True Asynch


In the previous meditation, Fighting for Time, I introduced the idea of time poverty, the sense that we never have enough time to accomplish all the things we need to do. In 2011, 70% of Americans reported they were time-poor. In 2018, the percentage of afflicted grew to 80%.

On a personal level, we are fighting for time. One way to think about it in the work context is the distinction between me-time and we-time, as I defined it last week:

  • Me-time is when individuals are focused on deep work -- writing, thinking, programming, planning, designing -- it's just someone working alone with the tools and artifacts of their trade.
  • We-time is when we are involved in communications with others -- meetings, calls, and working sessions; 1:1 or 1:many -- where the focus of the participants is split between the topic at issue (like discussing a project) and the many social aspects of the interaction (negotiation, arguing for and against ideas or propositions, establishing how the project will impact the project participants, and other social aspects of the topic at issue).

Clearly, organizations have a strong incentive to counter the trend of time poverty,  help workers concentrate on me-time, and drastically minimize we-time. But how?

Researchers Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley make a clear case for collectively defending me-time at the organizational level. The key is 'burstiness': a regime concentrating as much communication into as narrow a timeframe as possible:

Our research suggests that such bursts of rapid-fire communications, with longer periods of silence in between, are hallmarks of successful teams. Those silent periods are when team members often form and develop their ideas — deep work that may generate the next steps in a project or the solution to a challenge faced by the group.  Bursts, in turn, help to focus energy, develop ideas, and achieve closure on specific questions, thus enabling team members to move on to the next challenge.

Note that their argument is not a one-sided defense of individual me-time (a case I made in Fighting for Time). Instead, they observe that bursty communications are characteristic of high-performing teams. It's about the network effects of the group adopting a shared mindset about cramming as much communication as possible into a small window, where everyone is available and reacting to others' comments, questions, and concerns, making agreements, and moving ahead.

There are many ways this can go awry, however.

First, they argue we have to stop thinking that emails or Slack messages are asynchronous: something that can be handled at some hypothetical future moment when the recipient is ready to respond. That sounds liberating, but it's not. They state that people should resist this anti-pattern:

To communicate in a bursty manner, members of a team should avoid thinking of message-based communication, like email and texting, as asynchronous, with everyone simply sending messages to one another whenever they feel like it. Instead, they should align their work routines and then communicate in short periods when everybody can respond rapidly and attentively. That’s the route to higher performance.

So, a text or email fired off outside of the burst window may incur an attentional cost, if the recipient becomes aware of it, and is therefore distracted. But perhaps more importantly, in the gap between hitting send and receiving a response the sender has wandered off into other tasks, so that perhaps hours later the issue raised in the message is no longer front-of-mind.

Similarly, If I had sent the initial email to my colleague Bette, and she responded in the same send-it-and-forget-it approach, when I respond -- again, perhaps hours later -- it is no longer front of mind for her, either. She and I each have to bring the issue back into context, which breaks small pieces off our me-time. This turns out to create false asynchrony: yes, we are working asynchronously, but we are actually fracturing the benefits of true asynchrony. Better if I wait to send that message to Bette during the next burst window, when she and I can both pay deep attention to it and keep the issues in our respective fronts of mind.

True asynchrony, almost paradoxically, requires avoiding this pong game of supposedly asynchronous messaging, and instead organizing around tactics that encourage teams to move toward bursts of coordinative and cooperative interactions. This leaves larger chunks of time for focused work during the silent part of the day: true asynch.

Different teams and organizations might organize their bursts as a midday hour or so, or a morning and afternoon burst. Likewise, companies may declare burst-free Fridays so that people can get a full day of me-time. Each group and organization will have to work out specific details, like dealing with people in different time zones. But the core concept remains, no matter the situation.

Riedhl and Woolley also recommend increasing the "diversity of information" during bursty communications windows. In practice that means each message should contain a small set of topics. So if I have several independent issues I want to discuss with coworkers, I should break those into different, diverse messages. This makes the threads more focused, and information easier to find, subsequently.

But the enduring takeaway is that burstiness of communication is a critical element of attention-centered work culture, and is an essential bulwark to protecting people's me-time. Companies should certainly provide tools and techniques to underwrite true asynchrony, and taking the time to institute bursty communications is time well spent.

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