Working asynchronously

A template for reducing Zoom time

Sometimes I struggle to understand why I am in your meeting and often I suspect the feeling is mutual.

Trying to figure out why we’re in yet another hour-long Zoom meeting is exhausting for everyone and over the past month I’ve been trying to do something about it.

I’ve been experiementing with moving to a more asynchronous way of working. Asynchronous is just a fancy word for two or more people [1] working on the same thing, but at different times.

Email is a simple example of asynchronous communication, as is collaborating on a shared document. It turns out that for distributed teams, working asynchronously on a shared document is extremely time-efficient and particularly pertinent [2].

My workflow now favours starting with a document over a meeting. Sometimes I struggle to understand why I am reading your document. Sometimes I suspect the feeling is often mutual.

As a result, I’ve developed a process to help me approach writing a document that’ll be used asynchronously. The general principle I follow when writing this document is that it should be able to stand up for itself and communicate for me in my absence.

I begin with a summary in the form of answers to three basic questions (What is this?, Why does it matter? and What is needed?). Once I’ve set the scene, I move on to provide more Background information, describe the Opportunity and discuss the Considerations, enumerating the pros and cons. Finally, I wrap up with a blank section called Actions.

The simple act of writing this forces me to understand the problem better, and has the side effect of helping me communicate more succinctly.

Beacuase I do this a lot, I’ve created a template which I’ve shared here for you to use too. It looks like this:

Once I’ve written this document, it’s time to share it. Because the document is designed to be self explanatory,sharing it is as easy as writing a quick note to the people who need to read it - usually something as short as:

“I’ve been thinking about [challenge x], could you give this a read and let me know what you think, please?”

Once it’s in the hands of others, all that’s left to do is to agree on which Actions need to be taken, and who’s responsible for each.

I think a Zoom call is the right tool at this point. There’s a certain social contract that’s formed when using synchronous communication to agree who’s responsible for each action, and being able to see and hear each other enforces that [3].

When we get this right, the document means 75% of the work has been done asynchronously. When we get this really right, the efficiency we get from working around the document significantly reduces the amount of time needed for a Zoom call. I usually aim to keep these calls to 15 minutes.


Footnotes

If you’re still left wondering why this method is useful, then I’d recommend giving Steve Glaveski’s article on remote work a read - he gives a good overview of the five-levels of remote work developed by Matt Mullenwerg, founder of Automattic.

© Jonathan Roberts 2020
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