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Asynchronous working: a mindset shift

Asynchronous communication may appear to be a slower, less cohesive way of working, but with the right tools and management – and a little trust - it can raise your game, proponents argue

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As the UK moves to the next stage of unlocking its Covid-19 restrictions, organisations in the (re)insurance sector will be thinking about their own timelines for returning the majority of their staff to central offices.

While the exact ‘unlocking’ timetable across the UK varies from country to country, the expectation to date has been that remaining restrictions will have been lifted by late June. This seems less clear-cut now, with outbreaks of the ‘Indian variant’ of Covid-19 raising concerns of a ‘third wave’ of infection. As such, some employers may choose to take the government’s line and remain circumspect about when they throw open the office doors.

But, in truth, while social media is full of chatter celebrating the opportunity to re-connect with colleagues at a physical office and re-visit old haunts, many firms still appear to operating on the basis that the majority of employees can continue to work from home on a full-time basis, while making limited desk space available for those employees who either have a strong business case for being in the company office, or have an urgent need to escape their domicile and to re-impose that necessary divide between home and office life.

Whatever the ‘go live’ date for a mass return to the office turns out to be, one outside seems likely. Alongside a greater tolerance for flexible working, the (re)insurance sector has a growing awareness that so-called asynchronous working (also referred to as asynchronous communication) can have benefits for both the wellbeing of staff and their productivity, and deserves consideration as a longer-term prospect.

If you’re not familiar with the term asynchronous working/communication, then you may be familiar with the practice already; either through working with colleagues in other time zones, or, particularly during lockdown, through your employer enabling staggered working hours for colleagues with parenting, caring or other competing responsibilities.

Employers have become more flexible with regard to staff choosing to log on earlier and finish working earlier, to start later and finish later, or to take breaks during the day (for example, when dropping off/collecting children at school) and to then make up the hours in the evening.

“During the pandemic, Brit fully embraced asynchronous working and accepted this as the new normal,” says Lorraine Denny, chief engagement officer at the insurer. “We immediately recognised that our employees differ in their approach to working hours and that we could boost productivity and engagement through meeting our people’s diverse range of needs.”

A key part of this process, says Denny, was giving employees “permission to set boundaries”. In practical terms, this involved issuing staff with a boilerplate response to attach to their email signature, which lets colleagues and customers know that they might not immediately receive a response due to Brit’s flexi-working policy and, Denny says, “reduces the feeling of guilt at not always being online at the desk”.

Collaboration

However, one of the concerns raised about asynchronous communication, is that it is not only slower, but also potentially less collaborative and more likely to leave colleagues feeling isolated, as a recent BBC article outlined.

The second of these points largely depends on your definition of ‘collaboration’. A team approach to completing a task will arguably involve different colleagues working on different aspects of that task, perhaps at the same time but at a different pace, or they may even be reliant on a colleague to finish their portion of the task before they can begin their own.

It emphasises a mindset shift from a focus on hours, to a focus on outputs. As long as deadlines are being met, the traditional 9-5 no longer needs to apply

Good communication is key to the success of any joint endeavour, but this communication doesn’t necessarily need to be instant. And nor does an asynchronous working pattern imply that colleagues with different schedules won’t significantly overlap with each other - simply that their schedules won’t always run in parallel.

It is entirely possible to have a conversation about a project in real time - on the phone or via video conferencing - to allocate individual tasks that are subsequently performed over a staggered time frame, but with a final target deadline for all work to be completed.

“It emphasises a mindset shift from a focus on hours, to a focus on outputs, with teams recognising that as long as deadlines are being met, the traditional 9-5 no longer needs to apply,” says Denny. “This has made asynchronous working more productive and durable, and we’ve noticed a hugely positive impact in the way teams meet and service client needs.”

“We’re also seeing teams playing to one another’s strengths,” she continues. “Early-risers are more comfortable with being online from daybreak, while night-owls are taking advantage of the quietness of evenings to complete their work. Asynchronous working has complemented the body-clocks of the individual, which has increased the attentiveness, enthusiasm and productivity of our people.”

