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Ep 416: Asynchronous Working


For many people, remote working now feels like business as usual; however, most employers still haven’t evolved their working practices to embrace its advantages.

Adopting an asynchronous model or work has been something that remote-first companies have been doing for years, and there are proven benefits in terms of both productivity and wellbeing. So what are the strategic differences between synchronous and asynchronous, how does leadership work in an asynchronous model, and what steps should employers be taking to adapt to different ways of working in a remote world of work.

My guest this week is Liam Martin, founder of a remote-first company with people in 43 different countries and no office. He is a thought leader on asynchronous work and co-organizer of Running Remote, the world’s largest conference on building and scaling remote teams.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The difference in mindset between asynchronous and synchronous

• Advantages and disadvantages of asynchronous management

• Clarity and autonomy

• How did the early remote-first companies develop this way of working

• The rise of the introverted leader

• Reprogramming teams to work in a different way.

• Issues with hybrid and the problem of distance bias

• First steps to take to become autonomous

• Long term implications of remote working

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

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Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 11s):
Hi there, this is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 416 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. For many people, remote working now feels like business as usual; however, most employers still haven’t evolved their working practices to fully embrace its advantages. Adopting an asynchronous model or work has been something that remote-first companies have been doing for years, and there are proven benefits in terms of both productivity and wellbeing. So, what are the strategic differences between synchronous and asynchronous? How does leadership work in an asynchronous model? And what steps should employers be taking to adapt to a different ways of working in a remote world of work?

Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 57s):
My guest this week is Liam Martin, founder of a remote-first company with people in 43 different countries and no office. He is a thought leader on asynchronous work and co-organizer of Running Remote, the world’s largest conference on building and scaling remote teams.

Matt Alder (2m 16s):
Hi, Liam, and welcome to the podcast.

Liam Martin (2m 19s):
Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

Matt Alder (2m 22s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Liam Martin (2m 28s):
Sure. So, my name is Liam Martin. I am a human being on planet Earth. More specifically, I’m actually right now looking out on my window of Montreal, Canada, in the Plateau. And I have been working remotely for almost 20 years. We run a couple of different products in the kind of tech and remote workspace. Time, which is a time tracking tool for remote which is an analytics tool for remote teams. And then also Running Remote, which is the largest conference on building and scaling remote teams. We have people in 43 different countries all over the world. We do not have an office. I’m currently working from my home office, as I said, looking out on this beautiful winter view.

Liam Martin (3m 12s):
And I think that a whole bunch of other people on planet earth should be doing the same thing.

Matt Alder (3m 18s):
Obviously, remote working is the topic of the last two years. You’ve also written a book of [unintelligible]

Liam Martin (3m 24s):
Thank you for reminding me. This is a book that I think is actually pretty good. I’m not a writer, by trade, obviously. And I’m never going to write another one. They say never to say never. But I’m never going to write another one because it was way, way too difficult to be able to do this first one. This was my COVID project over the last year and a half. And it fundamentally just really focuses on a core tenant that I think everyone hasn’t really recognized when we’ve entered the remote work world. Which is when COVID hit in January of 2020, 4% of the US workforce was working remotely. By March 45% of the US workforce was working remotely.

Liam Martin (4m 7s):
That’s the biggest shift in work since the industrial revolution. But the Industrial Revolution took about 80 years to complete and we effectively did that entire movement in March. So, we’ve completely changed the way that work happens. And the vast majority of those people, I lovingly call pandemic panickers. So, the people that just basically said, “I have no idea what to do. I need to actually work remotely.” And what they, unfortunately, did during that process is they just simply recreated the office instead of actually recognizing that there were for decades, remote workers and remote first companies like mine that had a completely different methodology in order to actually work remotely.

Liam Martin (4m 47s):
That is specifically what we address inside of the book is that different methodology for managing remote workers, it’s very, very different from an in-office environment. The asynchronous mindset or asynchronous management is basically the ability to be able to manage an organization without actually meeting or talking to anyone in person. So, we minimize Zoom calls as an example. We are not required to be able to respond to emails immediately, or to Slack messages immediately. We fundamentally actually focus every single individual on what my friend Cal Newport calls deep work, which is the ability for individuals to be able to solve problems and have everything at their disposal in order to actually solve that problem.

