Asynchronous management is the future, and it’s not just for distributed teams

Adam Berke

Here’s a common scenario that might sound familiar. 

You’ve got a five person team sitting at desks in an open floor plan. 

For the sake of this example, let’s say it’s a Sales team (though the scenario repeats in all departments.) The manager of this Sales team gets out of his or her one-on-one with the VP of Sales and comes back to the “pod” and announces, “hey can everyone update their pipeline? The finance team needs to finalize the forecast.”

So what happens now? 

Everyone on the team was presumably working on something else. Perhaps someone was in a groove and doing some of their best work. Perhaps someone was finally about to work on that important thing they’d been putting off. Does everyone just drop what they were doing? 

Having an updated sales forecast is definitely important for the company, and it’s a task that needs doing, but clearly this isn’t the best way to convey such a task to the team. Yet this type of “management by interruption” is so common, we hardly notice when it happens. We’ve just accepted it as part of the frustration of work life. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Management by interruption has become an expected workplace annoyance as illustrated in this scene from office space with bill lumberg

Management by interruption has become an expected workplace annoyance.

The increased proliferation of distributed teams is showing us management best practices that we should have had all along if it weren’t just so easy and tempting to interrupt people. One common theme to emerge is moving from “management by interruption” to “asynchronous management.” 

With distributed teams, you can’t just say things out loud and assume everyone will get the message. And because people are often in other time zones, you need to be more thoughtful about prioritization and sequencing since everyone won’t always be online together at the same time.

Asynchronous management means that instead of having every task immediately announced (and yes, this includes Slack @ mentions and DMs too) any work that needs to get done gets added to a shared work list between employee and manager where it has a priority level, an owner assigned, and a due date. This is what we had in mind when we built Charma, but there are other solutions as well (though we think they’re either too heavy or too hacky.)

📚 Learn more in our article Asynchronous communication: What is it and how can you use it effectively?

Using a prioritized list with ownership and due dates is a simple shift with massive returns.

Using a prioritized list with ownership and due dates is a simple shift with massive returns.

This simple change from “management by interruption” to “asynchronous management” delivers several key benefits:

1. It forces prioritization

As the saying goes, “when everything is a priority, nothing is.” Implementing a system where tasks need to be added to a shared priority list forces the manager to consider everything else the employee has on their plate. Not only does this ensure that the most important things are done first, but it also builds empathy between a manager and their report since everything the person has on their plate is crystal clear to both parties. 

We also see that if tasks are prioritized by default, frequently when it comes time to work on a task, it actually no longer needs to be done! Things have changed, priorities have shifted, etc. This is a huge time savings compared to if the manager just @ mentioned everyone in Slack without thinking through prioritization first.

2. Fewer interruptions = more deep work

Every interruption comes at a cost. One study cited by the American Psychology Association found “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.” Cut task shifting on a 5 person team in half and it’s like getting a whole additional employee for free! Perhaps this is one of the explanations for why distributed teams get so much done even without the benefit of face to face collaboration.

3. Ensures accountability and reduces miscommunication

Even if the manager in the example had said “hey, can everyone update their pipeline by this friday” so everyone knew exactly when they had to do the work, what does accountability look like? The manager still has no idea when the work actually got done (let alone the person in the bathroom who didn’t get the memo) and on the flip side, it’s hard for diligent employees to demonstrate their track record. So when it comes time for performance reviews, managers tend to rely on a subjective gut sense of performance tinged by recency bias instead of being able to consult a clear documented list of completed work. 

Switching to asynchronous management is a small shift, yet the gains in productivity, morale, and improvement in manager-employee relationships are massive. If this sounds appealing, be our guest and try Charma for free

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