Originally published on Flex Index November 30, 2023 | Read the original post
Hybrid and fully remote work is not new, but it is at this scale – and is a big change for many people. Until recently, hybrid work was most commonly found in project-based companies (e.g., consulting firms). The pandemic catapulted flexibility, particularly in terms of time and location, into one of the most critical factors for whether individuals choose to join or remain with an organization.
Mastering asynchronous collaboration is a game-changer for flexible work. In the current landscape, where work transcends traditional boundaries, the ability to collaborate asynchronously can offer unparalleled flexibility and efficiency. It’s not merely a matter of working remotely; it’s about harnessing the power of asynchronous communication to accomplish tasks, make decisions, and drive projects forward effectively.
This shift from traditional norms is vital for organizations. They must acknowledge that choosing between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, as well as in-person and remote work, should be tailored to the specific needs of the work at hand, whether it’s for an individual, a team, or a given day.
Instead of relying on the oversimplified assumption that effective collaboration must be in person, we’ll explore four key strategies for optimizing collaboration within a flexible working model.
4 Strategies for Optimizing Collaboration in a Flexible Work Environment
Step 1: Set Up Guiding Principles and Norms
One of the biggest barriers to effective hybrid work is a lack of alignment on expectations. For example, the CEO gets frustrated that no one showed up to the exec meeting in person. Or a manager shows up to the office only to be on Zoom meetings all day.
Aligning guiding principles at an organizational level – and norms at a team level – helps alleviate some of the frustration and misunderstanding. Norms to discuss as a team may include:
- When are we expected to be available (core hours or other)?
- When are we expected to be together vs remote (types of activities, not specific days)?
- How do we signal to others when we’re remote vs. onsite?
Then, implementing tactics that reinforce these norms helps to build sustainable habits. For example, don’t put a Zoom link in the invite when everyone is expected to be at a meeting in person. If someone needs an exception (we’ve always had exceptions), they can ask for one, and the moderator can use their discretion on whether to allow it.
Step 2: Break Down the Work or Project into Sub-Components
Just because a project is collaborative doesn’t mean it has to be accomplished synchronously. Breaking down work into sub-components is a crucial step as it allows for a more nuanced understanding of the tasks involved, facilitating a targeted approach to each aspect of the project. Not only does this enhance clarity, but it also enables a more efficient allocation of resources and a better grasp of the specific requirements at each stage.
Consider the following sub-components of project work:
- Meetings (e.g., status meetings, final presentations, stakeholder management)
- Research (e.g., primary, secondary)
- Analysis (e.g., collaborative, independent)
- Execution (collaborative or independent)
This will better inform times when the work is best suited for sync / async and together / remote collaboration.
Step 3: Determine When to be Together and When Not
In his book Remote not Distant, Gustavo Razzetti describes six working modes that can be considered along two dimensions: “Me versus we time” and “deep versus shallow work.” This framework reinforces the need to break down collaborative work into sub-components to think through how best to approach it.
In any collaborative team, there are activities that fall within each quadrant. It has been shown that in-person, synchronous time is best suited for building relationships and deep collaboration (i.e. working together on a time-sensitive and/or challenging problem). Whereas asynchronous, remote time is best for “heads-down” independent work and to mitigate groupthink.
For example, the most effective workshops I have led have had a mix of (1) asynchronous and remote, (2) synchronous and remote, and (3) synchronous and in-person components. We leverage asynchronous and remote tools to disseminate information (“pre-reads”) and gather participants’ data in advance. We leverage synchronous and in-person meetings to discuss key themes, check on/improve alignment, and build relationships. The sub-component of the work/project drives location and timing versus a random day of the week.
Step 4: Utilize In-Person Time to Build Relationships for Enhanced Asynchronous/Remote Work Efficiency
It’s amazing how a little bit of in-person time can go a long way, but it needs to be managed deliberately. Don’t waste in-person time on one-directional information sharing or, even worse, back-to-back Zoom calls. Design in-person days/meetings so that relationship-building is a key objective. Treat in-person time as a booster to make async work even better – building trust and understanding. This may mean less content sharing and more white space for checking in and getting to know one another. Otherwise, opt for a fully remote meeting or an asynchronous interaction (email or other).
Changing the way we work is hard. We all need to embrace a growth mindset and acknowledge when there are opportunities to change tack.
Don’t jump to in-person and synchronous every time you hear the word “collaboration!” If we think about our experiences of failed collaborations, we will likely discover that location or schedule was not the culprit. Setting up shared outcomes, guiding principles, norms (including where and when work gets done), taking full advantage of together time when it occurs, and regular iteration and communication improve the chances of success.