As Bart Patrick, managing director at Duck Creek Technologies, notes, there is a lot of technology embedded in the modern office that makes both asynchronous communication and flexible working as efficient as real-time, face-to-face interactions.

“We’ve always had SharePoint and things like that, but we’ve made significant advances operationally in terms of how we use SharePoint and different technologies for document management. We’ve become really good at using things like OneNote and the collaboration features within the Microsoft Office suite,” he says.

“We were working late as a team on an RFP a few months ago, and I could see people popping up and working on the same document, and it was truly marvellous – the tools are there to collaborate.”

Already asynchronous?

Another key point made in the BBC article above is that asynchronous and remote working are not necessarily coterminous. Many workplaces already had staggered working hours in place before lockdown, where some staff would, for example, come in earlier and leave earlier to accommodate parental/caring responsibilities, or would only work three or four days per week, as agreed with their line manager and HR team.

Asynchronous working has complemented the body-clocks of the individual, which has increased the attentiveness, enthusiasm and productivity of our people

“We’ve been doing this since I joined the company three years ago, so when it got to lockdown we were fine, because we’re well practised at it,” says Patrick. “Before lockdown, we tended to be at our office in the City 2-3 days a week. There was no compulsion to be there and in fact you’d find the place was quiet on Mondays and Fridays.”

Even if everyone in the (re)insurance market returns to the office full-time – which is starting to look increasingly unlikely – it is likely that some degree of asynchronous working patterns are likely to remain.

“Pablo Picasso said ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’ and that is what has happened to us,” says Ana Isabel Benavides, group head of labour relations at MAPFRE. “The pandemic ‘found us’ in the middle of our work and led to us having to move faster through the steps we had planned, but with a solid basis regarding what we've already achieved. For years we've implemented a flexible working schedule (among other measures) that is enjoyed by 83 percent of the global workforce, as well as a hybrid model of remote working.”

Benavides says MAPFRE launched what it calls its ‘Digital Challenge’ initiative more than three years ago, giving around 90 percent of the workforce the means and capacity to work remotely, and, she says, “making employees more agile and effective when it comes to executing projects”.

“Furthermore, as we are a global company with a worldwide presence, we have already adapted to managing the activity of our schedules and we have practices and procedures in place for this,” she says.

The downsides

However, as we covered in a previous Insider Engage article on future working practices, there are lingering concerns that widespread hybrid working may unintentionally discriminate against some in the workforce.

For example, those whose domestic situation isn’t conducive to home working, those whose wellbeing might be impacted by continued absence from the office, or those whose performance, career development or promotion prospects might be hampered by a lack of facie-to-face contact with colleagues.

Another concern – one that most home workers over the past year can relate to - is the blurring of boundaries between office hours and leisure hours.

For executives like Duck Creek’s Patrick, working across time zones is often a given, as he works with colleagues in the UK, Spain, India and the US.

“My day has got longer and it’s packed, back-to-back. I’m perpetually late at the moment,” he admits. “I talk to many people in similar positions to me and one of the biggest problems we have now is time management. But it’s down to us to be disciplined about how we manage our work, life, meetings and how we do the ad hoc stuff with our staff.”

Furthermore, says Brit’s Denny, “asynchronous working presents an immediate challenge of maintaining the sense of togetherness and belonging that employees feel when engaged in the traditional 9-5 in the office”.

She says her firm has tackled this head on by giving training and support to managers to help them “understand how to bring their people together in a hybrid world, create unity and moments of connection”.

“Looking after the mental health of employees is a much harder task when we aren’t seeing our people in person as frequently,” she says – highlighting the particular challenges of a virtual workplace where “it is even more difficult if employees don’t switch on cameras”.

“In that instance, managers need to be really attuned,” she says.

Making ‘work’ work

Given these challenges, it is not difficult to see why many employers and employees are keen to return to the office to regain that clear delineation between workspace and home space.

However, in doing so, the (re)insurance industry should perhaps avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater and cutting down on asynchronous communication at the same time as reducing home or hybrid working.

As a Forbes article from last December argues, asynchronous communication can be a positive aid to productivity if properly managed and implemented alongside synchronous communication.

