Already in 2002, Van der Meijden1 wrote on the basis of his research in education that asynchronous communication is a useful addition to the synchronous form. Synchronous communication mainly has a social function, while the exchange of (task-oriented) information mainly takes place asynchronously. Van der Meijden drew the cautious conclusion that it may be that asynchronous communication is stimulated by synchronous communication and can therefore proceed more efficiently. In the current ‘hybrid work’ context, the question seems to be reversed: can synchronous communication be more effective by creating more space for asynchronous work? Can we work more effectively together and increase the quality of conversations and meetings by doing (preparatory) work individually, asynchronously?
Education has been experimenting and testing new forms of information and knowledge exchange for some time now. One of the forms in which this happens is also called the flipped classroom (see box). The phases of a student project are similar to the phases of a collaborative knowledge worker project and show that the degree of asynchronous work depends on the development phase of a team. The literature shows a clear correlation with the degree of uncertainty about tasks and roles and the phase in an innovation process and project.3 The less uncertainty about tasks and roles, the more asynchronous and remote coordination can take place, according to research in innovation projects. 4 After the start-up phase, everyone can start independently to achieve the discussed goals. This can largely be done asynchronously, as colleagues are contacted when necessary to ensure the right connection between ideas and work. After such a period, the team meets again to collect things, analyze whether the whole is correct and complete, and evaluate process and content. Thereby, a wave movement is created, where synchronous work is particularly important in the initial phase of a form of collaboration.
Advantages of working asynchronously
Working asynchronously (not simultaneously) indicates that knowledge workers perform activities independently of direct coordination (synchronously) with other knowledge workers. Asynchronous work allows for (concentrated) solo work, but also includes non-synchronous communication (such as e-mail, sending voice messages or chat). Periods or moments of synchronous and asynchronous work alternate and need each other. The trick is to find an optimal rhythm with a good balance, suitable for the work, the team and the person. Such rhythm and balance benefits the efficiency and quality of the work. Space for asynchronous work also provides flexibility in the agenda, both for work and private activities; it provides the opportunity to adapt working patterns to personal needs and circumstances and contributes to spreading the working hours. This provides opportunities to avoid rush hour and a more balanced distribution of office occupancy.
Productive interaction between synchronous and asynchronous work
Working asynchronously offers particular advantages in situations where there is trust in the collaboration: where standards and trust are present. The frequency of being together and working synchronously decreases and the degree of working asynchronously increases; see figure 2. To achieve this, three prerequisites must be in order: Agreement on a clear minimum structure, a strong culture of trust and a physical and digital working environment that facilitates contact and freedom of choice.
Prerequisite 1: minimal structure
Knowledge work is characterized by a high degree of autonomy, which is necessary to be able to make independent decisions, be creative and function flexibly.5 Fixed rules can quickly become obstructive and therefore counterproductive. The rules you agree on must be chosen very precisely – effectively as a guarantee for sufficient cooperation and sufficient solo work. But above all, no more rules than strictly necessary; excess hurts. Rules work best for independent knowledge workers if those involved develop, monitor, evaluate and, if necessary, adjust them themselves (as a team).
The key question is: what is a minimum structure that fits the work and the people?
What is the ‘physical minimum’ to ensure social connection – how often and for how long should we get together physically? To what extent are fixed agreements necessary to ensure that we can reach each other, even remotely, when necessary? But also: how do we ensure that there is enough time for solo work, relaxation and private activities, in a rhythm that suits our different personal needs and circumstances? The best answers often excel in simplicity. For example, there was once a project management and consulting firm (back in the 1990s) where the social bond was maintained excellently with just one simple rule: if you are in the office at noon, join the group for lunch and basically talk about things other than the work in progress.
Whether a well-thought-out minimal structure works well depends on the work culture.
Working more asynchronously requires a culture where people give each other a lot of space based on trust and responsibility. Space to ‘do your own thing’ and to visit each other when it contributes to effective collaboration and social connection. In a strong culture, the latter goes without saying – you don’t go to the office because you dutifully follow the rules, but because you take responsibility for contributing to a well-functioning team; it’s just part of your job. In a strong culture, the importance of adequate social contact is not in doubt; the agreements (minimum structure) are then a means of ensuring that this actually happens in an efficient manner. This culture also ensures that everyone feels free to take control of working hours and locations outside of the minimal structure.