Liam Martin (5m 34s):
Most remote first founders actually focus their entire organizations on this process. It’s quite counterintuitive. But we actually find that it allows you to be able to build remote businesses and businesses in general, significantly faster than any previous models we’ve seen before.

Matt Alder (5m 45s):
I think it’s really interesting, because the thing that struck me the most about remote working and over the last two years is the employees and organizations have really struggled to really embrace the benefits that can be had by moving to this asynchronous model are too many Zoom meetings, expecting people to be at their desks at certain times, and all those kinds of things. And I think it’s a difficult concept for lots of people to get if they’ve spent their whole career in this kind of synchronous workspace. What’s the major differences between asynchronous work and synchronous work?

Liam Martin (5m 45s):
So, in asynchronous organizations, as I mentioned before, there’s no synchronous communication. So, whenever you have an office environment, and we’ve seen this happen time and time again. We’ll have hundreds of people that will all get in their cars, or get on the metro, or get on a bus and they’ll invest an hour and a half of each of their workdays to get to one particular place. And then once you’re in that particular place, then you say to yourself, “Well, there’s a buffet methodology with regards to collaboration, and more specifically synchronous collaboration.” So, everyone comes into that single place. And they say, “We need to collaborate as much as humanly possible.” And if you look at any NBA book, they really talked about how collaboration is the absolute critical component towards the success of an organization. Remote first organizations that were asynchronous, they actually couldn’t do that, right? So, they don’t actually meet in one place every single day, so that they take more of an ala carte method towards communication. And they’ve recognized that the vast majority of that communication can be asynchronous. So, we actually realize that collaboration, in some ways, is detrimental towards the operation and success of an organization. And what you really need to do is to be able to figure out, what’s the minimum dose of collaborative synchronous communication that needs to occur in order for you to move your business forward.

Matt Alder (5m 45s):
Oh, one of the issues that comes up is management, and managing people, and how that works remotely. From an asynchronous perspective, what are the major advantages and disadvantages of managing this kind of work style?

Liam Martin (5m 45s):
There’s advantages for the employer and the employee. The biggest one for the employer is, in my research, when talking to all of these asynchronous organizations we found on average, they had a 50% smaller managerial level, managerial layer than their synchronous counterparts. Meaning there were less managers required, because when you actually build an organization where everyone has their own autonomous responsibility towards the organization, you don’t necessarily you know a lot of managers. The second thing that is advantageous to the employee and the employer is there’s no game of telephone. Everything inside of an asynchronous organization is documented. So, everything is measured. Everything is documented. All of my targets are documented in there put on some type of platform, right? So, project management system, whatever you might use. But there’s some way of being able to document that. So, there’s effectively no middleman, right? If I go and talk to my manager, and I report to him or her on everything that I currently did, then what would happen is that manager would put that in a little report, talk to their manager about it, and then their manager would end up talking to the boss. Well, now the boss can directly see exactly what every single employee inside of the organization is doing. And that’s the clear differentiator between asynchronous and synchronous organizations, providing both clarity and autonomy to everyone in the organization.

Matt Alder (5m 45s):
And what are the disadvantages?

Liam Martin (5m 45s):
The big ones would be fundamentally recognizing that you’re running a very different type of company. So, a lot of people who are more extroverted as an example don’t necessarily work that well in remote asynchronous organizations because you are fundamentally disconnected from other people or you don’t communicate with them as much. The way that we actually kind of protect people against that is we say, “Listen, your work, friends don’t have to be your only source of socialization.” I know for a lot of people, they see the office as a real critical spot to be able to create all of those human connections. And most asynchronous organizations, the employees inside of those companies have really rich social lives that don’t necessarily connect to work. And I know it’s very, very difficult for a lot of adults to be able to socialize in that way. But for us, it’s a clear thing that we’ve been really focused on. The other part of this, too, is just really trying to figure out, are you the right personality for that type of work? I’m slightly on the extroverted side of the spectrum. And what I really need is access to coffee shops and co-working spaces, and just other collaborative spaces that don’t necessarily connect to the individual organization that I’m working for. But just people that I can talk to throughout the day. That’s what actually gets me motivated and gets me focused. During COVID, obviously, we couldn’t do that because there was a virus outside that could or could not kill us at any point. So, once we actually move from a pandemic to an endemic phase, we’re going to start to see a lot of the real remote work that you probably were promised, before the pandemics start to proliferate and become the norm.

