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How to master asynchronous leadership

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The shift in expectations around what a workplace must look and act like has changed. The conversation has moved beyond working at home or in an office. What’s emerging is a generation of workers looking to refine their own work/life balance unencumbered. At the same time, companies are looking to provide new levels of flexibility to retain their talent, attract talent without strict geographical limitations, and create happy, engaged, and productive workforces.  

According to recent Accenture research, 83% of workers feel a hybrid model is optimal and 63% of high-growth organizations have enabled productivity anywhere workforce models. 

The productivity anywhere model evidently works when it’s done right, but what do leaders do if a workforce isn’t rooted in a common location, timezone, or workplace cycle? How can leadership even function without these age-old frameworks to make sure that workflows don’t simply stall, communication doesn’t fall silent, and productivity doesn’t fall off a cliff?  

Fast-evolving workplaces can only be successfully led by leaders willing to evolve their own practices—to innovate themselves. The speed of change leaders are experiencing right now is, yep, I’ll go ahead and say it, unprecedented. It almost inevitably left many flat-footed. Seamlessly transitioning from leading an office-based, 9-5 workforce to a hybrid, schedule-transient one is a lot to ask.  

As the COO of a company that’s been operating with a fully remote workforce since its inception, I have a few ideas about the key skills leaders need to master.

Prioritize clear, disciplined communication

Imagine a reality where, as a leader, you were never able to have a live, real-time conversation with an employee or coworker. No opportunities for the nuance inherent with in-person conversations to confirm understanding of an idea, to flag indecision, or relay urgency. You’d never be there in the moment when they needed to make a quick decision or ensure ideas, plans, strategies, and cultural signals would have a fighting chance of successfully moving from one mind to another. In this setting, clear and disciplined communications would have an entirely new level of importance.

Most of us probably aren’t in this situation, but it can be helpful to think about how you as a leader would need to change your communication style in this scenario and start implementing best practices. One leadership approach, called Commander’s Intent, is worthwhile for asynchronous leaders. It trades off leader control for the expectation of followers taking decisive action in the face of ambiguity.  

The Commander’s Intent is a methodology where a leader describes a desired end state rather than a set of specific activities, the purpose of a task rather than each microelement that could potentially accomplish it. Rigid prescriptive action might work when leaders are in the trenches with everyone and can see firsthand the situational dynamics and issues that exist. In an asynchronous environment, there will be more blind spots. The specific routes to a desired end state will be harder to see and define for others. A clearly articulated intent can act as a far more reliable point of reference and unifying focus for team members looking for decisive direction. 

Stop buying technology and lean into digital workplace design

In order for a team to successfully function asynchronously, workplace technologies need to go beyond being tools and be intentionally combined to facilitate high-functioning, intuitive digital workplaces. How technologies can function becomes less important than how they are operationalized within the context of an organization. 

Let’s take the means of collaboration known as “a meeting” as an example. One common purpose of a meeting is to make decisions. The first thing many companies did when they started adapting to the pandemic was to “digitize” meetings, meaning they were simply moved from meeting rooms to Zoom. For a company attempting asynchronous work, this approach isn’t helpful. A meeting can be recorded and shared but doesn’t allow for active contribution from people not able to make it. Instead, imagine your organization as running on a continuous assembly line and implementing real-time conversation technologies where users can contribute on their own time.  

In our workplace, in order to get consensus on a question, we consciously moved from informal direct messaging within small select groups to the disciplined creation of dedicated discussion channels in tools like Slack. The simple act of creating channels means people will be able to enter a fully contextualized conversation, see all the history, all the previous discussions, and contribute to any part of it. This way of approaching technology looks and feels much more like building products than having a technology budget, and one critical task for leaders will be to move their skill sets in this direction. Even senior leaders that hold big technology budgets would benefit from basic product design or user experience training to understand how the relationship between humans and technology works. This enables leaders to create productive work environments for the people they are tasked to lead.  

Take responsibility for inclusion and facilitate scaled conversation 

Leaders all over are grappling with how to successfully instill organizational purpose and build a cohesive culture within a distributed workforce. It was already a problem for any company building a global workforce. The spontaneous interactions that are an intentional part of well-designed physical workplaces need to be made intentional in well-designed virtual and/or asynchronous ones.  

In the synchronous workplace, discussions are often facilitated in real time to ensure all voices are heard, perspectives are taken into consideration, and new ideas are built on top of other ideas. Ideally, a leader’s responsibility is to manage the meeting in a way that reduces bias based on who can speak up and whose ideas are considered.

In an asynchronous environment, leaders need to train themselves out of engaging others in real time because of perceived accessibility. Rather, they need to intentionally consider who needs to be included in a decision and allow enough time for decisions to be made to foster asynchronous contribution.  

In my current position, I built an annual strategy process based on a sequence of company-wide asynchronous conversations with the purpose of strengthening our cultural and strategic alignment. Over the course of one year, we run a strategy-informing conversation tapping into the collective intelligence of our remote workforce, asking what single important thing we should consider when building our strategic plan.

Using that to help inform decisions, senior leadership builds the annual strategy and when it is launched, we ensure that it is well understood and potential hurdles identified by a second company-wide asynchronous conversation. Halfway through the year, we activate the entire company in a conversation about our plan again to see where we are being successful and where we are falling short.  

This process is designed specifically to build inclusion, ideation, and contribution with our teams in a way that allows for asynchronous participation, tapping into collective intelligence, and reducing bias. In a virtual and asynchronous environment, it is almost impossible for an excluded person to become aware that they have been excluded (you don’t accidentally walk by a meeting room in an asynchronous workplace).  Therefore, asynchronous leaders need to practice “pulling in” versus expecting staff to “lean in” and accept inclusion as part of their core responsibility. This is probably the hardest skill of them all, but I think we can all agree that it is one we all have the responsibility to keep practicing, asynchronous or not.  

While there’s no silver bullet and no single answer to successful leadership in the new world of work, there is one simple truth: As workplaces change, so must their leaders. Innovative leadership requires innovation in leadership and those able to try, fail, iterate and try again will inevitably assemble stronger, more cohesive, and more successful businesses.

 Jessica Nordlander is the COO of ThoughtExchange.





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