Q&A with MURAL's Head of Culture & Collaboration: Laïla von Alvensleben
@lailavon is the Head of Culture and Collaboration at MURAL, and she comes into that position with a wealth of knowledge about all things remote collaboration. She is also an amazing member of the MURAL Community Forum. She sat down with our community managers to talk async collaboration.
What are the benefits of working asynchronously?
It’s more efficient. The first benefit most people see is the ability to work across the globe. I was introduced to async work because my team was working in different time zones. If you do it well, your company runs 24/7.
If you think about a global team working together as in a relay race, people in Asia Pacific start the day and pass the baton along until the end of the last person’s day in the Western hemisphere and the beginning of the next day in Asia Pacific. This benefits companies and customers since there is always someone on our team working on our projects.
It’s more effective. Once you get into the habit of working async, the time spent working synchronously is not wasted.. You can focus that time you spend together on removing roadblocks and moving projects forward. In the times you aren’t meeting, you can work more deeply on your own.
It’s better for people. I work in Europe but most of my collaborators are in the Western hemisphere. I set my schedule so I can use my mornings for myself. I pay bills, go grocery shopping, etc, and I am online and ready to work with my colleagues around 11am CET. By planning my day to make the most of my free time, my autonomy is valued.
Becoming comfortable with async collaboration requires a shift in how you manage and work with people. You cannot collaborate effectively if people don’t have the freedom to do the work they are asked to do. This shift benefits everyone. Autonomy empowers people, and empowered people are happier.
Time zones force you to work this way, but the principles work wherever you are located. People have activities, kids or relatives to take care of, and times of day they work better in. If you remove some of the synchronous meetings, people get work done faster because they can do it when they are most productive.
What are some best practices for teams just getting started with async work?
Expectations change with async work. Your job as manager is to enable the team, not direct. You are empowering them to self manage and deliver in their own time. You're helping people build time in their day to get the work done. You have to depend on the person's word or commitment, and they have to depend on you.
So, start with an agreement. If you have a team charter, iron out a section on how you communicate. Have everyone describe their needs, concerns, and ways of working. Map out what tools you are using, how you are using them, and what you are using each one for. Is it external? Is it internal? Is it synchronous or asynchronous? Be crystal clear.
Once you have a plan, focus on making small incremental changes and running experiments to find out what works best for your team. This is often a new way of working for people, and we want the habit to stick. Run the experiments for 30 days, do retrospectives to evaluate your progress, and iterate.
The biggest challenge to all work is time. It’s a finite resource so as you’re making agreements, figure out how to create time and space for async work. Everyone will be different. I block time on my calendar, a lot of my coworkers use Clockwise. What works for one person won’t work for others so it’s critical people try different methods to meet the same objective.
As you are doing this, document. Start early and keep the documents alive by adding your learnings. This will be useful for your team to refer to as well as a helpful manual on how you work when you onboard new hires.
What are some pitfalls teams should try to avoid?
Don’t isolate yourself too much. Use the time you save to build intentional relationships. You are on your own a lot, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make time to speak to your teammates, customers or anyone else in your network. Loneliness is the biggest challenge of remote teams. So, make it a priority to build connection into both your asynchronous and synchronous time.
For your own work, don’t start new tools without informing your team. It’s OK to experiment but don’t work in a silo. Remember you are part of an ecosystem so reach out to others and communicate any important changes you’re making to how you’re working if it impacts them.
Keep in mind that communication is cultural and personal. This is true in sync or async. I work a lot with Argentinians. When they send me a Slack message, they start with a genuine, “Hi, Laila! How are you!?” Then they usually wait for me to reply to ask me something. People from the US tend to just dive in. Communication norms are different depending on our culture and this will influence async work. It may slow things down or require a few more steps.
Are any organizations doing async really well yet? Who is inspiring you?
- Workplaceless - They have a distributed team and specialize in learning content and async work, using the skills they practice in house. Their content, workshops and self-paced courses are really helpful.
- Doist - They created a product, Twist, that is an async messaging tool. I read an article of their CEO who shared his calendar, and there were no meetings. Their blog content also focuses on how to build human connections in an async work environment which is really inspiring.
- Buffer - I’ve always watched them from afar. It’s one of the first remote companies that I heard of when I started working remotely. They’ve always been really transparent about how they work and I’ve heard really good things about the async culture there.
- Hanno - I’m an alum! It’s a small product design company where I started my learning. They are a global team that has always been remote. One process (Plans, Progress, Problems) kept us in sync as we worked at totally different times. The first person would start a new Google Doc every day and add a bullet under each heading at the end of their shift, then the others would do the same. The last person to end the day would send it to the customer to keep a daily track of what we were working on. It was a simple and easy way to always know what everyone else was doing even if we didn’t overlap in our time.
Much gratitude to Laïla for all these thoughtful answers. Do you have any questions about working async?