Matt Alder (11m 40s):
I think the interesting thing is that asynchronous work is isn’t something that has been created as a response to the pandemic. It’s something that’s been happening for quite some time. How did those early remote companies develop this way of working, it might be useful for people to get a context of how it came about?

Liam Martin (11m 58s):
I’ll give you a couple interesting stories. One of the people that’s in the book, his name’s Amir, and he runs an application, a company called Todoist, which is a task management app used by millions and millions of people today. And Amir has had people that have worked for him that he’s never seen in person, he’s never done a video call with, he’s never done an audio call with. They simply exist effectively in the metaverse. They exist in the internet. But they deliver fantastic work, right. They’re actually really great engineers, and they’re really great, great customer support agents.

Liam Martin (12m 37s):
They just don’t want to interact in the way that we would stereotypically see if you were inside of an office environment. So, this provides a interesting opportunity, where I actually believe that the rise of asynchronous work will also be the rise of the introverted leader. The person who has the best ideas is usually not the person that we end up going with inside of synchronous meetings. It’s usually the most charismatic individual. It’s that six foot two, you know, Captain America type of character that everyone wants to look towards as a leader because they can communicate really effectively.

Liam Martin (13m 21s):
But they actually have really bad ideas. And inside of asynchronous organizations, they actually the ideas are what are presented. And they’re more important than whether or not you are very charismatic in a meeting. I’m obviously not. It’s very difficult for me to be able to do synchronous meetings. But in textual form, I can present my ideas, and I can defend them much more effectively than I can get a debate as an example, in a board meeting. So those are a couple of factors that I would take into consideration.

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Matt Alder (14m 21s):
Shifting a base talk about the actual strategic thinking that a team or organization needs to do in terms of racing asynchronous work. How do individuals and teams sort of reprogram themselves in order to work in what for many people will be something that is a completely different way?

Liam Martin (14m 39s):
So, the first thing that they have to recognize is the platform is the manager. So, what does that mean exactly? I’ve been in meetings with asynchronous organizations where I’ve asked questions, and they very nicely have given me process documents for the answers to my questions. And after asking 10 or 12 questions as an example, synchronously, they kind of took me aside and said, “So Liam, it’s not really going to work out in this organization. If you don’t recognize that you can actually find these, the answers to your questions on your own, you can go into our process documents into our wikis, and you can actually figure out answers to these questions.” So, that’s the first thing is recognizing that you need to be able to actually build a process and then that process is the manager, and make sure that you are diligent in everyone in your organization getting into the process of going and seeing that information, going and pulling that information up.

Liam Martin (15m 39s):
I have a saying inside of the company, which is, “You need to spend at least five minutes trying to find the answer to your problem before you disrupt someone else’s productivity by asking that question.” The second thing that you really need to do is focus on basically making sure that everyone has their own autonomy inside of their organization. So, what does autonomy mean fundamentally to me? Well, that means very clearly identifying what the targets are for every single individual inside of your organization, and then allowing them to actually hit those targets based of all the processes that you’ve put forth. If those processes want to change, this is a perfect opportunity to be able to optimize those particular processes.

Liam Martin (16m 26s):
But take all of those systems and say, figure out how to solve the problem, and then get out of their way, fundamentally. You do not need to be able to do a weekly show Intel meeting as an example. Talking about all of the work that you’ve currently done, unless they actually are looking for that particular help from you, as a manager. What you need to do is just get out of their way and let them execute on that particular target. And then the third thing is making sure that everyone is really focused on proliferating this system. So, inside of a lot of hybrid organizations, which are companies that have both remote and non-remote workers, we’re seeing this phenomenon called distance bias that’s popping up.

Liam Martin (17m 12s):
Where a bunch of workers, let’s say, three are in an office and two are remote will have a meeting, they’ll decide to do a, while they’re on that meeting and those two people are on a zoom call. But then right after that meeting completes, the two other employees that are synchronous, that are in that space, will have a undocumented meeting with that manager, and then we’ll convince them to do B. And then when you wake up the next morning, the remote workers think, “Oh, I thought we were doing A, but we’re actually doing B.” And this is destroying their own personal autonomy and also really destroying their confidence in the organization and we’ll have them quitting. If you thought the great resignation was bad now, wait another six months when everyone starts to go back to a hybrid work environment, and you start to have this distance bias proliferate itself at scale.

