourself explaining something or walking through a workflow, recommended Meryl Johnston, CEO and founder of Bean Ninjas, an ecommerce accounting startup. She even recorded her companywide town hall on Loom and had employees watch it on their own time, reserving the actual meeting for questions and discussion.

Test it out

Twitter CMO Leslie Berland recently tweeted that her team had taken a "Focus Week," and that the feedback was "incredible." They plan on doing it again.

Calendly, which shifted to remote-first during the pandemic, also dipped its toes into more asynchronous work. One move that helped, according to Betts, was setting companywide core meeting hours between noon and 5 p.m. Eastern time. They've also experimented with "no internal meeting days," which were "a huge hit," leading to some departments adopting no-meeting Wednesday afternoons.

If it feels overwhelming, start by focusing on "tiny actions," said Bjelland. Take a look at your schedule and see if there's one meeting that can be transitioned to an asynchronous process instead. Then go ahead and nix it.

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