There are significant cultural differences between organization and teams, related to the (history of) the sector, work, management and people. Yet there are also clear similarities between Dutch organizations that are related to our national culture. Equality and individual freedom are important values in this regard, and as people we are prone to informal manners where we try to reach consensus through much consultation and direct communication.6 This characteristic contains advantages and disadvantages when it comes to working asynchronously. An advantage is the general drive to want to do things together, to participate in consultations and partnerships; this helps prevent the organization from becoming loosely true. The downside, however, is that it sometimes spills over into processes where everyone wants or needs to be involved in everything, and where a lot of time is spent – synchronously! – reach a “supported” conclusion (often a compromise). Another advantage is that providing space based on trust and responsibility fits well with our egalitarian and individual freedom-oriented culture. Unfortunately, this medal also has a flip side: Equality is often defined in our traditions and rules based on ‘equal monks, equal hoods’ and fear of ‘precedent’; we prefer to make rules rather than exceptions. While working asynchronously, it requires adaptation based on individual differences.
The idea that everyone (with the same position) must work in the same way quickly creeps into this cultural context.
In today’s debate, we often hear that people should do individual work at home, only to go to the office for social interaction. While the great victory of contemporary ICT and management philosophies is precisely that people can and are allowed to work in different ways, adapted to their activities and personal needs and circumstances. The working environment in the broadest sense of the word must be able to facilitate these diverse ways of working.
Prerequisite 2: facilitation of contact and freedom of choice
Asynchronous work requires ICT, housing and facility services that support contact and freedom of choice. Contact, aimed at the exchange of information, knowledge and ideas, can sometimes be face-to-face, but should basically be facilitated by a sufficient digital working environment. A ‘digital first’ approach ensures that you are not dependent on face-to-face contact to stay up-to-date and that you have access to information and colleagues anywhere, anytime. In addition, it provides alternatives to synchronous live contact (online/hybrid consultation, (video) call, chat), which allows you to make an informed choice when working in which location.
For many knowledge workers, the home workplace is now a full-fledged alternative to the office or even the primary workplace. It can be an excellent place for solo work and online contact, but it depends on the circumstances (workplace, roommates) and on the person. The many studies on working at home during the shutdowns revealed large individual differences.7, 8 For some, it is more comfortable and efficient to use a coworking space or a quiet place in the office for solo work and online contact, for example because facilities are better there than at home, or because the presence of ‘pityers’ is experienced as stimulating.
Facilitating freedom of choice in the office environment advocates the use of an activity-related workplace concept with different, non-personal work and meeting places that are arranged for different activities or needs.
It is important to offer real freedom of choice in the form of clearly different and well-separated places, in sufficient numbers, where you can optimally focus on a specific activity. The distinction between working solo and working together is also crucial here. In addition, a well-furnished office is the place to maintain social contact. It is the physical part of the minimal structure with a look and feel that matches the work culture.
- Meijden, H. van der (2002). Communication in Euroland; A combination of synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication in a three-dimensional virtual world. Living Languages Magazine, 3(2), 34–41. views/615
- Bishop, JL, & Verleger, MA (2013). The Flipped Classroom: A Survey of the Research. 120th American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, 30, 1-18.
- Tuckman, B. (1965). Development process in a small group. Psychological Bulletin 63(6):384–99. journals/bul/63/6/384/
- Painter, G., Posey, P., Ausstrom, D., Tenkasi, R., Barret, B. & Merck, B. (2016). Sociotechnical systems design: coordinating virtual teamwork in innovation. Team Performance Management, 22 (7/8), 354-369.
- Davenport, T. (2005). Thinking for a living: How to get better results and outcomes from knowledge workers. Harvard Business School Press.
- Beugelsdijk, S. (2019). International comparison of norms and values, Chapter 9 of the Social and Cultural Report 2019 ‘Thinking of the Netherlands’. Social and Cultural Planning Office. Netherlands
- SER (2020). Working from home in the corona crisis; SER meeting perception surveys. other-publications/2021/homeworking-in-coronacrisis.pdf?la=nl&hash=7E4118F2568F48DCEEFFCFDFC534312C
- TNO (2021). Work from home; Risks, health effects and measures. uuid%3A800cc0eb-d0d3-446b-94a9-219d15a12e79