4 async practices you can introduce

By Jeremiah Lee • May 2021

Even if your company returns to colocated work when this pandemic ends, there are practices you can implement now that help you work more effectively now and later when you return to the office. The asynchronous collaboration practices that help a distributed company work effectively are quite similar to the practices colocated companies put in place as they increase in size. Distributed companies simply feel these organizational pain points sooner.

1 Define sources of truth

Tool proliferation is a common problem as companies grow. One company I encountered used Jira, Trello, Asana, and sticky notes on walls for tracking work. Tracking initiatives that required multiple teams meant remembering which tool each team preferred and possibly a walk to another office building. Spreadsheets would be created to unify the data sources, but they were manually updated and rarely represented reality. And of course, there was a weekly status meeting just to share the same information verbally.

Another company used Confluence, Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and Quip. It had a strong written culture, but the benefit was limited due to the difficulty of finding information across multiple products.

Consolidating to a single tool in a particular category helps productivity. An authoritative source of truth reduces the effort to find information. It stops bikeshed arguments about which tool to use, which is less important than the work the tool facilitates. There will always be people who will prefer a different tool, but the value of everyone using a single tool should have a network effect benefit greater than an individual preference.

Evaluate the tools your company uses. Do people use multiple tools for text documents? For file sharing? For chat? Pick one in each category and consolidate. There will be a short term migration pain for the long term benefits to collaboration. It also will make managing access easier for your IT department and likely reduce your SaaS expenditures.

2 Make communication norms explicit

On widely distributed teams, the sun may never set on your company. Clark Valberg, CEO and co-founder of InVision, told employees he turns off app notifications when he is not working and they should too. This is one explicit communication norm he set for his company that allows people to take ownership of their working hours.

Explicitly stating expected communication behaviors helps establish a shared understanding. Consider some of the positive implicit behaviors and expectations, desirable behaviors that may be less common, and negative behaviors to be avoided. Then, make them explicit.

Some examples:

Communication norms also include knowing when and how to use each tool. Some illustrative examples:

These are not prescriptive examples. You should create norms that make sense for the practices and tools used in your organization.

3 Make meetings sacred

A sacred meeting is a meeting that respects every participant’s time.

We start by evaluating if the meeting actually must happen.

Scheduling

On a team spanning many time zones, overlapping working hours may be a scarce resource. Recurring meetings should be scheduled with the most consideration given to the person with the fewest overlapping work hours. Everyone should keep their personal calendars updated with their intended working hours to assist meeting organizers in being considerate. For meetings that require participants with no overlapping working hours, ask for preferences before scheduling.

As a manager, I try to group my team’s meetings together to help them keep a maker schedule. After the day’s meeting block, they have the rest of their day uninterrupted by recurring meetings. Meetings last for 25 or 50 minutes (instead of 30 or 60 minutes) to allow quick breaks during the meeting block.

Declare an intention

A meeting invitation should have a declared objective and a proposed approach for achieving that objective. Recurring meetings should link to a living document with this information or the meeting occurrence should be updated with the information ahead of time.

People invited to a meeting should understand if they are an expected participant or a passive attendee. They should be able to make that decision based on the information in the meeting invitation. People who primarily desire to be informed of a meeting’s outcome may choose to not attend.

A meeting invitation should inform people if they are expected to prepare ahead of time. If the preparation involves reading a document, consider starting the agenda with a silent reading.

Acknowledge each others’ humanity

As a meeting organizer, you set the tone for a meeting. Most people will meet the level of energy you display within the first few moments. Emotional contagion is stronger in distributed meetings because participants often have fewer stimuli in their physical environments compared to when colocated.

Before getting down to business, take a moment to chat and acknowledge each others’ humanity. Asynchronous collaboration practices limit the amount of face time a team has. Never waste an opportunity to increase the human connection when working synchronously.

Remember the time together

The value of a meeting should be preserved with a written summary. The summary should include notable discussion points, decisions made and by who, and follow up tasks with assignees and expected completion dates.

I typically create this document at the start of the meeting by copying over the objective and agenda from the meeting invitation. Then, I invite the meeting’s participants to take notes with me. If I am facilitating the meeting, I will ask someone to take primary responsibility for writing the notes.

Having a section in your team’s wiki dedicated to meeting notes has several benefits. It allows for easier searching by your future selves when you need to remember a particular conversation. It also allows for people who wish to be informed of your team’s activities to subscribe to updates.

A recording or transcript of the meeting may also be helpful to share afterwards, but they do not remove the need for a written summary. Meeting notes allow people with limited time or interest to get value from the meeting. Notes also help with discovery, as most search systems only search text.

The Meeting Free Day Mistake

When a team complains about too many meetings, someone inevitably will suggest a meeting-free day. It seems like a simple and effective solution, but what happens to the meetings scheduled on that day? A meeting-free day creates one day without a daily recurring meeting. However, meetings that recur weekly or monthly just move to one of the other days. This means more meetings on days that are not the meeting-free day.

Calendar animation where meetings scheduled on meeting-free Wednesday are rescheduled to Tuesday and Thursday

To reduce meeting fatigue:

  1. Reduce the number of meetings. Examine which meetings could be replaced by async practices.
  2. Run more efficient meetings. Make them sacred.
  3. Create a meeting block. Try grouping recurring meetings together to reduce the number of interruptions. For example, I try to schedule my one-on-one meetings immediately before and after the person’s daily team standup.

4 Strengthen your writing and reading skills

With more collaboration happening using written words, writing and reading skills are even more important. Much has been written about writing, so here are some resources that have been helpful to me.