Productivity 2022 - time to weigh in on the asynchronous work debate. Is Slack asychronous?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 19, 2022 Audio mode
Time to debate: can messaging tools support an asynchronous work model? Before we embrace ansynchronous work, we must tackle the thorny issues of KPIs, culture, and work surveillance. Enter my "five patented rules for harmonious asynchronous productivity."


From the start of diginomica, I've served up an unconventional view of workplace productivity - one which I am religious about.

My stringent criteria for productivity is all about career-defining deliverables. No surprise, then, that I lean towards asynchronous work patterns.  However, "asynchronous" is a guide, not an absolute. Many industries/roles can't be asynchronous to begin with (e.g. hospitality, health care).

For knowledge workers, one of the defining moments in pandemic work is that distinct "you have a message" Slack knocker chime, known as the infamous "quit-goofing-at-home" Knock Brush.

Imagine my surprise then, to read my colleague Alex Lee's Tightening up on the future of work - Slack users testify to the need for flexibility in the Vaccine Economy. Lee reveals data from a recent Slack UK survey of office work:

The research revealed asynchronous work — where communication doesn't need to happen in real-time — is rising in popularity. 69% of office workers claim it gives them time to perfect ideas and responses before communicating, and 64% believe it maximizes their productivity thanks to not having to wait for others to complete their tasks. Asynchronous work is also saving office workers an average of almost three hours a week thanks to replacing real-time meetings.

Is Slack a synchronous nightmare, or an asynchronous work enabler?

First, much credit to Slack for putting out data that doesn't exactly seem like an endorsement for doubling down on your use of Slack. But hold up - is Slack synchronous or not? Compared to Zoom video meetings, where you can hide your face but not your voice, Slack gives users a chance to figure out a more asynchronous way of Slacking (this likely contributes to Zoom's aggressive push to be a broader collaboration platform, something we've documented extensively on diginomica).

You should never allow yourself to be reduced to the lowest common denominator of distracted/tail-chasing work. Asynchronous work advocates are, at best, cautionary about messaging. This Fast Company opinion piece didn't mince words:

For more than a decade, I worked with global teams across borders and time zones—at Google, I was based in Amsterdam and London, then in the United States for Android and Uber—and felt like I was in meetings all day while swatting away at a constant stream of emails, messages, and other distractions.

However, author Kenzo Fong doesn't just blame digital interruptions:

My colleagues in Singapore, Los Angeles, and Tokyo would be using different platforms for communication, file sharing, and project management—and those tools were all in silos. None of the tools were interoperable even though they claimed to be. This was an enormous hassle and led to low productivity, wasted time, and overall frustration.

Fong doesn't seem like a messaging enthusiast:

Companies are waking up to the current problems with distributed work and see the need for more flexible solutions. For example, constant messaging from an app like Slack can cause anxiety for teammates in other time zones, when they receive pings throughout all hours of the night or even on weekends. Being on Zoom all the time leads to people having to join meetings late at night or early in the morning.

Messaging tools versus email - synchronous pros and cons

Despite my stump speech about value productivity and deep work, I'm not hostile to messaging tools. My ax to grind is email. To me, email is an effective asynchronous tool, but a horrid synchronous platform.

Even with elaborate email filters, too much junk flows in to tolerate email as a synchronous channel. Alas, at least five times a year, I get an email along the lines of "Meeting location has changed, see you in 15 minutes." Not the ideal email to open the next morning.

Fong hammered messaging tools for weekend interruptions,  but is that completely fair? Even before the pandemic hit, Slack warned if you were disturbing a colleague on off-hours. Slack has extensive notification and do-not-disturb controls. They provide a much more controlled environment for synchronous/asynchronous balance than you can ever get from email. Believe it or not, Workplace by Facebook, the collaboration tool that finally freed diginomica from the synchronous purgatory of email for internal teamwork - ironic, I know - also has granular controls.

I'm with Fong on this: the proliferation of project management tools, especially across international organizations, creates a problematic workflow of siloed apps. "Asynchronous" can't solve for that problem.

Jon's five rules for harmonious asynchronous productivity

So where does that leave us? I'll give it a shot, with my patented seat-of-the-pants rules for asynchronous work. Start with this doozy: 1. digital interruptions are a workplace culture problem, not a tools problem.

Proof point: you create filters that prevent Slack from messaging you on weekends. Well, if your management team expects you to respond over the weekend, have fun with that. A sane digital workplace starts with the organization's commitment to preserving your sanity - and your headspace for deliverables. (Those customer service/field reps who must work synchronously need their regroup-and-recover time protected just as much, if not more).

