Async is the Key to Distributed Work

Created: In Misc

I wrote A Year Working Remotely after my first year at Automattic — a company now at 1,000 fully distributed employees across 76 countries. This is a 6-year follow on sharing additional learning on work and productivity. A colleague Alister wrote a great post, Three Years of Working from Home, that covers personal care tips, an important aspect to consider when working from home.

A minor nit, the term distributed work is more accurate than remote work. Remote work implies you are remote or distant from something, but for us there is no central headquarters to be distant from. Working remotely is actually quite harder, if there is a center to an organization, anyone not located at the center will be at a disadvantage. Working distributed is much easier when everyone is distributed.

Async Communication

The Automattic creed states:

I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company

I would add the most important productivity aspect for distributed work is asynchronous communication. Async communication is any communication that does not require people to be present at the same time, email is a great example of async communication. A phone call is synchronous, both parties must be on the phone at the same time.

At Automattic, we use the P2 blogging system as our custom async tool, Basecamp is another popular tool for smaller teams. In my mind the key features of a good async tool is: it promotes long form writing, it is open so anyone can read, and it allows for async discussion —blog comments as an example.

Async benefits everyone, especially if your company is across numerous timezones; but even with everyone in the same timezone, can you be sure everyone is online at the same time —or if online are they available, have the real-time app open when you send your message. They may be deeply concentrating on a problem and not in a place to be interrupted.

This is a huge benefit for distributed, people can focus. Let them focus.

One of the reasons I find Slack so detrimental is it encourages all communication to be real-time communication.It is structured to encourage shorter messages that require you to be there to follow along else you fall behind in the scroll.

There is nothing wrong with real time communication — it is even necessary —it lets you know that there are really people out there. It is great for chatter, talking about your day, grumbling about issues, even quick asks for help. All necessary and valuable forms of real-time communication and chat is better for these.

The issue comes when the quick grumble, or trouble shooting in real-time, turns into a longer discussion and new ideas and decisions get made in the conversation. If I come along a couple hours of later, I could miss something important. So now I’m forced to split my attention to checking the stream for important messages — this inhibits my ability to concentrate.

Flow

Chris Fox writes about The Magnificence of Flow during the early days at Microsoft. He attributes the adherence to creating a distraction free environment to much of the early success of Microsoft and the joy it was to work there.

Concentration and focused work is nothing new. Cal Newport —author of Deep Work and a big proponent of distraction free environment —recently posted about Sir William Osler who, in 1910, published advice on how to succeed in an endeavor that requires you to create value with your mind:

Let each hour of the day have its allotted duty, and cultivate that power of concentration which grows with its exercise, so that the attention neither flags nor wavers, but settles with bull-dog tenacity on the subject before you.

See Cal’s post for the full quote and his thoughts.

Good Async Communication

One of the great things about async, is it sticks around for a long time. If someone new to a team wants to go back and reread all the decisions, ideas, and thoughts around a project. They are all archived.

You want to keep this in mind when creating your post. Don’t let it inhibit you to try to make something perfect, but put the effort in to create something good. Take your time, sweat the details a little.

You don’t have to rush, you are not trying to beat other people to the fastest response. You can craft your message without someone interrupting you, so take your time.

  • Read what you wrote and edit before publishing
  • Be concise and direct, cut out clutter
  • Being concise doesn’t mean not complete
  • Include visuals, data, screenshots, video

The key is to know your audience, and what you want to say. Most writing advice can be applicable, see my notes on technical writing for additional tips.

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