The Specific 005: Async Work
I’ve been working from home like most people during this pandemic, but it didn’t strike me that I was not fully maximizing it until I visited my friend in Thailand on a whim in August 2022.
Thanks for reading The Specific! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I was still essentially doing the same work routine in Thailand as I was back home in Singapore. During office hours, I work from my desktop, a couple meters away from my bed. Potter around the house in between the meetings and so on.
But, doing it in a foreign country for about 2 weeks really made me realize emotionally how much potential remote work really had. I just felt happier.
I was getting out of bed everyday excited. I had more energy, bouncing around the house. I recall telling another friend who had come along for the trip that I wanted to replicate the same lifestyle after I went back to Singapore.
Why the better mood despite literally the same work routine, I cannot say why. This is despite Bangkok having worse traffic and air quality. Yet, I haven’t felt so alive for a while. I couldn’t articulate this realization until the above tweet by Marissa 1 month later crystallized it for me.
With the pandemic receding into our rear-view, and remote work being more mainstream, now is the ideal time to take advantage of this1.
One specific example2 of how I’ve changed my work routines is how I get feedback for work-in-progress (WIP).
In the past,
Put changes on my laptop
Walk over to specific customer-user
Show the changes in person and ask questions
Put changes on my laptop (no change)
Demo of the change in a Loom video (new!)
Send the Loom link to the customer-user and wait for a reply (new!)
This is what I call decoupling work delivery from feedback/acceptance, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
If you’re also curious how I use Loom for other documentation needs, check out this thread.
Map of Remote Work
After 2 years of remote work and counting, I have my own perspective about successful remote work. Which can be summarized in the following table.
And there are 3 principles I wish I had known beforehand that would've made my remote work life that much easier:
Shift your communications mode to async-first
Most work communications are just repetitive acts of coordination
Make feedback and acceptance of work products async-first
Shift to Async-First Communications
Many people feel burnout by the change to remote work because they kept their work-in-office defaults despite a change in work environment and location.
Defaults like your working style, routines, and habits in the office.
During the pandemic, most office workers start with shifting to location independence and digital communications first without switching to async communications mode. Burnout ensues.
I understand not all lines of work allow async communications, but those that can, should.
If you don't let app companies choose your app defaults, why let your office dictate your work from home defaults?
The solution is that you need to own your calendar and your communication defaults.
Decide when and where you do your best work. Decide how you live your best life. Pick when and how long the messaging apps stay mute.
You know the tip about checking your email twice a day? Make a rule like that but for all communications such as messaging apps.
Need to maintain 1-1 access to customers or colleagues? Plan consultation hours like a professor giving 1-1 access to their students. Plan them around your best modes of working and broadcast them out. So, people can respect your boundaries.
If you can do this, your remote work life would be much better. You would have achieved what I deem as “asynchronous communications”.
But, even after this, you might not still have the most productive work hours. Why is that?
Most Work Communications Are Just Repetitive Acts of Coordination
Because most communications we have at work are simply for coordination purposes.
And, in my own experience, I can subdivide such coordination-driven communications further into:
High volume and/or mission critical tasks
Low volume, query-based tasks
For high volume, and/or mission-critical coordination-driven communications, most people adopt a laissez faire attitude. They just thrash it out over messaging apps like Microsoft Teams or face-to-face where nobody keeps notes.
This is bad.
All parties involved should hammer out clear policies and interfaces to exchange information and manage changes with all affected parties beforehand, then when you actually perform the information exchange, that can happen asynchronously.
In other words, do it like lawyers drafting out contract agreements. If you’re familiar with tech, yes, this is like drafting up API endpoints and getting agreement by both publisher and consumer.
This mindset shift is why Amazon teams can perform with a coherent sense of direction and yet enjoy autonomy within each of the small teams. Because Jeff Bezos expressly wanted to limit such casual communication3 for coordination.
For low-volume, query-based coordination, they tend to be in the form of your colleagues or customers asking you repeatedly certain questions for them to do their job.
“Where’s that Excel file for ACME in the shared drive?” they asked you for the umpteenth time over Microsoft Teams.
Please, don’t tell me to use wiki or FAQ as the solution. I’ve tried. Most people don’t read in my experience because reading adds to their cognitive load. People are already busy and overwhelmed at work. Giving them another thing to read with no guarantee of success is not helpful.
A solution I am in favor of: you record how you perform the search in a Loom video, then you send over both the requested item (whatever it may be), and the Loom video itself.
If the Loom video is good, people will start sharing it amongst themselves. Heck, maybe they will even put it in the wiki and people will actually read the wiki for once.
Make Feedback and Acceptance of Work Products Async
I have already given an example of how I did async delivery of work for feedback earlier in the article using Loom video, so I won’t repeat the point.
It’s similar to how we collect Amazon packages without being at home physically.
Once we add the characteristics of async comms and async feedback/acceptance to remote work, we get async work.
But, I do want to end with this diagram about decoupling the work product from the feedback/acceptance to reinforce the point further.
Elsewhere on the web
Not everyone is privileged like me working in software which makes remote work possible. If you’re in a similar place as me and keen to learn more, there’s a piece on remote work by Marissa Goldberg that can help.
In it, Marissa wrote 10 questions such as, “How can you use this transition to include more helpful change?”
Use any of the 10 questions as jumping off points to kick start your remote work lifestyle redesign. I personally find questions 5, 7, 9, and 10 to be most thought-provoking.
> 5. How can you integrate rest into your day to level-up your work?
> 7. How can you use this transition to include more helpful change?
> 9. Are you letting your meeting schedule control your day?
> 10. Who will you spend your time with now that you get to choose?
Give it a go. I’m sure you will find something useful in there to think about your own work-life arrangements.
Also, during the feedback phase of drafting this piece, I had a conversation with one of my reviewers, Sam Cho, about our respective dream scenario for remote work.
Don’t just “do” remote work for the sake of it. Dream a little bigger. As Marissa said in the tweet I quoted at the start, if you’re not using it to live the life you want, you’re missing out on the best part of remote work
What are your thoughts about async work, remote work? Anything you want to try to make your work more remote-friendly, async friendly?
I will go first by sharing the next 3 things I want to try out as stretch goals for remote work in the comments section.
By the way, some of the reviewers for this piece ask me about a follow-up on who should and shouldn’t work remotely, why, and how. If you have any thoughts about this, hit reply, comment below, or email me directly at email@example.com
Due to reviewers’ requests, I’m compiling a list of examples of such remote work adjustments like this. If you want to hear about it, or share your examples, hit reply, comment below, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Bezos quote: Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t … | Quotes of famous people (quotepark.com) He said, communication is dysfunctional for teams working together. I read that as him pointing out most communications are just merely for coordination.