Art: Charter

Working from Los Angeles with a team that’s mostly based on the East Coast, I’m no stranger to navigating time differences. I’ve gotten used to busy mornings, when most of my colleagues are just hitting their groove in the middle of their workday, and quiet afternoons, after they’ve all logged off.

But last month, I took asynchronous working to a new level, when I spent two weeks logging on from China.

China Standard Time is 13 hours ahead of EST, meaning that when I opened Slack at 9:00 am my time, many of my coworkers were done for the day and getting their kids ready for bed. And when it came time for me to sign off, most of the team was still soundly asleep. In between, I worked through a to-do list that was unchanged from when I was in the US, even if my setup was now drastically different.

When in California, even with the three-hour time difference, my day is punctuated with opportunities to collaborate synchronously with colleagues: editing one another in a shared Google Doc, brainstorming in project meetings, checking in during a quick synchronous conversation. In China, I lost the ability to jump on a call or shoot off a Slack message and expect an immediate response. The experience taught me a lot about how to make asynchronous collaboration most effective—and what leaders and managers can do to support employees on distributed teams.

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Here are my takeaways from my experience working from across the globe about making asynchronous work work, regardless of the size of time difference:

Use OOO plans as a model for async work plans.

Aside from clearing the plan with my manager and alerting our head of operations, I also followed Charter’s standard practices for employees taking vacation, parental leave, or other time off of work: I sent out a team-wide notice on Slack with the dates of my trip, my daily schedule, the best way to contact me, and any handoffs for time-sensitive requests. I also added a note in our shared team calendar and my individual calendar to avoid having to decline meeting requests while away.

Widely circulating my plans in advance gave my colleagues a chance to prepare for the change and send over any last-minute requests that required synchronous communication. (It’s a practice that Charter has standardized across the board with our #pto-coverage channel on Slack, where employees preparing to take PTO circulate their handoff plans for the whole company to see.)

For managers, it’s worth checking in with employees when they first make their asynchronous work request, walking through the key parts of a good async work or PTO plan and steps for circulating it with the team. People leaders can further normalize the practice by developing templates or checklists for managers to share with their teams.

Agree on shared definitions of urgency.

With workplace tools like email, Slack, and videoconferencing apps making knowledge workers more reachable than ever, it’s easy to build up an expectation that requests be fulfilled in the same time it takes to send a message from New York to Los Angeles (in other words, instantaneously).

But being on the other side of the world, there was a time lag of up to 13 hours for any requests and handoffs. And while that required more careful timeline planning on certain projects—an article draft that needed to be filed a day earlier than usual, for example—I didn’t find the delays that disruptive. For most requests, an ask made at the end of the day on one end was fulfilled by the morning of the next working day, which still gave everyone plenty of time to meet deadlines. On the rare occasions that I had a question that required a synchronous back-and-forth, I logged on for a few minutes around 9:00 or 10:00 pm before turning in for the night, and my colleagues did the same.

It forced our team to be more intentional with our asks, with clear deadlines and expectations, plenty of advance notice, and flexibility in timing and communication—all practices that benefit co-located, synchronous teams as well.

Longer term, it’s also helpful to agree at the team or organizational level on what “urgent” means. Consider including a section in an organization-wide culture document or team-level agreement on how to define it in action, with specific guidance that replaces vague terms like “urgent request” or “high priority” with concrete timelines like “end of day today” or “before the next budget meeting.”

Mimic asynchronous work schedules to bring focus time back to synchronous work.

While working asynchronously, I traded a steady barrage of messages and meetings throughout the day with very full email and Slack inboxes upon logging in. And while it increased the amount of time I spent sifting through messages and notes from missed meetings at the beginning of the day, it preserved the rest of the workday for uninterrupted focus time.

Because I was more productive during my workday, I found it easier to log off in time for the big events that brought me to China in the first place: my grandmother’s 90th birthday, my dad’s 60th, and quality time with other family I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic.

With new evidence of how-game changing uninterrupted focus time can be, I came back to the US with a new zeal for tactics Charter has previously covered to squeeze more focus time out of the workday. Having siloed communications to the first hour of my day for two weeks, practices like batch-responding to notifications and limiting checking inboxes to scheduled time blocks look a lot more feasible.

Managers can help employees adopt and maintain these kinds of boundaries by encouraging team members to write and circulate user manuals, brief guides to help workers share their preferences for communicating, giving and receiving feedback, and resolving conflict, among other helpful information about working with them. On an organizational level, people leaders can consider coordination hours and meeting-free days (For example, Charter’s coordination hours are 12:00 pm-4:00 pm ET, and we discourage all employees from scheduling meetings on Fridays.).

What really makes asynchronous work work is an already strong team culture that prizes flexibility, collaboration, and trust.

While advance planning, asynchronous collaboration tools, and mindful communication strategies made working from the other side of the globe easy, I also recognize that the schedule change created a burden for my colleagues, who had to pick up any time-sensitive requests in my absence and adjust their workflows to accommodate my temporary schedule.

But throughout my two weeks of asynchronous work and subsequent two weeks of PTO, I never felt any resentment or resistance from coworkers. In fact, my teammates seemed excited for my trip and eager to make our schedule differences work—a testament to a culture that prizes flexibility and full lives outside of work. Having dedicated systems in place eases the transition to some colleagues working asynchronously, but those systems only work if they’re built on a strong cultural foundation that includes a long-term commitment to building a rest ethic, modeling from leadership, and a collective commitment to respecting each others’ commitments outside of work.

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