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Remote First, Async Second

As remote work becomes more widespread, companies are allowing employees to have greater control over their schedules.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
3 min read
Remote First, Async Second
Photo by Pawel Chu / Unsplash

God, grant me the serenity to accept the meetings I cannot avoid, the courage to decline the ones I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The previous sentence was one of my most-liked Tweets of 2021. I really hate meetings. I very much prefer to read rather than hear, I like to consume information at my own pace, and having anything on my calendar affect my ability to concentrate on whatever else I am trying to achieve that day. (I do love meeting my friends or new people, but that’s not work).

I’m not alone. Paul Graham is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of one of the world’s leading venture capital firms. In other words, he knows something about productivity, creativity, and peak performance. In 2009, Graham wrote an epic blog post about the difference between what he calls “maker’s schedule” and “manager’s schedule.”

Managers need to be constantly in touch. They need observe, instruct, receive updates, and provide feedback. They cannot be distracted because their whole day is one thing after another. For such people, meeting with someone is a “practical problem.” All it takes is to “find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.”

Makers' schedules are different. People who make things “generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.” For makers, “meetings are a disaster.”

The difference between the two schedules goes even deeper. Having a meeting on your schedule changes your whole mode of working. In Graham’s experience, if he knows his afternoon is going to be “broken up” by a meeting, he is “slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.”

They may sound finicky or peculiar. And it is. But the economy is increasingly dependent on the productivity of finicky and peculiar people. As I pointed out elsewhere, in the post-industrial world, the main unit of input is concentration. Creative work takes time, but more time does not necessarily equal a more valuable output. The best ideas come up when smart people are allowed to focus — on their own or with a small group.

Many makers work inside offices. But most offices hinder makers’ productivity. How could they not? The office as we know it is the physical embodiment of the manager’s schedule. It is a place for observing, instructing, receiving updates, and providing feedback. An office is a management tool.

And offices work as intended. They empower managers. But they handicap makers. They force makers to spend 1-2 hours a day commuting. And once they arrive, they distract them with small talk, meetings, and other surprises. Even away from the office, tools like Slack that attempt to recreate the office experience online are a source of distractions and stress.

As Steve Glaveski pointed out at the Harvard Business Review:

“The average person sends and receives about 121 business emails a day, spends about 23% of their time on unnecessary emails, and sends about 200 instant messages per week via platforms such as Slack. This dependency on email and instant messaging leaves people in a cycle of hyperresponsiveness, checking email once every 6 minutes as a result, and probably staying logged in to Slack all day long.”

The above does not sound like a recipe for peak performance. Many companies are starting to realize this — including Slack’s owners. Last week, Salesforce announced its third-ever “async week.” During this week, “everyone from senior executives to individual contributors are encouraged to cancel all meetings, with exceptions for critical business issues, training, and customer meetings.” This exercise aims to find “better ways to work and give employees more control over their workday.” Salesforce first tried this idea in 2021. As we head into the so-called New Normal, the company is doubling down and hoping that parts of the company could go async for whole weeks every quarter, rather than once a week.

Salesforce is not alone. Companies such as Twitter and Square are running similar initiatives. And remote-first companies such as Gitlab and Buffer are built from the ground up to ensure almost all work is done asynchronously.

It is no coincidence that remote-first companies are the biggest advocates of asynchronous work. Letting your people choose where to work is only the first step. The logical next step is empowering them to decide when and how to work. This does not mean that employees don’t talk to each other or never meet. It means teams and individuals are empowered to work in new ways and that actual meetings and get-togethers are deliberate activities that are often more intense, enjoyable, and meaningful.

This approach puts makers at the center and lets them focus unless there’s an explicit reason not to. It is the opposite of the current approach of designing workplaces and workflows around managers’ needs and letting employees focus only when they explicitly ask for it. It also explains why managers are so eager to get people back to the office while actual makers are keen to maintain and expand their newfound freedom.

As remote work becomes more prevalent, expect asynchronous work to grow in synch.

Have a great weekend.