Depending on the task or type of work being carried out, the article’s author suggests, employers should consider three different approaches: ‘synchronous and collaborative’ (such as your typical team meeting, whether face-to-face or over a video call); ‘asynchronous and collaborative’ (where team members supply written updates on progress – or update a shared document); and asynchronous and independent (arguably, how many journalists work much of the time).

According to the Forbes article, reducing reliance on “synchronous meetings and messaging” also gives employees the option of “time for deep work, and thoughtful responses, while enabling a more seamless employee experience regardless of location and time zone”.

A continuation of asynchronous working also employees to continue balancing the relationship between work and home life, while continuing to be an effective employee.

As Denny observes: “It emboldens our employees to make ‘work’ successfully work for them, by allowing them to accommodate family and childcare needs around their usual roles and tasks.”

Duck Creek’s Patrick suggests that “Being tolerant, flexible – it’s all part and parcel of being a human being.

We're moving toward less vertical and more horizontal models, which are more sustainable, more digital, and more flexible

“Treat people like adults and they will act like adults, given clear objectives, ways of working and the support infrastructure,” he adds. “How they get to doing it - how they collaborate, how they work - is down to them, within reason.”

Even if some firms are resistant to the idea of more flexible working – including asynchronous working – after a return to the office, events may overtake them

“The world has changed, society has changed,” says Benavides. “We're moving toward less vertical and more horizontal models, which are more sustainable, more digital, and more flexible to quickly adopt client transformation.”

“We - the people and organisation managers - are creating strategies and plans that make this process fluid and, in that new relationship agreement, we have certainly thought of individuals in a holistic way, not just as workers.”

Back to the office

Along with working practices, the physical layout of some offices is likely to have changed for good – whether to make more room for the collaborative spaces that employees missed during home-working and/or to devote less room to standard workstations, as more people look to work from their home for some portion of the week.

One contentious issue around how far to progress with asynchronous working is the level of trust employers are willing to place in their staff. Arguably, knowing that your employees are at their desk in the office for a set number of hours per day, and days per week is no guarantee that they are working at the desired level or pace.

There is a concern, therefore, that the more paranoid employer might be inclined, with an increase in asynchronous communication, not to treat staff “like adults”, to use Patrick’s phrase, but instead to step up the level of monitoring of employee’s online behaviour.

Such approaches would not only be wildly inconsistent with organisations’ pledges to be more respectful of their employees and to pay more attention to their wellbeing, but also seem likely to be counterproductive. Presenteeism can be just as prevalent in a digital workplace as in a physical one. Monitoring employees working patterns and aggressively mandating set working hours also comes attached to some unpalatable reputational risks - as the recent revelations about H&M indicate.

At Duck Creek, Patrick says he intends to “take the brakes off more” when the team returns to the office. “Whereas before it was three days a week for core hours, our office is no longer a place we come to work, it’s a place we come to collaborate.”

Having been unlucky enough to have splashed out for an office refurb just before lockdown the company has the upside of now being “really geared up” for the transition to a more flexible, increasingly asynchronous way of working.

“We’re really lucky, in that we designed our office with this in mind, because we were already working fairly flexibly and when we did the office refit we spent quite a bit of money on the social area - which can be used for customer collaboration.”

What our people have been able to achieve while working asynchronously has been astounding

However, for all of the positives of asynchronous working to be realised, a careful and measured to implementation is needed.

MAPFRE’s Benavides stresses the need for a “defined plan, with the collaboration of the strategic areas” and, upon implementation of that plan in coordination with the HR team, “to implement [it] progressively so that the workforce can gradually adapt to the changes.

“This process should be linked to a change management plan and transparent communication,” she says.

Brit’s Denny adds that measuring employee preferences and gauging their experiences is “critical to making asynchronous working benefit everyone”.

She says Brit has been running weekly anonymous pulse surveys during the pandemic and has initiated a “return to office survey” to gauge “people’s excitement and anxiety about returning to the office” and to address any issues that arise.

“What our people have been able to achieve while working asynchronously has been astounding,” she says. “The way we have been able to overcome our physical and geographical distances and service our clients’ needs virtually has been truly inspiring.”

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