Communication and collaboration are complex issues, especially for remote workers. The rapid switch to tools like Zoom, Slack and Teams can take its toll when the move isn’t underpinned by good practice across the organisation.  You can view a recording of the session on our YouTube channel.

We’ve touched on this topic before on DigiShift, but this month we had three really insightful speakers who took things to the next level. They gave us an amazingly thought-provoking session on ‘asynchronous working’.

Kicking off, we had Roger Swannell, a Product Manager at Princes Trust

Roger focused on learning and sharing knowledge effectively. He highlighted two priorities for knowledge work teams. The need to be able to (1) Learn, and (2) Integrate that learning into their work. You don’t all have to be sitting in the same place at the same time to do this well. He also compared: 

  • ‘pull’ information flow 
    –  you get what you need, when you want it. For example, a project update whiteboard on an office wall, a shared library or a pinned link to a Google or OneDrive document. 
  • and ‘push’ information flow 
    –  you get the information ‘pushed’ to you, even if that’s not the most helpful time for you. For example, a cryptic email with a PDF attachment. 

Roger also talked about the idea of ‘teaming‘. This is about doing teamwork on the fly, making flexible groups focused around shorter term goals. Asynchronous working practices can support this really well. But to work well, it needs good psychological safety and shared intentions. SCVO has worked very effectively in this way on our Coronavirus response work, in particular our Third Sector Information Hub

Roger wrapped up with three suggestions: 

  1. Start by making writing/drawing part of your practice ahead of meetings. This can bring in contributions from quieter members of the team, not just the louder extroverts. 
  1. Focus on sharing knowledge and learning instead of doing the work. This habit takes a while to develop but will pay off hugely in the longer term. 
  1. Encourage people to form smaller teams around what they need to do. 

Next we had Cecilia Nunn, Head of Digital Engagement at CAST. 

She talked about how they put good communications principles into practice. Her core principle is: 

  • Say it loudly, listen once 

Cecilia stressed the importance of asking clear questions in the right place. Lots of digital communication can become chaotic and ‘noisy’ – for example a WhatsApp group can quickly fill up with inconsequential or off-topic replies. 

In CAST, they gathered together announcements across the team into a weekly update, with a fun activity to get people engaged with it. This helped reduce people’s overwhelm while making sure important updates were seen. 

It’s important to ‘have the right conversation in the right place’. Take a moment to ensure that the right people can loop into a discussion. This can be as simple as remembering your team members’ working hours, or making sure that you post something into the right discussion thread. 

Managing time well and transparently is important for asynchronous working. Block your diary so that you can work without interruptions on the important stuff. But take time to meet flexibly with your team to see where things are going.  

Cecilia wrapped up with a reminder to ‘map your trails’ – be clear about how requests and new pieces of work come in and get triaged so that you have a shared sense of what is going on. 

Our third speaker was Emily Bazalgettean organisational design consultant for social change. 

She helps teams be more intentional about how they work. She focused on inclusion and culture. 

We are all starting to learn that long sessions on Zoom are really tiring. Now, there’s research showing why. Defaulting to synchronous working has a cost: an in-person, many meetings culture doesn’t get the best from everyone. It might have been invented by 19th century dead white dudes (factory owners) but it doesn’t have to be the default! 

Meetings can work well with really excellent facilitation – the careful work to make sure all voices are heard and intentions are clear. But this is hard to do well – and in reality many organisations are not doing it well. 

Some parts of asynchronous working (tools etc) can seem easy to adopt, but there are deeper questions to think about – what are the hidden assumptions or beliefs in your organisations that could stand in the way of asynchronous working? For example, are people practicing ‘digital presenteeism’ by quickly reacting to updates or posts at all hours of the day? 

Thinking about written communication, perfectionism can be a real hurdle. A great way to overcome this is the ‘bad first draft’ – share something early, then reflect and collaborate on it. 

Emily closed with a final reminder from Basecamp: ‘Five people in a room for an hour isn’t a one hour meeting, it’s a five-hour meeting. Be mindful of the tradeoffs.’ 

After the speakers, we had a great Q&A. Check out the video for the full session.