Once reserved for a select few in the workforce — like independent contractors, freelancers or some full-time developers — the widespread embrace of remote work has also opened asynchronous work schedules up to a larger group.
A flexible work schedule allows employees to work or be “online” whenever works best for them, so long as their job requirements are fulfilled. This makes the most sense when team members span across multiple time zones worldwide.
According to Slack’s Future Forum survey, asynchronous schedules are important to more people than location flexibility. Seventy percent of workers reported they would consider leaving their job due to inflexibility.
“In order to be competitive in the workplace, you have to allow your employees flexibility when they work,” Molly Beck, founder and CEO of Messy.fm, an enterprise software for companies that want to use podcasts to talk to their workforces, said. Messy.fm has team members across multiple time zones in Canada, the U.S. and India. “I would lose out on really quality team members if I had arbitrarily decided everyone has to work the exact same hours that I work, and it also locks me into those hours. What if I take a vacation or move or something?”
Beck believes entrepreneurship is founded in two places for those that decide to stray from a typical 9-to-5 schedule. It’s either based on a big idea they have, or their desire to create a work-life balance.
“In either case, you want to create a company that you want to work for and that is definitely true for me," she said. “I work at this company, too. And, I want it to be a company that I want to work at.”
In terms of executing with her team, Beck said setting up the week’s schedule at the top of the week and determining what progress was made on those objectives at the end of the week is what works best for her business.
“Part of that is also just not always checking in with people and saying, ‘Hey, did you sit at your desk from nine to five or did you leave at 4:45?’ Why would that information even be remotely important or interesting to me?” she said. She prioritizes the objectives her and her employees set together, and pays attention to whether they’re accomplished when they agreed they’d be. “And if not, let's figure out what we need to do.”
For Kyle Spencer, co-founder of Slowtide, a California-headquartered, eco-friendly, art-focused towel company, weekly one-on-ones with his direct reports makes asynchronous work possible.
“It’s not to micromanage, but it is to make sure the management and leadership team is providing resources, and that goes two ways,” he said. “It's for open communication. What are the roadblocks? What are the challenges? Where do we hit our goals? Where do we miss the goals?” Without the expectation that every goal can be hit, these routine meetings can be about what’s working, what isn’t and the changes required to more successfully hit the desired objectives.
When a team works on an asynchronous schedule, it’s working towards a specific goal or outcome. When employees need to be in a certain place for a certain amount of the time – whether that’s simply online remotely or in an office at a desk – the focus can be shifted to how to fill that time. And, filling that time can include anything – their actual work or otherwise on “company time.”
Beck refers to Messy.fm’s partnerships program as an example. “If I had to fill eight hours in the day finding partners for some of our programs, then I will probably try to track down emails for all of these people, and then I’d try to send personalized emails to 40 or 50 people and that could take up the whole day.”
Conversely, removing time from the task, she said, makes finding partners the priority. For example, rather than finding a large amount of people to cold email, she’d likely take it straight to her Instagram and scroll through her existing connections to reach out directly. “I think focusing on an outcome versus hours makes you naturally think of more shortcuts to get more done,” she said. “Or, at least it does for me.”
Nick Grant, Director of Marketing at eFuneral, has shifted his team's focus from when and where they work to objectives and outcomes — despite the majority of them living close to eFuneral's office in Des Moines, Iowa. The marketing team has started to leverage JIRA, a project management software typically used by developers, to turn tasks into a "ticket."
“If we're running a campaign, then we're creating tickets for the entire campaign. We're breaking down those tickets into what's needed whether it's copy for multiple emails or design for a landing page,” Grant said. It also doubles as a creative brief because there’s space to describe what needs to be done. Assets can be dropped in, and it’s an efficient way to provide information, track progress and obtain feedback from multiple team members all in one place.
“Purely from a logistics standpoint, I think it's great,” he said. However, it isn’t necessarily helpful in measuring the success of these campaigns at all as functionally it’s more for development teams.
“If dev is fixing an issue, was the issue fixed? Yes. Then, it's done. It’s fixed. Nothing needs to be reworked. Whereas, marketing is more subjective,” he said. There are still questions upon completion of tickets with his team. “Is the content done in a way that we feel will resonate with our target audience? I do feel like it's a good way of tracking the work, what's being done, and what else needs to be done as projects move from one team to another.”
Becoming more outcome-based and deprioritizing where employees are located and how they spend every minute of their time requires a great deal of trust, particularly if a company is transitioning from being on-site. This trust can be challenging to build during the application process and with new hires. At Slowtide, Spencer says they’ve become more thorough throughout the hiring process, as he’s taken on more human resources duties for the startup.
Although Slowtide's founders had established a culture with a degree of autonomy before Covid-19 shut offices down, Spencer said hiring now requires more checks and balances. “It's a bit more rigorous to make sure that when we do hire the person, that they're going to succeed in this new landscape,” he said.
This requires checking for accuracy of their resume and with their references after an initial screening call and multiple Zoom interviews with everyone from the hiring manager to upper management and board members. Ranging from more formal to informal, Spencer said after their work checks out and they determine a candidate’s work ethic to be aligned, the lengthy process accommodates cultural fit.
“I think half of it is what are the things they want to know about us,” he said. “That's almost just as important – the questions that the applicant asks, what their values are and who they want to work for.”
The type of employee someone wants to be and who they want to work for can be synonymous, particularly as the pros and cons of focusing more on the work and less on the time spent is established. Based in Hawaii with the majority of the team in southern California and other members as far as Florida, Spencer tends to start his days early, but not until completing his personal morning routine, which includes meditation, reading and visualization and gratitude practices.
“The first chunk of the day is when everybody's online and there's a lot of activity, so I'm generally trying to make myself available for meetings, phone calls, slacks, emails, and then I take a quick midday break to do some exercise,” Spencer said. There’s an 11 a.m. PST time block for this daily workout – no meetings and no calls. He ends his work days with bigger, longer lead projects and planning.
Beck has become a time tracking devotee. She tracks how her time is spent in life, not simply for work, 24/7 throughout the year. She logs time spent in meetings versus doing work, playing with the kids or amount of time at church.
“Tracking my own time makes me aware of seasonal shifts, and now that Messy is a couple years old, I can see summer is usually a quieter period for us. September and October is when we really focus on sales, because we're coming into people's budgets for the following year,” she said. “It helps you from panicking just because it’s July and there hasn’t been a sales call for three days.”
Being outcome-based places the focus on efficiency, progress and refinement versus factors that do not necessarily impact the end goal like time spent online or in an office, because different objectives, roles and even seasons likely have varying time requirements. It’s easy for employers to find reassurance in the optics of work being done when you see physical bodies at desks, but they can also tangibly find that through ticket processes like Grant and his team has adopted. By establishing trust, effective communication and reliable systems to track progress and embracing fluidity, the only thing that matters is the quality and effectiveness of the work that’s being done.