All the time in the world — Working in an asynchronous company

How would you like to form your workday? Maybe a peaceful morning to really get some work done — no meetings, no distractions? Afternoons dedicated to chatting with people, exploring topics, maybe a meeting or two? Work-life balance favoring the home team so that you can be available when your family needs you?

This is all a reality for Kirill Bulatov, who is working 100 % remotely as a Rust developer for an American company named ShowSeeker. He’s in a good position to talk about the benefits of working in a remote-first company and communicating asynchronously between distributed teams. And also about what it requires.

Day in the life of an asynchronous worker

Most of the leadership at ShowSeeker functions in Eastern Standard Time, so Kirill can start his day by going through the tasks assigned to him while most of his team is still asleep: “My morning is their previous day.” He uses this time alone to fully focus on the tasks at hand: “The feeling is completely different. Absolutely no one in the world requires you. I can just listen to music and code.”

Many of us can understand what kind of privilege this is. Most nine-to-five jobs suffer from days destroyed by meetings and messages that both break your workflow and make your concentration fickle. Having a completely distraction-free slot during the day makes it a perfect time to tackle time-consuming and concentration heavy tasks. This dedicated time creates a situation, where Kirill is usually ready with his most important tasks by the time his colleagues wake up: “Later in the evening, I have about a four-hour window for discussions and exploring different topics in real-time. If I have administrative meetings, they usually happen during these hours, and if there is nothing to go through, I can focus on learning something useful or bettering my work in other ways.”

Kirill’s workday has formed rather organically due to the time difference, but this way of working is available for most companies working remotely today. Basing your working culture around asynchronous communication — not needing people to be available at all times, allows them to concentrate and build their days to match their habits, family situation, and internal clock. There are of course some prerequisites that have to come into play for a company to work like this. Both on a personal as well as organizational level.

Setting your boundaries

Working in this manner required adjusting at first, even before COVID started: “It was blurry in the beginning. You are required to learn to balance family and work time since there are no clearly defined working hours. You need to learn to make your own borders.”

Switching from office space to working from home gives freedom in some aspects, but can also bring with it some unforeseen responsibilities: “For example, no one comes and opens the window if the air is getting stale. You have to control yourself and make sure, that your working conditions are good.” You also might need to re-design your home office: “Finding a nice place for your computer table is also surprisingly important. At first, I used to just work anywhere, but with time I’ve learned to pick better places. For example, sitting on your bed will guarantee back problems.”

Being able to balance family and work time is really handy, but the downside is also clear: “You seem to work all day and when work is scattered throughout your schedule, you can easily slip into working late into the night.” On the other hand, you might even prefer this way of working — there is mounting scientific evidence on circadian rhythms, that tells us some people are genetically predisposed for staying up late and sleeping late into the morning. A company culture, that allows you to choose your work times enables people who prefer this way of working to be more efficient. But many might also feel, that a workday stretching throughout your day can be stressful. This is where setting your boundaries between work and other life becomes especially crucial.

Asynchronous work, much like remote work in general, requires more deliberation and self-control from the worker, but also pays it back in the associated freedom. Building clear processes to aid this type of working can balance out the need for self-control.

Building the culture takes time

A working culture formed around asynchronous development requires extra planning for it to function. Tasks need to be formed so that they can be done independently with as little additional information required from other developers as possible. This becomes especially important when passing tasks between colleagues: “Task descriptions require time. Everyone is pretty much working on their own piece of the process, and these then get united.”

Planning this will take extra-effort and a you will need a formalised process that everyone can follow. Your colleague might be sleeping when you are working on the task assigned by him, so in case you have questions, getting answers can take time. You will spend time alone with the problem and the assignee needs to take this into account when creating the task.

Working async also has “a huge demand for feedback”. Compared to an office setting where you automatically maintain at least some level of relationship with your colleagues, in a remote environment, you can easily drop out of touch without really noticing it. If you don’t pay attention to regular feedback loops and meetings, it’s a real possibility that people are left alone with their problems. This causes both personal problems but also stalls the process.

Async requires leadership to both give away control, but also at the same time to make sure the process functions and people don’t get stuck on their work. In an office setting, many parts of the process can be done simply by walking to your workmate’s desk, and small iterations happen almost automatically through discussion. Asynchronous work relies heavily on shared working methods and the digital tools being used.

Common sense, the right attitude, and the right tools

Kirill thinks, against the commonly held belief, that async is not much about writing per se, but more about your general attitude towards helping and picking up other people’s work. He does admit though, that writing helps: “It often happens, that I start writing about a problem, but after a while, I come up with the conclusion myself”. The situation can be compared to the famous Rubber Duck Debugging method, where you explain your code to a rubber duck to have it make more sense.

In many ways working asynchronously comes down to common sense and the right mindset. Established rules help you craft your messages and tickets so, that the next person can continue with your work after you’ve passed it forward. When async works, it works really well. Kirill remembers fondly one time when a co-worker picked up a debugging task while he was asleep, and it was solved when he woke up.

Remote work and async require giving extra focus on what tools your team is using. And also how you use them. For example, disabling all notifications from your devices assures you peace of mind when you are either focusing on work or not working. This also probably makes you more efficient: “Checking work messages requires 2–3 minutes every couple of hours, and usually I’m not missing out on anything. I have made sure that Slack shows me all the relevant information. Sometimes it’s even better not to know certain things.”

Kirill feels Slack is a good tool for communicating between international teams. The system shows your responder’s local time, and threads are a useful feature for keeping your messaging in order. Especially after COVID began, the popularity of different remote working tools has surged, and choosing the right tools is essential. In the digital space, the tools you are using enable, and sometimes define, your processes. Open discussion and willingness to try different tools is important.

Unification brings vulnerabilities

Having tried it out for some time now, Kirill does feel that the asynchronous way of working also brings vulnerabilities: “Everything is unified, so there is a risk that someone just disappears and leaves their work undone.”

Remote working can hide a host of problems if you don’t pay attention: “People learn with time to cut corners (or Jira tickets in this case), and start running on their own.” This can cause a situation where hidden problems in the process start piling up, only to surface later. It can also lead to tasks piling up without anyone noticing, but then again every tech company faces similar problems.

Working independently and relying on workers’ own motivation to commit to the company can also cause surprising dependencies: “It’s hard to know if someone leaving has been doing critical work that just hasn’t been noticed. If they’ve for example taken care of some database on their leftover time, it can cause some real problems once they’re gone.” These vulnerabilities need to be taken into account especially when you start thinking of migrating to a more remote-friendly culture.

“No one likes a revolution, right?”

Despite being happy with his situation, Kirill is sympathetic towards people who have had to transition into remote work during the past year: “I understand why someone would not like it. No one likes a revolution, right?” ShowSeeker has always been remote-first, with the culture built around asynchronous communication and distributed teams since day one. When compared to some of the other companies’ cultures, it’s easy to see how much work it would require to transform them towards the remote mindset.

In some situations, real-time communication is probably still the most effective way of working. For example, if your business is very mission-critical — that is, if your tech does not work someone will die or go bankrupt, you will need to have a portion of your workforce available at all times. Also highly technical companies, with servers loaded to the max most of the time, will need a task force to put out fires as quickly as possible. Not all of your workers will be able to work async all the time, but for those that are, the benefits can be vast.

All in all, moving to more asynchronous ways of working can both make your employees more efficient, but also give them more flexibility in building their work around their life. The transformation will require planning and thought, so small steps and try-outs are advised. Putting in the work to build a supportive foundation when moving towards a more remote-friendly culture will definitely pay off. There’s lots on offer and even though it doesn’t come for free, nothing good ever does.