Liam Martin (18m 0s):
So those are three critical things that I would do to be able to just kind of build a general, strategic, target towards asynchronous work, and then obviously, read the book as well when it comes out.

Matt Alder (18m 11s):
Just to drill down into that a little bit deeper in terms of distance bias, because that’s really interesting. Do you think that this is a constant danger in hybrid work? Do you think hybrid work can be effective sort of mixing, effectively mixing the synchronous and asynchronous?

Liam Martin (18m 28s):
No one knows what’s going to happen in the future. But hybrid work is the most popular option right now. But 60% of the US workforce is working hybrid, or is going to work hybrid based off the surveys that we’ve done, 20% are going to go completely remote, and 20% are going to go completely back to the office. So about 80% of the workforce is going to work in some way remotely. And I, and this is a bit of a hot take. But I think that hybrid is actually the worst option out of the three. I would encourage people to go back to the office, as opposed to work hybrid. And the reason is because I believe you’re going to really alienate your remote workers. They’re going to become second class citizens.

Liam Martin (19m 9s):
And they’re going to recognize that if I want to actually get something done inside of the organization, I have to be close to the decision maker, and the decision makers in an office. So, the biggest thing that you could do if you are that owner, founder of a company, or you’re a chief executive, do not go to the office. Pull yourself out as a remote worker, and then allow equal access to you for decision making. If you can do this, this is going to be huge in terms of just those workers not becoming those second-class workers inside of an organization and not having that distance bias issue. I think it’s I mean, we’re seeing it now.

Liam Martin (19m 51s):
More people quit their jobs in the United States in the month of July than in the history of the United States. It’s really getting scary. And I think that this is only going to get worse as hybrid work basically proliferates over the next year or two.

Matt Alder (20m 8s):
Again, that’s pretty interesting. And also, what you say about leadership there in terms of the leadership making them self intentionally asynchronous. Shifting back to talking about organizations that are operating entirely remotely, but what other things should leaders be doing to ensure success in a asynchronous environment?

Liam Martin (20m 31s):
So, I think when you see, when you’re a manager of an asynchronous organization, you’ve really got to have more emotional intelligence than an IQ. I’ll give you an example. About three weeks ago, I chatted with one of my direct reports. And we didn’t necessarily talk about what her metrics were. We didn’t talk about what her targets were, because that was all documented, that was all written down. And I already knew what that was, and I knew that she was on target. So, we don’t need to discuss things they’re on target. What I discussed instead was that her family dog had died and it was really affecting her children.

Liam Martin (21m 13s):
And we spent about 45 minutes talking about different stories, connected to family pets. And then we also came up with a plan to be able to hopefully, get their children through this really difficult process. And that’s actually counter intuitively going to increase her overall productivity because that person knows me, that person trusts me. We’ve spoken about things that are very intimate towards each other. The biggest variable as to whether or not teams will work is whether they trust each other on both sides. Does the employer trust the employee? And does the employee trust the employer?

Liam Martin (21m 53s):
If that does not occur, then you basically do not have a successful organization, you don’t have a successful team. So instead of focusing on, well, what are your TI83 reports? And are you on target? Take all of that information, make it a synchronous, consume that information before you jump into the meeting, and then only talk about issues that are really important towards the organization or towards that direct report. Those are the only things that you should be talking about. Just this Monday, we had a bit of an emergency meeting, which was synchronous, but even in some of my meetings, we use Asana as a project management tool.

Liam Martin (22m 35s):
And there were 48 comments for a meeting of seven people on our first point, which was, how are we going to help to protect our Ukrainian team members that are left in Ukraine? And we came up with all of these different ideas, we’re going to buy Starlink satellite systems, we’re going to see if we can get them out as quickly as humanly possible. But right now, obviously, with the borders closed, they can’t do that and they are men, so they can’t leave the country regardless, could we get people to a more rural area, and just basically buy out a farm or something like that, they can sit there and really, we can bring all those resources there.

Liam Martin (23m 14s):
That’s the thing that really creates trust inside of an organization, not necessarily whether or not you completed your TI 84 report.

Matt Alder (23m 23s):
In terms of how someone should be thinking about this tactically. So, if someone’s listening, and they want to transition their team or help transition their organization to be more asynchronous. What are the first steps they should take?

