Remote

How to balance remote team collaboration

You don’t have to choose just one, but employing both async and sync operations can be a tricky balancing act

Bhavika Shah, May 20, 2021

Product managers, team leads, and managers are often facilitating team activities — whether it’s OKR planning, brainstorming sessions for new projects, or design sprints.

I remember the pre-COVID days of traveling for product offsites, week-long design sprints, and multi-hour workshops. When COVID-19 set in, doing a lot of that became harder. All of a sudden, we had to adapt to formats that were effective and enjoyable while working remotely. At the beginning, many of us tried recreating those in-person sessions remotely which consisted of six to eight hours on Zoom calls — Zoom fatigue, anyone? — multiple days in a row. 😓 Yikes! No one wants that.

Over the course of the past year, I realized the importance of balancing synchronous and asynchronous practices. Over the past six months, the team at Range has experimented with new methods that balance sync and async tasks and work. Synchronous work is work or communication that happens in real-time; i.e. everyone is in the same meeting at the same time. Asynchronous execution or work is work or communication that happens independent of time; i.e. people complete asynchronous, individual tasks or communicate over a period of time.

A few examples of things we’ve accomplished with a blend of sync and async practices include facilitating a customer journey mapping session, a product roadmapping exercise, spec-ing out complex new features, and brainstorming sessions for new product ideas.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about how to balance and blend async and sync practices.

Why blend both?

Both async and sync have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. There are times where you might only be able to make asynchronous functions or synchronous execution work, but for teams that work remotely most of the time, I think it’s important to find a balance so that you can reap the benefits of each.

Asynchronous operation works better for:

  • Generating ideas — People have time to think, reflect, and aren’t pressured to put out their best ideas in a one-hour or even one-day session. I love letting information percolate in my brain. I’ll be thinking about product ideas on my walks or while I’m cooking.
  • Surfacing questions and assumptions — Oftentimes, meetings are used to raise open questions but people usually think of questions later, once they’ve had a chance to think about the project more deeply. Leaving time for people to collect and raise questions before you get into a meeting means you’ll be more likely to be comprehensive and/or prioritize the most important questions, rather than just the ones people could think of on the spot.
  • Gathering data — Async communication allows time for people to explore data (quant and qual) to inform a project with relevant insights.
  • Fleshing out details — It’s easier to list out comprehensive pros and cons or think through the details of how something might work when there’s more time and space.

Synchronous operation works better for:

  • Discussing options, trade-offs, details This has to do with how something will work. Once you’ve outlined these things async and people have had a chance to read and process, the discussion is more efficient and effective on synchronous calls.
  • Making decisions — One of the best things to do with sync time is making decisions. As you’re discussing details, you can make decisions about what your team will prioritize, how a feature will work, what aspects of a solution should be included in the first version, etc. It’s usually faster and more effective to use sync time to make decisions, though they should be recorded with details.
  • Aligning on timeline and execution details — Sync time gives people a chance to surface any relevant info that might influence execution details and can usually be done faster in a quick conversation rather than via async means (X is hard for these reasons, Sam will be out for a week, etc).
  • Generating excitement and momentum — We certainly can derive energy from seeing how our colleagues are reacting to something. Sync time gives us a chance to build and share the excitement with one another or even gauge if there’s a lack of excitement for plans and ideas.

Balancing sync and async operations well

There are a few keys to doing sync and async well.

Set expectations on timeline and commitment

One possible downside of using both practices is that it might extend the timeline of a project. Whereas in the past, you might have gotten into a room for a day and nailed down 80% of a project, sync and async together might take several days. So it’s important to set clear expectations from the start on the timeline and the commitment from all who will be involved.

Plan upfront

To do sync and async together well, a bit more upfront planning is required. Before kicking off a project, I roughly outline the activities we’ll do and map out the dates/times for each activity. I schedule meetings for the sync sessions and plan deadlines for the asynchronous tasks. This helps us ensure the overall project happens within a timeline that’s reasonable for both project goals and people’s schedules.

Ensure equal and full commitment

I remember when we used to have large, multi-day, in-person workshops, some folks would be half-working, half-participating. It was understandable given the time commitment, but it meant that the quality of the workshop was lower because of their partial participation. In my experience, the best combo sessions — sessions that incorporate asynchronous programming and activities with synchronous tasks and meetings — are ones where everyone was fully committed to all the exercises and sync meeting times. That means if there’s reading required before a meeting (or other asynchronous tasks), everyone should actually read the docs thoughtfully and come prepared to the meeting with questions and perspectives to share.

It’s taken a few tries and we’re always iterating on the process but our team has really enjoyed blending these practices. The more we do it, the better we do it next time.

Find out how you can engineer better teamwork with Range
Sync vs async operations: How to balance remote team collaboration
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