Ben Sinclair

November 27, 2022

Synchronous vs asynchronous remote work

At our recent all-in meeting with the Australian team at Tithe.ly, we had a constructive discussion about what it's like working for an international company. This got me thinking.

The bottom line is, running a remote international synchronous (RIS) company is hard. The hard part revolves around the word "synchronous".

I define an RIS company as one that is a video meeting and chat app first company.

Why is it hard?  

This approach is almost like running a company in a traditional office. Rather than everyone being in the same building and tapping on someone's shoulder or rustling up a group of people into a conference room, you're using digital forms of this.

It makes sense to try to run a company like you normally would, using digital tools at your disposal. However, in an RIS company, the cracks start to show.

What's the issue?

Running RIS companies like at traditional office can lead to communication and alignment issues.

Tying to align everyone's calendar can be almost impossible and chat apps are bottomless pits of useful information that once was.

They often leave people in certain time zones feeling left out, forgotten and excluded because they either miss important meetings or what was being discussed in the chat app is now hundreds of lines in the past. Sifting through the useless comments, emoji and animated gifs is a big time waster and trying to find what you need to know can be difficult.

Also, have you ever considered a 1-hour meeting with 8 employees is in fact an 8-hour meeting?

What would an asynchronous approach look like?

Over the past few years, I transitioned our international Engineering department from a very synchronous approach to asynchronous thanks to the wisdom of the 37signals guys.

I'll say upfront that in a lot of teams, overlap remains essential. 3-4 hours is generally a good balance. I haven't experienced working with co-workers closely in opposite time zones (such as Australia and England).

We implemented a tool called Basecamp and moved all communication there. I encouraged our team to write up what they wanted to discuss first, close their chat app and use video meetings as a last resort.

This approach to writing things up and allowing people to read and reply thoughtfully and at a time that suited them was a huge success in terms of clear communication and the feeling of inclusion.

Our team had to switch their mentality from "I need a response now" to "it's ok to wait a day for a response, I'll just move on to something else". If anything, it forced engineers to figure things out rather than asking a co-worker and saved time all around.

How does culture shift to asynchronous?

To foster this culture in an RIS company takes one of two things. 

  1. Top-level leadership to drive it down into the company. 
  2. A department leader to drive it and try to make it work with the synchronous culture of the rest of the company.

If you've got one of those two options above, great! You're in a position where culture can shift.

If not, it's going to be very hard, if not impossible to change the culture. Tools like Basecamp are useless if no one is driving it. It doesn't mean you can start conversations with your direct report and see where it leads.

-Ben

About Ben Sinclair

Hey! I'm Ben. I’m a Christian, husband, father, son, friend, writing a book and also the CTO at Tithe.ly. I'm passionate about finance and technology. These writings are for me, however, maybe they’ll be interesting to others. Thanks for stopping by!