Liam Martin (23m 37s):
The first thing that I would do is process documentation if you do not have it. So very first thing would be, what are the things that you do throughout your workday? And more specifically, what the organization does throughout their workday? And how can you write that down, or make a video about it? Or create some type of document that can be digitized, that you can give access to everyone else on. So, we have a wiki and internal Wiki inside of our organization. There’s a great tool called Trainable, which you can use that is a very, very fast way to do this. And I think it costs something like $2 to $3 per user per month.

Liam Martin (24m 19s):
If you want to do it free, you can actually just basically download Wiki software, it’s open source, and you can get access to that. Or you can use GitLab, which is one of the biggest asynchronous organizations in the world. They have a fantastic open source document. So, everything inside of GitLab, you can see what they do. They basically publish all of their internal processes. So, you get all of those processes in one place. And then you start to use that effectively as the rules and regulations of the organization and you make sure that everyone really pays attention to it. So, what I do as an example, if someone asks me a question, I will usually respond with a URL.

Liam Martin (25m 2s):
I’ll say, “Here’s how you actually do this. How to do a podcast with Liam? Well, here’s the actual process. There are 17 different processes and side of that, what specifically you want to do? Oh, you want to look at Outreach? Okay, great. Here is the process on outreach for podcasts. And this is the way that you should send an email in a podcast. We have everything documented there.” And then it allows for the person to actually be the most replaceable part of the organization. Now not saying that we don’t want. Obviously, we want our team members to be retained as human, as quickly as humanly possible. If they know the processes, they’re going to be more effective at their job.

Liam Martin (25m 47s):
But the goal should be not to have these instructions to be easy to understand. But these instructions should be impossible to miss understand. And once you move that tactically in your mind, you’re going to actually be able to build processes that anyone be able to consume. And then obviously, you can build an organization where you could have 100 people reaching out for podcasts instead of one to two, because they have sacred knowledge in their mind that no one truly knows. So, the big part is get those processes, document them, and then share them with other people so that they are not just easy to understand, but everyone recognizes that they’re impossible to misunderstand.

Matt Alder (26m 25s):
So as a final question a little bit earlier in the conversation, you mentioned that you felt, we’d see the kind of the rise of the introverted leader. You also said it was impossible to predict the future. But to put you on the spot a little bit, what other implications do you think there are for from this sort of move to asynchronous that aren’t obvious that people might not necessarily have thought of and that we’ll sort of see over the next few years.

Liam Martin (26m 51s):
So first off, we’re gonna see a lot more Elon Musk’s in the world. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Elon Musk give a presentation before but he’s horrible at it. He’s very, very introverted. He’s not a people person. And he just doesn’t have that skill. But does it matter? No, because he has better ideas than anyone else, and he’s able to execute on them. So, the ability to execute ideas is going to actually be the most important part of organizations moving forward. I believe that within the next 10 years, we’re going to see 50% of the S&P 500 be remote first.

Liam Martin (27m 35s):
And I think the majority of those organizations are going to be asynchronous. I’ll give you one example that’s in the book. Coinbase, which is a cryptocurrency wallet, which ended up IP owing at 141 billion entering number 89 on the S&P 500 when they IPO. They have in their IPO docks. For the first time in the history of the SEC, they’ve been allowed to state that their headquarters is nowhere. Because they said anything else that we would have put down would have been a lie. These organizations are able to work more effectively than remote or than on-premise organizations because they fundamentally are not just reducing their costs, in terms of their physical spaces, their office spaces.

Liam Martin (28m 28s):
They are actually fundamentally faster organizations because they understand how asynchronous work works. They understand that actually getting an immediate answer to a question may speed up that individual in the short term, but it actually significantly slows down the organization in the long term. And this is the thing that I think is really going to be a bit of a Model T moment when we see where work is going to be in the next 10 years. Because I think the vast majority of organizations are going to recognize this is better for employees, this is better for employers. And this is just fundamentally a better way to be able to build a business.

Matt Alder (29m 3s):
Liam, thank you very much for talking to me.

Liam Martin (29m 6s):
Thanks for having me.

Matt Alder (29m 7s):
My thanks to Liam. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at on that site.

Matt Alder (29m 25s):
You can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

Recruiting Future (30m 3s):
This is my show.

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