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8 Tips for Working Async

January 21, 2022
Amanda Quintero
Senior Manager of Business Operations
8 Tips for Working Async
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

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When I joined Orbit, I thought “I’ve been working remote since covid started. How different can it be?”

Little did I know.

From corporate to startupland

I was stepping out of the financial world, having spent the better part of my last decade in banks, government agencies, energy companies, and exchange trading floors. In other words, I was used to large organizations and their iconic communication styles.

I spoke fluent corporate, had my own coffee/lunch routines with key folks from other departments to nurture handy backchannels, and above all, I had mastered the art of leading work meetings. Needless to say, I could use the entire Microsoft Office package with my eyes closed.

And none of that changed after covid hit. We simply stopped fighting over meeting rooms and conference call codes, as it all went into MS Teams. By the time I left my former job, I was hosting or attending 6 to 7 hours of daily meetings.

To paint a picture, shows like Suits and The Office felt more like documentaries than entertainment.

Next scene: enter the remote-first, asynchronous, geographically distributed startup.

What is going on?

The Orbit team is distributed between the US West Coast and Israel, with two large gravity centers: California and France. That means most teams face a 9-hour difference, and I was no exception.

I mostly worked with Patrick. He lives in San Francisco, I live in Paris. So, How was I supposed to communicate –and get things done– with this man on the other side of the world? Without asking either of us to do crazy hours, of course.

I resorted to my go-to technique: panic research.

The result: Google is littered with great and awful advice on how to work remotely. Some of it was helpful, most of it sounded like someone paid an intern to copy+paste what they read in other blogs without much value-added.

With time, I tried several tactics and learned lots from the Orbit team. Ten months later, I feel comfortable with the way we work and wouldn’t change it for the world.

The key is to dial-up intentionality in every interaction, as opposed to doing things out of habit because that’s how work has always been.

Async goes beyond remote

If you are struggling to re-invent work in the post-covid world, here’s my list of eight tips on how to start working [more] asynchronously.

1. Let go of the meeting mentality

First and foremost, accept that most meetings will go out the window for good.

With teams working across the world, and everyone doing flex hours, sync time –short for synchronous or real-time conversation– becomes difficult to schedule.

It’s time to get creative and use new tools.

2. Don’t expect real-time answers

Design processes and communications thinking you won’t get an immediate answer from your colleagues. This requires abundant documentation, use of automated notifications, plus a fair amount of patience and trust.

We all treat each other like responsible adults and assume that our colleagues will get back to us as soon as they can.

It requires that you adopt a service mentality with your team members. If your input is blocking someone else’s job, prioritize giving answers to unblock workflows.

Embracing that you won’t get an immediate answer will alleviate your omg-when-will-they-reply anxiety. Additionally, be aware that different cultures experience time differently.

3. The written word is king

Written comms demand we be mindful of the way we structure language, and that we carefully consider what we say and ask for.

Early on, we read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer in our book club –yes, we have a book club at Orbit. It was a useful framework to help us realize that we were facing the clash of two communication cultures: (1) low-context Americans, who strive for clarity; and (2) high-context Europeans, who tend to be more reserved and diplomatic, letting things be read between the lines.

We decided to adopt: be explicit as one of Orbit’s operating principles. When folks rely primarily on async text, devoid of tone, gestures, or setting, the best you can do is to spell things out as clearly as possible. You should also provide context generously, for instance: “In my language we say…”, or “In my country, when someone says X it usually means…”.

Additionally, we try to avoid misunderstandings using another operating principle: always assume good intentions, which motivates people to ask follow-up questions rather than sticking to their first impression.

For short comms: chat

At Orbit, we use Slack for internal communication. Here’s a list of things I find extremely useful when communicating on Slack:

a. Use headers and threads

Write a header in bold, then reply to the title in a thread. I use threads for topics that require a short conversation and I want to be able to search in the future. They act similar to internal emails.

b. Be explicit about your requests and input expectations

If you need someone to give you an answer, send you a doc, a link, or confirm they have read your message: ask for it. The other person shouldn’t have to read between the lines. E.g. Please send doc by EOD.

c. Consider using emoji codes

You can agree to use emojis in specific cases. For instance, if I send a 🚨  it means there is an emergency and I need input asap.

For longer convos: Google docs

Put your thoughts in a structured text in Google docs, or any other app that lets you comfortably comment and make edit suggestions.

Then, share the doc on a Slack thread (see above) and ask for input.

When you have agreed with everyone involved, document the decision in a short memo. We store decision memos in Notion.

Needless to say, everyone can benefit from honing their writing skills.

4. Spice things up with A/V

a. Video

Think of all the times you attended a meeting and wished you could press speed on the speaker’s forehead. Well, now you can give your listeners the opportunity to do so.

You can record a video or voice-over slides and share a link. At Orbit, we use Loom for internal videos and async presentations.

b. Whiteboards

Another great way to ideate async is to use collaborative virtual whiteboards. You can sketch, draw diagrams, create mind maps, or categorize post-its.

Sometimes one clear graph can save everyone the pain of enduring a long thread on Slack. We use Miro for visual collaboration.

5. Use sync time respectfully

Once you get used to working async, your bar for what requires sync time goes up.

For most people, speaking is the easiest way to express themselves and get to an agreement. If the best way to solve an issue is to jump on a call, do it.

However, before you send that Zoom invite think: could this meeting be a Slack message?

6. Track team tasks

Myriad software tools are available to track group tasks.

Some folks like Kanban boards (e.g. Trello), some use tickets (e.g. Jira), and others prefer proper PM solutions (e.g. Monday or Asana). I am a spreadsheet-type of person.

Use the tool that works for you and your budget, but use one.

It is important everyone on the team has access to a common, transparent place to see the status of group tasks at their convenience.

7. Use collaborative apps and notifications

All of this is topped with using apps that allow team collaboration. To be specific, at the time of writing we use 68 software applications at Orbit, all of which enable teams to perform tasks in the same workspace.

Collaboration is usually paired up with notifications to all team members. Depending on the app, they can be in-app, via email, or triggered with Zapier.

For example, if I make a transfer from Orbit’s bank account, a few people get an automated email with the transfer details. Even if this sounds like extra noise in your inbox, it’s crucial.

Notifications eliminate the need for updates or reports, and mitigate dependencies on a single point of contact. If everyone gets a notification, they’ll be able to run a quick search in their own inbox when needed.

8. Build trust and have fun

IRL, bonding and trust are built spontaneously. Over coffee, lunch, or standing by the proverbial water cooler. Being in the same physical space creates room for human interaction.

On the contrary, in an async world, you must make a conscious and intentional effort to nurture relationships.

Some of the things we do at Orbit to encourage team cohesion are:

  1. Regular 1:1s or sync time
  2. Scheduled mandatory fun, e.g. playing online games, an online improv class
  3. In-person meet-ups when possible
  4. Culture days and alignment sessions
  5. Virtual water cooler bot
  6. Donut app to introduce folks in smaller groups
  7. Make time for e-coffee breaks
  8. Birthday bot
  9. Encourage sharing on social channels, e.g. pics, books, music, games, etc.
  10. Channels to share async wins and celebrations

As you can see, these are just some pointers. Ultimately, it will always come down to what works for your organization. Maybe you won’t go full async, but perhaps your hybrid mode –part-time office, part-time wfh– can borrow elements from async work.

The specifics are not so important. The essential thing is to be intentional about why you want to adopt async tools and to be explicit regarding guidelines and expectations.

And if any of this hits home and you have a sudden urge to join the Orbit team [wink wink], go check out our open positions!

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