Asynchronous and Synchronous Working, Attention Fatigue, and Striking a Good Work-from-Home Balance: Lessons from ‘Leading Remote and Virtual Teams’

It will be much harder to argue that people cannot work from home now they have proved they can.

I’m sure we’d all agree with Kevin and Alan Hall in their book Leading Remote and Virtual Teams: Managing Yourself and Others In Remote And Hybrid Teams or When Working from Home.

The authors argue that as people adapt to a new way of working — at least in the near term — leaders must decide how to make collaboration and creativity work in a world where the work-life boundary is more blurred than ever before.

One question that managers should answer is when, and how, remote teams should interact with each other so that tasks can be best organized throughout the day for maximum efficiency.

The book covers the concepts of synchronous and asynchronous working, and this is explained to the reader through the following analogy, which compares how relay and rowing teams operate:

In a relay race, we focus on our own performance and the handover to the next individual. In a rowing team, we are all in the same boat at the same time and need to coordinate closely to stay in rhythm and generate the best speed for the boat overall.

Let’s take a team of developers as an example, as we identify synchronous and asynchronous tasks.

Team meetings need to happen synchronously: everybody on the team needs to be available to collaborate at the same time, and employees are dependent upon each other to get their own work done.

In a Spoke-Hub model, each developer needs to be on the call to deliver their update to the team leader: what they were working on yesterday, what they’re working on today, and any blockers they need to report.

What about work that can be done asynchronously? The most asynchronous setup would be engineers working on their own user stories with minimal overlap between different parts of the application architecture. At the time of reading, I considered whether some of the benefits of cross-team collaboration might need to be traded a little so that there are fewer overlaps and the need for frequent communication, given the current work-from-home situation we find ourselves in.

It’s no surprise that the authors argue that asynchronous work is ideal for a work-from-home culture. The more tasks that can be made asynchronous, the better. They helpfully identify for us three kinds of interactions and the appropriate action to take to minimize the amount of synchronous work we have to do:

  • When only two people are engaged in a meeting, take the discussion offline.
  • When half the participants are engaged and the other half are not, create a sub-group meeting for the active members.
  • When one person is doing the speaking with no input expected from others, disseminate the information outside the meeting in an email/Teams announcement.

A team leader can easily identify when only a small group of people take up much of the discussion. However, one out-of-the-ordinary (though a little extreme) proposal offered by the book is to keep a list of people’s names and draw a checkmark next to their name each time they speak at a virtual meeting.

Managers should be conscious of employees who frequently join meetings for no other reason but to increase their visibility across a department. In the one-to-one sessions with their direct reports, team leaders should instead:

[…] stimulate a conversation about other visibility opportunities rather than simply attending unnecessary meetings

The book also draws into sharp focus the problem of attention fatigue in prolonged virtual meetings. It offers several simple suggestions for how to keep participants alert by giving them a task to perform every few minutes.

For example, in a sprint planning meeting participants need to provide an estimate for each user story under discussion. The moderator should call on people by name to give their opinion, or to seek agreement and understanding — see this Planning Poker article I wrote.

Before going into a virtual meeting, it’s also recommended to get everybody’s opinions up-front beforehand to help minimize the time taken to reach a consensus.

Team leaders should avoid giving opinions too early and instead facilitate discussions around points raised. Perhaps the moderator could divide half the team to research and defend one idea, while the other half does the same for an alternative solution.

On a final point, the book warns us that while we attempt to recreate those barriers between home and office life that we once had, we might inadvertently start to lose some of the benefits of the flexibility of working from home. I appreciated the following coaching questions provided for managers to ask their direct reports:

How do you organize your time boundaries?

What gets in the way and causes you to break these boundaries? How can you manage this?

What can you do to change the level of integration to something that works better for you?

I’ll conclude this article by echoing the following quote:

If our virtual meetings are poor our collaboration is poor. If we fix our virtual meeting, we go a long way towards improving our collaboration culture.

George is a software engineer, author, blogger, and tech enthusiast who believes in helping others to make us happier and healthier.

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