The very concept of work itself is changing. What used to be masses of people huddled in cubicle farms has become decentralized. A growing number of workers operate in their preferred locations, in different time zones, and on their own schedules. This new model of work, asynchronous work, is challenging the old model, synchronous work.
The pandemic had an impact on this change as well. Lots of people and companies who thought they preferred synchronous work discovered that they could operate just fine in a remote work environment. Countless companies – of all sizes – are staying remote after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Entire offices are simply refusing to reopen.
As a freelancer, you are almost always working asynchronously, especially if you work remotely. Some freelancers are expected to work during specific hours, or make themselves available during certain windows, or even work on the client’s site, but these cases are rare.
But that does not mean working synchronously is pointless or outdated. There are plenty of good reasons to work at the same time (and alongside) other people. In this article, we would like to explain asynchronous vs. synchronous work and discuss the differences. We will go over the pros and cons, and show you how to stay productive in both environments.
The very concept of work is changing. What used to be masses of people huddled in cubicle farms has become decentralized. Click To Tweet
What is Asynchronous Work?
Asynchronous work is the opposite of synchronous work: It is when people access and interact with work on their own schedule, irrespective of their coworkers’ schedules. If you send an email to a coworker at the end of your day to update them on your progress, and they reply hours later when their day starts (or whenever responding makes sense for them), you are working asynchronously.
In an asynchronous environment, communication typically happens over text. Email, direct messaging (like Slack or Teams), project management tools (like Asana, Jira, Teamwork, or Trello), or collaboration tools (like G Suite) are key here.
Pros of asynchronous work
The world is shifting toward asynchronous workstyles. Many organizations prefer it, even when their teams work in the same physical locations. Here are the benefits this type of work:
The most obvious benefit is that you can work when it suits you the best. You can fit work around your life, meaning you will not miss important events, quality time with your loved ones, or be forced to adopt a lifestyle you do not enjoy. You are not forced to be available during someone else’s time zone.
Fewer interruptions means you have more opportunities for deep, undisturbed work. This enhances productivity, performance, and engagement with the job. It also relieves you of the pressure to respond immediately, giving you time to think about your responses and deliver well-thought-out replies. Ultimately, this control over your workday eliminates a lot of stress.
In an asynchronous environment, communication happens over text, which creates a “living record” of everything that happens, giving you the chance to reference past conversation at any time with perfect accuracy.
Finally, working across time zones means you gain access to global talent. For instance, if you need to hire a subcontractor, you can choose the best one from anywhere, not just one who works in your time zone.
Cons of asynchronous work
Despite its myriad of advantages and its trend toward popularity, there are some disadvantages of asynchronous work.
First of all, you miss out on those little interactions (i.e., watercooler chats) that build bonds between people. It seems pointless, for example, to ask your asynchronous colleague questions about their life when you know they will not respond for hours. Isolation is a real concern, especially if you never interact with others through video or your phone. You have to take deliberate steps to get that human connection.
Secondly, it is basically impossible to get a response to a problem or question immediately. You have to plan ahead carefully to avoid interruptions in work. Responses take time, so you can not get an immediate answer to a question. This has the unfortunate tendency to make projects take longer.
Asynchronous communication does not lend itself to the spontaneous creativity and brainstorming that comes from human interaction. Sometimes you just want to bounce ideas off another person, but that is difficult asynchronously.
Sometimes people feel the need to over communicate in order to make themselves heard. For instance, if you are not sure if a client read your email, you might message them in Slack as well just to be sure. This creates more work and interruptions for everyone. And written communication certainly isn’t perfect. It lacks certain nuances, like body language, innuendo, sarcasm, etc. You have to be very careful with what you write.
How to stay productive
Staying productive in an asynchronous environment boils down to two elements: Time autonomy and planning.
Whether a freelancer or a team member, you have to be responsible for your own time. No one is standing over your shoulder, micromanaging each task, so you have to do it yourself. But before you can take responsibility for your own time, you have to know how you are spending it.
This means time tracking is critical to productive asynchronous work. You have to know how you are spending your time so you can optimize your day. No one else is going to do it for you.
How do you track your time? With a time tracking tool like Timing. It automatically tracks your work, so you can reproduce exactly what you worked on at any given time. This means you get timesheets you can trust. There is no timer to stop and start.
Your time tracking app should also produce reports so you can see – from a high level – how you are spending your time. Are you indulging in pointless distractions? Are certain activities taking longer than they should? Are your time estimates inaccurate?
Beyond that, you will need to exercise your discipline muscles. You will not be productive while working asynchronously if you do not have the strength to put yourself in your chair and start working your way through your task list.
Next, you need to take planning seriously. Vague notes or simple to-do lists on a scrap of paper are not sufficient. You need to plan your days deliberately so you have everything you need from other parties in time for work.
For example, suppose you need graphics from a designer before you can build a client’s website. If you want to build the website on Thursday, you have to make sure you have all of the designer’s assets by Thursday morning. If you worked in sync with the designer, you could prod him Thursday morning for his work. But in an asynchronous environment, you have to plan ahead.
In most cases, a project management tool is sufficient to plan your work. Break your projects into little tasks so you can see them all laid out. Invite anyone to your project management tool who might play a role in those tasks. Assign tasks to the right people and give everything a deadline.
When you set deadlines for tasks, consider the entire project’s scope. Going back to our website example, you would set the deadline for the designer’s tasks several days before you need them. This gives you a chance to look over the work and request changes before you settle in to complete your part of the project.
