Asynchronous work

Currently, the raise of remote work due to the current COVID-19 pandemic has put some focus on discussions about how companies will deal with this situation. Main points suggested for business leaders is to look about the possibilities for the relocation of their workforce. Plenty of arguments point out all pros and cons, and as usual, there are multiple examples of success stories for all arguments.

No surprise here: this is an operational topic that combines the unknowns of the current situation, the unknowns of how the near future will be, the specifics of the internal process and culture of each company, and no less important are the traditions and beliefs of management on how a company should work internally.

One topic that I find way more interesting than looking for data about which sectors benefit more of not having to commute, for example, is about the possibility of having a distributed workforce that can accomplish work asynchronously. In other words, about the possibility of having multiple teams distributed around the world working through 24 hours, instead of the usual 9 to 5.

Anybody that has ever worked or heard about work shifts can see how this is not a novel idea: just divide the day in 3 chunks of 8 hours and you have 3 shifts to keep running a production plant for 24 hours a day. Many blue collar jobs, police, firefighters, and security agencies are examples that cannot keep a 9-5 scheduling for obvious reasons.

Yet for white collar workers, shifts are not really common. The only reason to have very long shifts for these people is if there is a mandatory deadline. And even in that case, the usual situation is that each worker takes long shifts, but there is no redistribution through the day.

But now we are entering (possibly) in a world where more people will be remote in any case. And when each person works at home, the difference between workers being separated by 1 or 10.000 Km starts to fade. If people will not be in the same place in any case, we are forced to answer question like: is it still important that they work at the same the time? Is this the most efficient structure with a distributed workflow for the company?, will be better to have people working at different times or time-zones.

Let’s try to make a quick thought example: let’s imagine a team composed by 3 people with one manager as the one depicted below. Depending on the interrelation between the work being developed the most efficient way may be far from having all the team working at the same time in the same project. In fact, I think that this happens less often that it may seem at first look. Simplifying, the general believe is that if a project takes 24 hours to complete, if you divide the project in 3 and assign task to each member, it will finish in one working day right?

In general, I find that very unlikely. To be even possible, we have to assume that all the system goes with mechanical precision, and that is not how people work. There rare no many projects that allow split tasks with no relationship at all. Is hard to imagine that each worker will have a full knowledge of everything and not require help or assistance and that the assistance is done immediately. Even for a simple project like this, dividing the work could easily add at least another 12 or 24 hours.

We can go also to the other extreme, assuming that all tasks are related, then each person can only work after the other person finished the task. Therefore, the same work will take 3 working days, And that is without mistakes or only small issues that can be fixed quickly.

Asynchronous work may be solution to improve the efficiency of a company in some cases then. Be aware that I did not say that it is always a solution, because it will depend on each company. However, I do find this to be a very interesting tool that may work in multiple sceneraios. Probably more often in large projects with multiple teams, because many of the works will follow a better waterfall structure where teams cannot work until other teams have not finished. A good thing of this approach will be that feedback can be quickly given back, let’s make a quick example:

Synchronous work:
1 day to finish the task by team 1 -> day 1
1/2 days error found by team 2 + 1/2 day to correct error by team 1 -> day 2
1 day to finish task by team 2 -> day 3
24 hours in toal, 8 hours each day between teams, no possible overlap, so 3 days required.

Asynchronous work:
8h to finish task by team 1 + 4 hours error found by team 2 -> day 1
4h to correct error by team 1 + 8 hours to finish task by team 2 -> day 2
24 hours in total, but distributed in 2 days.

Before we continue: I acknowledge that as the examples I wrote before, these two last examples are also idealized. The point here again is not to say that asynchronous teams will always perform better, that cannot be true for all cases. The point here is to illustrate how asynchronous teams may be able to be more efficient in some cases. And that means that managers need to look carefully at this possibility.

And now is the best time: the use of office space and the location of the workforce needs serious consideration, now more than ever. Is it really necessary to have a huge campus for all the people? Do we need teams to be at the same place? If a global pandemic does not make leaders to think about the people working for them, I don’t really know what will do.

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