Addressing the “Always On” Fatigue of Remote and Hybrid Working with Asynchronous Communication
“I miss working in the office, at least I was able to clock-off and mind my own business at the end of the day. But this last year of remote working, there’s been no boundaries between work and private life when working from home. I feel always on and so tired.”
“But now that hybrid working is kicking in, I am scared that this always on way of working is here to stay. Even on days we go in office, there won’t be that good’ol feeling of clocking-off work anymore… Always on…”
While surveys show that employees generally welcome remote working, there are equally many who feel its challenges and stresses; namely time management, difficulty to switch off after work, and where hybrid working has been introduced, FOMO (fear of missing out among team members working remote against those back in-office). These all contribute to the “always on” stress of work, which is the feeling of helplessness that you don’t have control over your own clock.
It’s Time to Recognize that We Can’t Fully Replicate the In-Office Way of Working in Remote and Hybrid Working
One of the key reasons why the “always on” stress is prominent in today’s pandemic world is because most workplaces have been trying to operate remote and hybrid working simply as a replication or emulation of in-office working.
But this recreation attempt of in-office way of working in the remote and hybrid environment dysfunctions because of one fundamental differentiating factor: physical proximity.
Here’s an interesting survey we did in one of our workshops on hybrid and remote working.
In an in-office setting, if your boss wants to speak with you, they’ll just glance across the room and see if you’re available. And if you are, they’ll just approach you and start chatting. There’s a good likelihood that this expectation carries on even in remote working: the survey result demonstrates the strong willingness of people to respond to their bosses as real-time as possible, even on a Friday evening.
The importance to set clear boundaries between work and private life is no new advice from I-O (industrial and organizational) psychologists. Yet many people are experiencing that remote working is not helping, in fact making it even more difficult to maintain this healthy boundary.
I believe we need to recognize that a lot of things that used to work in the office do not necessarily work in the same way with remote and hybrid working, and that we need a conscious effort to create and learn new ways of working in this post-pandemic, “new normal” world.
This is where the concept of synchronous and asynchronous communication come into the picture.
Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication
Synchronous communication is our default, “natural” communication style.
Simply, it is real time conversations. Face to face conversations, phone and video calls and meetings are all forms of synchronous communication. If you’re chat messaging and getting responses real time, that’s synchronous communication too.
Asynchronous communication is all other forms of communication that doesn’t happen real time.
Exchanging hand-written letters is an old-school example of asynchronous communication. Today we use email, electronic messaging boards (such as Slack and MS Teams) and chat messaging (in non-real time) for this purpose.
And in today’s digital world, even more asynchronous communication is embedded in our day-to-day work. ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer resource management), and other business dashboards are forms of asynchronous communication. If you’ve worked on marking up someone else’s earlier draft of a Word document and saved it back on a cloud drive, that’s asynchronous communication too. People share and exchange information, which is communication, but not necessarily in real-time – this is how asynchronous communication works.
One key characteristic of asynchronous communication is that it requires tools and setting up of processes; i.e. it doesn’t come “natural” as in synchronous communication. First, as the communication will take place in non-real time, a place (platform) where information is captured and shared is needed. And second, a protocol for non-real time communication will need to be setup and educated to the team; someone has to setup the process and there’s a learning curve for all.
Digital whiteboards are powerful collaboration tools for creative teamwork, even if used in just a synchronous communication way (e.g. in virtual team meetings). However, the real power is in their asynchronous use – for example placing a design sketch for people to build on, and setting up “brain-spilling” containers for team members to “think alone together” on a common challenge. Facilitating such advanced use of digital whiteboards takes some learning and practicing.
Similarly, setting up a Kanban board (task board, workflow board) and a team process for updating and communicating with it is a significant endeavor.
How to “Activate” Asynchronous Communication in Remote and Hybrid Teamworking
Adopting a new process involves de-learning and re-learning. We are creatures of habit and learning a new behavior is painful. Leaders should be prepared that introducing a new communication platform and protocol will be met with initial resistance and a temporary reduction in productivity (the “J-curve” effect) before team members start to experience the benefits.
Whatever new asynchronous communication tool and process is chosen, the basic approach in instigating change is same. Start with the “why” by clearly communicating and aligning with the team the intent of the change, invest time and effort in training, implement without haste, check-in and reflect frequently with the team on progress and tweak things as much as necessary.
Eventually people will start recognizing that the real purpose of the asynchronous communication tools is to take the team’s synchronous communication to a whole new level. For example, if team members start feeling that the Kanban board (asynchronous communication tool) is making the “daily standup” (synchronous team meeting) faster, clearer and to the point, they will embrace and actively use the tool, making it part of their daily routine (i.e. habit formation).
Again, asynchronous communication exist to serve synchronous communication. And more context rich, aligned synchronous communication bring happiness to the team. Happy teams are succesful teams. Hence, setting up asynchronous communication is a key factor for building successful teams in remote and hybrid working.