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| 7 minutes read

Learning from asynchronous collaboration: Thriving at work (blog 1 of 3)

Written with Will Monaghan, Director of Operations, NHSX.

Almost a year ago, we wrote a blog How to Avoid Sleeping in the Office: Virtual Working for the Long-Term. Since then, we have been experimenting with different ways of working to maximise the quality of our experience in Horizons. 

Each week at our Monday team huddle, we start with a discussion about our team wellbeing (an item which always sits at the top of the agenda). At these Huddles, we look at wellbeing data collected at the end of the previous week in our weekly ‘wellbeing survey’ and reflect on how we can work better together. Through this process, we develop our self-awareness as a team and discover improved ways of working.

Both the team’s interest in health and care improvement as well as our own wellbeing considerations have driven us to focus on and experiment with what are increasingly being referred to as asynchronous working methods. If we consider asynchronous collaboration to be about communicating and relating*, this definition is helpful:

 “Asynchronous communication is the relay of information with a time lag. Discussion forums and email are two examples of how asynchronous communication is employed.”

Figure 1 gives some examples of the differences between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and the platforms we are using on a regular basis with our stakeholders and internally in Horizons. 

Figure 1: Some of the principle methods the Horizons team uses to collaborate and presents them on a spectrum from ‘synchronous’ on the left to ‘asynchronous’ on the right. Synchronous collaboration methods are those with little or no time lag between colleagues’ interactions, such as phone calls or video meetings. Asynchronous methods are those which tend to feature much longer delays in interactions between collaborators, such as working on live documents. It is worth noting that where these methods sit on this spectrum represents how the horizons team use and interpret them. 

We have observed three positive cultural shifts, that we think have occurred as a result of our asynchronous approaches to work. In this blog, we share how asynchronous methods have enabled greater thriving at work. The next blog looks at the redistribution of power and the third describes how asynchronous working has enhanced opportunities to live our values. In all three blogs, we also provide some tips for good practice on how to adopt similar ways of working.

In September 2020 we started to monitor how well team members were managing their home/work boundaries via our weekly team wellbeing survey. Between September 2020 and February 2021 very little change occurred, with a third of the team often reporting that they were not managing their home/work boundaries very well (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Weekly Horizons team data in response to the question: “How well have you managed your home/work boundaries this past week?”

When we noticed this lack of improvement, we began to ask some fundamental questions about our team culture. For example: 

  • Do we have appropriate boundaries both within work and between working/personal life? (And how can we support each other to create and maintain these?)
  • How do we learn more about what makes each of us thrive?
  • What team habits will enable us to reflect on, and learn from, our individual experiences so that we can continue to improve the experience of working at NHS Horizons?  

Through these discussions, we have discovered that asynchronous working methods present more opportunities for us to get things done at times that suit our individual preferences, reducing time lost through having to coordinate with colleagues. This enhances opportunities to get into, what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (2013) has identified as, the ‘flow state’. In this state, individuals both maximise their productivity whilst also achieving the greatest satisfaction. The team over at Threads, an asynchronous communication platform, has also given some thought to what flow looks like at the level of the team:

 "Flow is the magical state where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For many startups (especially us), it’s the competitive advantage.

 "You get flow when everyone feels safe, secure and empowered to do their best work. You get it when people know the company is on the right track, when they know how to navigate/operate/communicate within the team, and when they know they're on the right path to maximize their value/personal growth."

Sounds pretty good, right?  This recent quote from a Horizons team member indicates one way in which a flow state can be experienced at work:

 “[Being able to work when I want] enables joy at work – e.g. I prefer to catch up on reading and Twitter outside of hours - in bed on a Saturday morning with a cup of tea - makes it a pleasure not a chore and therefore a better way for me to distribute my energy.”

Digital methods allow us to blend synchronous and asynchronous methods more effectively, thereby optimising collaboration whilst maximising individual preference. Achieving the right mix for our team is what we need in order to thrive whilst navigating increasingly complex work/home boundaries. As acknowledged by Lynda Gratton's excellent summary of 'hybrid work', asynchronous working is largely seen to be about productivity and its constituent parts: energy and focus. 

By having more choice over what we work on when, we can make sure we work to fit our own energy cycles. More control over our time also means fewer distractions, and therefore greater focus. It can also lead to a reduction in common grievances such as unnecessary time spent in meetings, lack of control over our schedules and inability to get on with the work that gives us fulfilment.

An asynchronous perspective replaces the longstanding value on people’s time spent working (e.g. presenteeism) with greater emphasis on the outputs and outcomes of their work. Will Monaghan, Director of Operations at NHSX, recently introduced us to the concept of 'virtual presenteeism' reflecting that “when you have a culture that rewards responsiveness over focussed work, you get virtual presenteeism. An example of this is when people are expected to always be available to answer emails. These kinds of behaviours may be filtering down from a system-level focus on outputs rather than outcomes”.

The use of asynchronous methods of communication like email clearly don’t automatically result in flow and thriving at work! Whilst asynchronous methods have encouraged us to challenge traditional assumptions about how we measure value at work, we recognise that we also need to be working in an environment where we feel appreciated and valued for our contribution and participation, not just our presence.

Will cited some practical examples of asynchronous working methods and the impact of their use on his team: “We’ve gotten into some good habits over the last year that have been game changing for us. The primary one is using Google Workspace [in NHS Horizons we use Microsoft Teams] to work on docs or slides together. Here we can make edits directly or work on the same thing at the same time. We also use the comment feature to flag important things to others in the team, to question where we’re not sure or to debate what’s working and isn’t. This is a great way to have the discussion on content without needing to be together at the same time. When we know what we’re doing or when it’s due to go, someone will resolve the comment, so everyone knows it’s done.”

Working openly in this way both contributes to and relies on psychological safety in teams. Lechner & Tobias-Mortlock (2019) looked into the challenges of virtual teams and what we need to connect effectively as human beings. They concluded that in virtual teams “you need to focus more deliberate attention on learning how to make a team feel psychologically safe when it is virtual, because you cannot rely on it to emerge organically over time”. Horizons recently produced a practical guide to Building Psychological Safety in Health and Care, which shares ways to increase psychological safety in teams and systems. As our experience with asynchronous communication grows as a team, we are reflecting that the significance of asynchronous working lies not just in greater efficiency and effective use of our time, but in calling attention to our behaviours and values as a system.

In the next blog in this series on asynchronous working, we consider how our journey towards adopting asynchronous methods has encouraged a redistribution of power.




Psychological Safety

Definitions of synchronous/asynchronous


Definitions of collaboration

Featured Image by Djim Loic, Unsplash