Imagine you’re a typical worker in 1914, the tail end of the Industrial Revolution that standardized the 9-to-5 we know today. You work at a car factory on an assembly line (which Henry Ford introduced just a year prior). As the car moves along the conveyor belt, your one and only job is to attach the wheels and await the next car.
Your coworkers have to be there at the same time as you; without them, the vehicle would move down the line without the next vital part, and you wouldn’t be able to communicate important information. The closest thing to “instant” messaging you have is the telephone, but most people don’t even have one at home. And bringing work home to finish later? That’s out of the question when you’re dealing with heavy equipment.
But you’re not a typical American worker in the early 20th century. Today, you have the technology to optimize processes and enable collaboration across time zones. And if you’re reading this, you’re likely a knowledge worker who spends your day at a computer, not a manual laborer who operates machinery.
So why are you still following a work model created for a different era?
Below, we’ll go over the benefits of asynchronous work, the companies who’ve already transitioned to “async-first,” and why you might choose to make the switch too.
But first, what is asynchronous work?
What Is Synchronous Work Vs. Asynchronous Work?
Synchronous work is done at the same time. Asynchronous work is not done at the same time.
Synchronous work, where everyone on your team works at the same time, assumes that we are like machines, rising and grinding at the same time every weekday, creating repeatable outputs with consistent energy levels.
In the context of an assembly line, synchronous makes sense: Each person is responsible for one repetitive task, making their output steady and predictable, and everyone on the team needs to be physically present to put the pieces together.
But for knowledge workers today, synchronous work can be unnecessary and inefficient. And while there’s a lot to be said about the benefits of routine, not everyone’s ideal routine matches with the rest of their team’s.
Asynchronous work, where everyone on your team works when they choose, recognizes that different people have different needs, allowing for true flexibility and freedom.
4 Examples Of Thriving Async-First Teams
But could async work really work? Take a look at the following companies who are proving that it does.
Trello is a remote-first company, and the content team I work with uses the tool to assign blog posts and manage the workflow of freelance writers like me. We don’t have (or need) any meetings, rarely exchange emails, and as long as I turn in my articles on time, it doesn’t matter where or when I do my work.
This is made possible thanks to Trello’s system of boards, cards, and lists. Every stage of the editorial process has a list—from pitched to published—and every article has a card. Communication happens via comments, and the assigned editor and writer for each article receive notifications when a card’s status changes.
The Trello app provides complete transparency so that anyone involved in the editorial process can see any article’s progress at any time. It’s how we manage to bring you roughly 150 pieces of well-researched content to the Trello blog every year!
Gumroad, a platform for selling digital products, isn’t exactly an async-first company—it’s an async-only one.
“Going fully remote was nice,” tweeted Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia, “but the real benefit was in going fully asynchronous.”
That means the company has no meetings. You heard that right—instead, the team communicates via GitHub and Slack, with a 24-hour expected response time.
"Because there are no standups or ‘syncs’ and some projects can involve expensive feedback loops to collaborate, working this way requires clear and thoughtful communication,” writes Lavingia.
It seems to be working well for Gumroad. The company generates $11 million in annualized revenue and has seen 85% growth year-over-year.
Mibo is a video chat app for informal hangouts and team bonding, allowing participants to walk around in a virtual world. But despite developing a synchronous tool, the Mibo team is decidedly asynchronous. They’re fully remote, and though they’re all based in Europe and work a loose 9-to-5, they have the freedom to adjust their schedule around errands, family time, or peak productivity hours.
"While set working hours are important, we also trust each other that the work gets done,” says Baz Hand, Head of Marketing at Mibo. “And good communication negates the need for frequent real-time discussion."
To achieve async work, Mibo uses tools like Loom, Slack, and Shortcut. The biggest benefit Hand has seen? Better focus.
“It's kind of crazy to expect your best work to be at specific times and for that to align with others,” he says. “Async allows me time to mull over challenges, collect my thoughts, share with others, or just get into deep work without a looming calendar appointment.”
In April 2021, Mibo raised €1 million in seed funding and is busy building the next app update.
DevOps platform GitLab is fully remote, with more than 1,300 team members spread across 65 countries and no company-owned offices. One of GitLab’s sub-values is “bias toward asynchronous communication,” and it espouses the non-linear workday.