How to stay connected with your team
The next challenge you will need to overcome is connectivity. Staying connected to other people is challenging when you do not get to interact with the people you work with in real time. So you have to take steps to replicate interactions, thereby improving engagement.
The first step is to prioritize communication. Your clients, subcontractors, and coworkers need to know that you are a real person who is available to them. When in doubt, always err on the side of over communication.
Next, look for ways to add human elements to your interactions. For instance, an email, text message, or Slack message may be the most efficient way to deliver information, but it is also cold and unengaging. Instead, you might relay that same information by recording a video of yourself so other people can see your face and hear your voice. Instead of replying with just “ok,” you might record a quick GIF of yourself giving a thumbs up.
Furthermore, when an opportunity to connect with other people presents itself, it is important that you spend a little bit of time taking advantage of it. For instance if one of your clients does a “Photo Friday” in their Slack workspace, you should participate even if you are not required to.
Finally, your last step is to simply make yourself available. Do not be afraid to jump on a quick, unscheduled video call to help someone out. You do not have to respond to messages right away, but try to respond at least within the day.
What is Synchronous Work?
Synchronous work is when multiple people work together at the same time. They typically share work hours and make themselves available to one another at all times. If you have standard work hours that align with the rest of your team, you are working synchronously. If you send an email to a coworker and expect a response in just a few minutes, you are working synchronously.
Pros of synchronous work
Synchronous work builds a connection between people that only emerges when people share experiences and communicate directly. Real-time conversations make people feel like they are part of a team. You can socialize and celebrate together, especially when the team achieves something important. These celebrations are powerful ways to make the team feel good about their jobs and engaged with their work.
When everyone is working at the same time, you can get immediate responses to your questions and concerns. Problems are solved much faster when everyone is focused on finding the solution together in real-time. People are more likely to voice their ideas – no matter how silly – when they do not have to spend time writing them up.
Additionally, synchronous work is good for sensitive communication. Sometimes you do not want to put something in writing because it could be accessed by unintended parties or misunderstood due to a bad interpretation.
Cons of synchronous work
Like asynchronous work, synchronous work has its own disadvantages as well.
Firstly, time zone differences can be particularly painful for synchronous teams, especially if team members are spread all over the world. You can try to find overlapping hours to work together, but it usually results in someone – or everyone – working at disruptive times of the day. If someone is forced to work outside of their typical time zone, their performance and engagement will suffer.
When team members (or clients, coworkers, subcontractors, etc.) are expected to work at the same time, everyone ends up being bombarded with chat or email interruptions. We spend 90 minutes per day instant messaging each other for work, which is an hour and a half of lost deep work time. And when people feel compelled to respond quickly, their responses might be careless and incomplete because they feel pressured to respond.
Furthermore, when other people are not available to work (due to vacations, sick leaves, or other absences), their productivity loss can also be your productivity loss. However, having to be available to other people at specific times is stressful. It comes with an obligation that makes work unenjoyable, especially if you have a lot on your plate already.
How to stay productive
Staying productive in a synchronous work environment is similar to staying productive in an asynchronous work environment: You need to manage your time well and plan ahead. But there is another element that you have to address as well: other people.
In a synchronous environment, distractions from humans are inevitable. People will find reasons to interrupt you just because you are present, even if those reasons are not worthy of an email or Slack message. This happens even if you are not working in the same place. If they know when you are at your desk, they will interrupt you.
Does this mean you should ignore everyone? No. But it is important to set your own boundaries. For instance, if you set a rule to reply to emails once a day, stick to it, no matter how often other people interrupt you. If you designate 9 AM to 11 AM for deep work, do not respond to interruptions until you are finished.
How to Eliminate Excessive Distractions
Our lives are full of potential distractions. We are beset by notifications and interruptions every day. Sometimes it feels like the entire world is vying for our attention. So whether you work asynchronously or synchronously, it is important to eliminate distractions so you can focus on producing good work.
Here are our top tips to avoid distractions:
- Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise to boost your energy levels.
- Use a reasonable bedtime routine to help you sleep well.
- Eliminate sources of distractions from your work space, like TVs or other people.
- Clarify your day before you start. Plan exactly what you need to accomplish that day.
- Keep your workspace clean and organized. Hide anything that doesn’t relate to whatever you need to work on that day.
- Designate times of the day (like 10 AM and 3 PM) to check email and notifications. Avoid them during the other parts of the day.
- If you can not resist your notifications, silence them.
- Lock yourself out of any apps or websites that tend to distract you.
- If you work at home, close the door and instruct others not to bother you.
- Keep snacks nearby so you can eat quickly when you are hungry. It is better to spend a bit of time snacking than lose a lot of time to hunger pains.
- Break your work into small pieces. Little tasks are easier to focus on than big ones.
- Schedule your own breaks. If you know a break is coming up, you are more likely to keep working.
- If you are struggling on a task, set it aside and come back to it later.
In the debate over synchronous vs. asynchronous work, you might be wondering which path is right. Truthfully, both have their place. What is important is that you use the right method for your personality and your type of work.
For instance, if you are a web designer, there is no need to work synchronously with your clients and subcontractors. Simply set up a communication system and work independently.
If you are an interior decorator, however, you probably work in your client’s home or at their place of business, as well as alongside other vendors. In this case, some synchronous work would be appropriate in order to coordinate with those parties, but you may work asynchronously with other subcontractors and vendors.
No matter how you work, what is most important is that you find ways to stay focused. This makes your time as valuable as possible. The tips we offered above should help you stay productive, no matter how you work.