There’s no going back.
In 2020, many, many knowledge workers were locked down in their homes and had no choice but to work from home. “Remote work” cluttered my Twitter feed, my LinkedIn, and it came out of the mouths of people who’d regularly looked at me funny when I’d mentioned that remote work should be an option in every workplace, that we could have decent workplace relationships from those we rarely saw “in the flesh”.
Some managers who thought they’d never be able to cope with not seeing their people day to day, began to enjoy the distance. Team members who had never considered working from home found an unexpected joy in reducing their commute to cero. Some companies found that, even though this was remote work done in extraordinary circumstances, employees were still getting the work done.
But after the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, after the initial shock was over, after all the new office chairs and laptops were in place, many realised that remote work as they were experiencing was unsustainable. Because for many knowledge workers, “remote work” had become “having loads of online video meetings”.
Without a plan in place, most teams translated their office-based communication practices to the online space. “How do we communicate in the office? In real-time. So let’s just find ways of doing that same thing online: via online meetings (video preferably, the richest medium) and via instant messages.
In April, Microsoft reported that the number of online meetings in their Teams platform had increased from the previous month by 200%, from 900 million to 2.7 billion in ONE day. It was understandable. Beyond the fact that meetings were a tool known to all and that many companies already had some sort of online platform available to employees, people needed to look at their colleagues and hang on to the familiarity of their faces – they didn’t want to feel lost or alone, and video helped that.
I had an initial conversation with a client who said to me, “By Friday, we all had these wide bags under our eyes, from staring at the screen all day|, while another HR representative admitted that, “We already had a meeting culture in the company – it’s been transferred online. We’re now in meetings all day.”
It soon became clear that relying mainly on real-time (synchronous) communication was not the best way to collaborate in a remote team. Surely there were other options…
A Sustainable Way of Communicating Online
Remote work and online collaboration are not new. Virtual teams have certainly been around for decades. Online meetings have often been a pain point (just like colocated meetings have), but no remote worker ever expected to be in meetings all day. On the contrary, early adopters of remote work (both in companies and as freelancers) enjoyed the flexibility and autonomy of working remotely. It wasn’t just about location-independence (remember that remote work does not normally mean “working from home”, even if at a certain point in history it did), it was about designing the work day in the most convenient way.
In a way that allows us to follow our inherent energy, to carry out those activities best carried out during the day, not having to wait until the evening to exercise, save energy in ways that allows us to engage with purpose with our family and friends. And within this: find the time regularly to engage in “deep work”, schedule meetings when they are the best way in which to communicate and collaborate, know what’s happening in our team and the work at a time when the information is useful – even if this time is the middle of the night, when we are finally able to sit down to work, even if all other team members are asleep.
[BOX Communication vs Collaboration]
As you can imagine, you cannot achieve this if you rely mainly on meetings for your team conversations. That is where asynchronous communication comes in. And through asynchronous communication, we can stay aligned and connected, without the risk of online fatigue.
Asynchronous communication doesn’t take place in real time. I send you a message at a time convenient to me, and you process it (read it/listen to it/watch it) and reply at a time convenient to you. As long as you agree on reply times in your team, asynchronous communication gives you the agency to structure your day in the most productive way. (We’ll talk more about this in the Team Communication Charter section.) This allows us to communicate and collaborate as a remote team, without having to meet. It allows us to reduce our time in meetings, without losing our sense of connection – and this can have a positive effect on our health. A Microsoft study…
NOTE from microsoft about being more exhausting to be in a meeting than email
But just saying, “Let’s adopt asynchronous communication” will not solve all your online collaboration problems. You need to agree on which kind of communication you will move to the asynchronous space, which collaboration activities can be done away from meetings and, as you embrace this time-independent way of collaborating, you’ll also need to revise what your meetings are for. (This last point is beyond the scope of this book, but you are most welcome to read Online Meetings that Matter if you want to make out of your time together.)
By adopting Visible Teamwork in a way that suits your team’s identity, workflow and access to technology, you and your team members will be able to access the information you need from each other as colleagues (such as your availability and change in context), know the progress of your projects and enjoy moments of spontaneous encounters online.
The principles of Visible Teamwork can help you design your asynchronous communication practices. They can be applied regardless of the technology you have to hand. And, should you be limited in the asynchronous tech you can access, you can also transfer some of the practices to your meetings – but you will be doing this out of choice, not just because you always default to meetings for all your team communication.
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