In an article on its website, GitLab walks readers through a non-linear workday from one of its team members. In this real-life example, Darren works from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., goes skiing with his family from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and resumes work from 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mind-blowing, right? Here’s what’s written after sharing Darren’s example:
“We should pause at this point and recognize that time is still relative. When Darren resumes his workday at 4:30 PM, he has six more hours to contribute if working a standard eight-hour day. It is important to not get caught up in local times. 4:30 PM may sound like an absurd time to resume working, but that's morning, afternoon, and night for various other members on his team.
The non-linear workday decouples time from work and acts as a forcing function to embrace asynchronous workflows. Local times are only as important as your company relies on synchronicity to get things done.”
GitLab shows how switching to async work requires a mindset shift, a complete unlearning of what we’ve been taught about how work “should” be done.
7 Reasons To Embrace Asynchronous Work
Now that you’ve seen how some companies have successfully adopted an async-first culture, let’s outline the reasons you might want to as well.
1. It’s More Equitable
Synchronous work assumes sameness, which creates inequalities because people have different preferences and life circumstances.
Take, for example, parents who take on a job in addition to raising their children. Many companies expect employees to work 9-to-5, without considering that they might have kids who need to be dropped off and picked up from school during those hours. Parents with the resources can hire babysitters or opt for after-school care. Those without, however, have to figure it out on their own.
But with async work, parents are free to craft a schedule around their family’s needs.
“Aside from getting better work completed, async just works for my lifestyle with three active children and another due very soon,” says Hand. “I can support my wife and have a more relaxed balance between work and home life.”
2. You Can Hire The Best Talent
Sticking solely to a 9-to-5 work schedule in your company’s local timezone excludes a vast pool of talent who don’t live in your area. By switching to async, you open up your doors to excellent candidates worldwide who would not have been able to work for you otherwise.
3. Communication Becomes More Efficient
Consider your typical meeting. Whether it’s on Zoom or in a conference room, you wait a few minutes after the start time for the stragglers, right? And once you finally get started, people drift into long-winded tangents or have to repeat themselves when the audio glitches.
With async communication, though, you eliminate those inefficiencies. Because nothing is happening in real-time, you don’t have to sit and wait for someone to arrive. Because people aren’t under pressure to respond immediately, they can take the time and care to craft the right message.
4. You Have Fewer Distractions
Real-time communication means real-time distractions. But with async, interruptions become exceedingly rare. How? In an async-first culture, there is no pressure to drop everything and respond immediately. Ideally, you’d turn off your push notifications altogether, and you would carve out dedicated times to check and respond to messages. Admittedly, this requires discipline and a strategy, but once both are in place, you’re finally free to dive into that elusive deep work.
5. You Only Work When It Makes Sense To Do So
What if instead of throwing back another coffee to get you through that afternoon slump, you simply rested when you got tired? What if instead of sitting at your computer attempting to look busy even though you’ve run out of tasks for the hour, you just took a break?
With async work, you get to craft a schedule based on your energy levels and current workload, helping you do your best work (whenever that may be).
6. Async-First Culture Fosters Transparency
Because your teammates are not necessarily working at the same time or in the same place as you, an async-first culture necessitates transparency. Colleagues need to be able to peer over your shoulder, so to speak, and know what’s going on. You can achieve this with two crucial mechanisms:
- Workplace documentation: Written guidelines outlining your processes and policies.
- Project management tool: A single place where anyone can log in to see a project’s progress, dependencies, and blockers.
7. Your Team Wants It
It’s no secret that people dislike meetings. According to a Clarizen-Harris Poll survey, 46% of American employees would choose an unpleasant activity—such as watching paint dry or even getting a root canal—over attending another status meeting.
Give your team a break by letting them communicate and work asynchronously.
But Aren’t There Times When Async Work Just Doesn’t Work?
Yes, even the teams mentioned above go synchronous sometimes—it’s just not their default. Here are some situations when synchronous work is best:
In an emergency, instant communication is crucial—including in async-first companies. Even Gumroad, which dubs itself as “fully asynchronous,” allows for exceptions, such as when its site is down.
You know what they say about first impressions. When you’re meeting someone initially, such as when onboarding a team member or a client, it’s best to stick to a real-time introduction to make the best impression.
Sure, you can bond over async communication, but relationship-building is best done in real time. There’s nothing like being able to hear someone laugh at a joke or see your coworker’s eyes light up when they share some good news with you.
Asynchronous Work: Make Way For A New Revolution
Just like the assembly line revolutionized how we manufacture cars, asynchronous work can revolutionize how we do remote work. But first, we have to let go of the holdovers of the Industrial Revolution, an era that brought us the synchronous 9-to-5 workweek we’ve now outgrown.
Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!