Set the remote work debate aside; remote is not the point. Office or home, we now work with digital tools capable of supporting us or surveilling us. Therefore, asynchronous rule number 2: roll out clear and humane policies on how you do (or don't) monitor employees' digital exhaust. Keep promotions and performance reviews centered on deliverables and team effectiveness, not on "Why don't you log into Microsoft Teams on Fridays," or "You were on video 25% less than your colleagues."

Twenty years ago, I had a remote client who built a custom Intranet to monitor team productivity. I still remember him yelling his head off at a salesperson - let's call him Jimmy - during poor Jimmy's sales report. "You weren't on the extranet all morning! Did you leave work for golfing again?"

I remember telling my client: what's the point of tracking Jimmy's every move? Why not set an aggressive monthly sales target? Jimmy hits his targets; he's good. He misses the target; he's gone.

Digital tools are far more sophisticated today. The threat of punitive/intrusive digital surveillance destroys any potential gains from asynchronous work. Asynchronous work generates just as much digital exhaust. KPIs are not inherently evil, but hovering over employees with the wrong KPIs, and brow-beating them with faux productivity metrics, is totally sucky counterproductive. (See my prior piece, 2019 productivity gut check - don't let metrics squeeze your value).

Rule 3? Frame your work policies around two priorities: protecting employee's downtime/sanity, and, in most cases, protecting the time they need for high-value deliverables.

With an organizational commitment to rule 3, asynchronous work is the obvious conclusion. Therefore:

4. Limit synchronous work, e.g. video meetings and real-time communication platforms, to the minimum needed for that team or role.

5. Allow employees to configure tools that cross over, such as Slack or Teams, to the most asynchronous settings that are viable.

Proper configuration comes down to the individual user. I've written about how I set up prioritization filters, and how I raise or lower them as my workday shifts.

Obviously, a handful of folks need access to you synchronously, at least in escalations. Example: my team knows I don't treat our Workplace environment synchronously when I'm chasing deadlines. In rare cases, that means hitting me on my "always on" backchannel. I'm going to withhold what that backchannel is here; clever readers will figure it and find me, that's for certain. One good thing about tools proliferation: there is always an extra tool for the handful who need us quickly. Some folks use WhatsApp for that, but the choices are legion.

My take - fight for your right to asynchronize

Yes, asynchronous favors a creative/hybrid approach to work, rather than an office-bound style. But you don't have to work remotely to be asynchronous. Granted, the remote work surge spewed gasoline on this debate. As I wrote in 2020

Excel at communication of that which is done - and isn't yet done.

That's at the core of any asynchronous strategy. I continued:

Use the portability of work to your advantage, while limiting the downside. The blurring of work and life can intrude upon us in the most unwelcome ways. But: portability can also be a win. I've written diginomica pieces on forest trails, waiting in dental offices, and even on party buses.

Getting this right is no easy feat for one person, much less an organization. We can use more tools like Uplevel, which protects the "deep work" time of software engineers (see: Think deep work isn't relevant to software engineers? Think again - Uplevel on the productivity impact of distraction culture).

Collaboration will either accelerate a company's transformation, or stymie it. That's why it factors heavily into diginomica's Frictionless Enterprise framework. For more on how that works, check Phil Wainewright's Frictionless Enterprise - digital teamwork and the Collaborative Canvas (2/2). Wainewright puts the emphasis on culture, where it belongs. Throwing digital tools under the bus for distracting us is a fail.

But we can't wait for organizations to get this right. Should we push them? Yes. One of the best ways to do that is to fiercely protect what nourishes us - a counterintuitive action when you are stressed, or worried about job security. But if you submit kickass deliverables, flexibility tends to expand. With that in mind, I'll leave you with a few words from an older piece:

Unplugging is a discipline. My diginomica partners are some of the best people I've ever met; my feeling of loyalty to them is sky-high. I never want to let them down, or postpone a target. Yet if I allow myself to take a work call from my desk when I could have taken it from the woods, well, that's not on my partners, that's on me. And it's my job to preserve my long-term while taking care of the short-term.

Here's a pic I took from the preserve, during a work call last winter:

mill river Northampton - winter

While I'm out there, I sometimes take a few minutes on a trail bench and clear out the task mites. So go ahead and use Slack, or Teams, or not. Make a list or not. But this year, find your bench.

End note: since I broke up the list, here is a quick summary of my five rules for harmonious asynchronous productivity:

  • Digital interruptions are a workplace culture problem, not a tools problem.
  • Roll out clear and humane policies on how you do (or don't) monitor employees' digital exhaust.
  • Frame your work policies around two priorities: protecting employees' downtime/sanity. Protect the time they need for high-value deliverables.
  • Limit synchronous work, e.g. video meetings and real-time communication platforms, to the minimum needed for that team or role.
  • Allow employees to configure tools that cross over, such as Slack or Teams, to the most asynchronous settings that are viable.
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