Async-First Teams

Working “remote” is about working in a place you choose, rather than in a centralised, company-mandated “office” where an insecure boss can see that your arse is in the company-mandated chair beneath those crappy, headache-inducing company-mandated fluorescent strip-lights…

I digress.

“Remote” working is slowly gaining acceptance, becoming more popular as people stop treating workers like delinquent children in some Victorian work-house. It’s still early enough days in this global movement that a lot of organisations (or at least the managers within those organisations) are still uneasy with the notion and lack the skills, tools and habits necessary to make the whole thing work and work well.

Space is Big…

One of the most important imperatives for “remote-first” teams is that everybody should work “remote” or nobody. In practise there is very little room for some middle ground, and teams that insist on maintaining a “central office” usually find themselves gradually but inexorably drawn into a sort of death-spiral where everybody ends up working back in the office despite the noblest and best of intentions at the outset. Occasionally you’ll hear of a team that maintains an office where only a few people choose to work in preference to their “remote” workplace(s) and how, over time, the use of the office dwindles until a point is reached where they just get rid of it altogether, but those stories are the exception, far from the rule.

So: remote-first teams only really function optimally if all team members are “remote” workers. But so far all we’re talking about is extension in space.

…And Time is Relative

I now have another necessary condition to add, and it’s about extension in time.

If a team is widely distributed across time-zones, then it is equally important that teamwide interactions be (almost) entirely asynchronous.

This comes about for almost exactly the same reasons I assert that remote-in-space working requires that everybody work remote… In the remote-in-space situation, what happens when some significant proportion of people work in a central office space is that the “remoter” workers get left out of all manner of conversation, typically the water-cooler talk — casual mention of events and plans that never make it into the more “official” communication channels. So the only solution is to ensure that the “official” channels are the only channels. Likewise, when distributed across time-zones, any face-to-face conversations enjoy the advantages (and they’re undeniable!) of seeing the side-channel signals of facial expression, body language and so on, and people not privy to the synchronous discussion are left out. Implicit in such a circumstance is a certain assertion about where the power lies in the organisation, and if you’re going to disempower some of the people, don’t expect their loyalty or commitment over the long run.

Meeting and conversing asynchronously is certainly challenging, and the tools are frequently pitiful. It unavoidably slows down communications, and thus decision-making, but I don’t see any way around it. Perhaps some compromise might work where co-temporal sub-groups might hold conversations synchronously and then sync up the group concensus either asynchronously or synchronously (at considerable inconvenience to some subgroups) but I cannot see this as other than suboptimal. What happens when two sub-groups come to wildly opposing views/conclusions? What then? How does a conversation evolve from there? It’s difficult. People, having taken a position, having bought into some sub-group vision, are inclined to turn tribal in these circumstances, inclined to stop listening and start defending “their” sub-group concensus, losing sight of the fact that their sub-group is merely an artefact brought into being by the vagaries of life on a spherical planet.

So I come full circle, back to my assertion that all conversations should be asynchronous-first.

Don’t Fail Fast

I recently witnessed a case where a nascent organisation was unable to let go of their attachment to weekly all-hands (online) meetings. They held a poll to determine the most suitable day of the week and the times that people liked best, and the decision was to hold meetings at a time well-suited to people in California. For me would have been the very dark hours of the early morning. Every week. That was the end of my participation, and, I imagine, that of a lot of other folk in Eastern Europe/Western Asia and most of Africa. Too bad. There was a lot of good energy and talent there.

No, async is the only realistic answer. If it becomes absolutely unavoidable that some form of all-hands synchronous conversation take place, then it’s time to fly bodies to a single physical location. Some organisations do this once or twice a year anyway and find it congenial. I shudder to think of the Carbon Footprint of such a meeting, but there it is.