Asynchronous Work vs. Set Hours: Should Remote Workers Be Held to a Schedule?

Learn how allowing flexibility in schedules can lead to more productive remote workers.

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Here's what you need to know:

  • The majority of remote workers don't find schedules help them be more productive
  • Face-to-face video meetings are the best way to handle ongoing communication
  • Asynchronous communication may help your remote team be more productive
  • Setting clear expectations is clear when adopting a remote workforce
  • Take into account psychological, physiological, and emotional needs of your employees

One of the conveniences of a traditional office environment was that everyone had a specific place to be at specified times for a predetermined period of time. The thing is, that was then. In our current remote environment, particularly for teams that work across multiple time zones, the work process has become somewhat asynchronous. So the question is, should remote workers be held to a schedule?

Ask yourself 3 questions when determining if your remote workers should be held to a schedule:

  • Does my business require set hours to meet customers’ needs?
  • Does the work require communication between team members in real-time?
  • Can I set expectations and measure results rather than time in seats?

On the surface, these may seem like simple questions. They’re not. To quote the great green philosopher Shrek, “They’re layered. Like an onion.” And as a business owner, or someone providing guidance to a business, you inherently know that. Sometimes these questions can be sweet, and sometimes they can cause tears. Let’s dig into the topic some more so you can decide what’s best for your scenario.

Does asynchronous work equal no accountability?

Webster’s Dictionary tells us that asynchronous work happens independently, at different times, from other parts of the process.

Asynchronous communication means there is no set time where all parties must be involved and available.

Even so, the fact that you may have people working in multiple time zones, even around the world, doesn’t mean that there aren’t goals and expectations to be met. You are still running a business that needs to be profitable and reliable.

Team members need to be clear about their role in that process and their responsibility for making it happen. But does that mean they must be at their workstation between 8 am and 5 pm in your time chosen time zone?

Let’s find out.

Time for a cost-benefit assessment

When we talk about cost-benefit, we typically think in terms of dollars. And, so we must — we’re talking about a business, after all. However, there are also components of cost-benefit related to:

  • Psychological items
  • Physiological items
  • Emotional items

To that point, when you think about your concerns regarding remote work and asynchronous work, they probably fall into 1 of 4 buckets:

  • Customers: Will they be cared for?
  • Work: Will it get finished accurately and on time?
  • Pay: Will employees be paid correctly for the time they work?
  • Team: Will everyone feel and function like a cohesive team and unit?

Each of these apprehensions is layered within the questions we started with and has various components of the “softer” cost-benefit analysis that needs to be weighed.

“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him and to let him know that you trust him.” – Booker T. Washington

Diving into your 3 questions regarding asynchronous work

It’s time to dig in and figure out what you really need. You’ve already moved to a full or partial remote worker model. Now, you’re taking the next step of deciding how that work gets done.

It’s understandable if this is uncomfortable. Change usually is. The bottom line is that you’re challenging some of your own perceptions about how your business should be run. In the end, you may decide nothing should change and an asynchronous model isn’t for your business. However, what if, through this process, you actually find a more effective and efficient way of doing business? That would be an answer worth slogging through the mire to find.

Does your business need set hours to help your customers?

Your business model will dictate this. It may need to be defined by role. Perhaps your sales force needs to be available during specific times, or your customer service needs to work in shift schedules, but what about those positions that aren’t customer-facing?

Do you have to have a one-size-fits-all asynchronous solution, or is this a scenario that can be adapted to the job being done?

Employers found that providing flexibility in scheduling increased productivity.

According to a PwC study released January 12, 2021, “Employees value flexibility. Acknowledge where remote work is more effective and be prepared to balance scheduling accordingly.” The study’s findings demonstrated that employers found that providing that flexibility actually increased productivity.

PwC Remote Work Survey Results
Courtesy: PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, January 12, 2021

As the study’s graph demonstrates, survey results show that relationships with customers have increased through the flexible remote model.

Another study’s results indicate that fewer than one-third of remote workers find that set schedules help them be more productive.

Does everyone need to constantly be available?

We have created a societal culture of instant communication. Although this is convenient for the person reaching out, it disrupts the workflow of the person being contacted. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, reduces the disruption, allowing employees to respond to messages when they are available.

The most effective way to handle ongoing communication may be to have face-to-face meetings.

Harvard Business Review has published many articles on this topic. One such article suggests that the most effective way to handle ongoing communication is to have scheduled, face-to-face video team meetings.

To be effective, these meetings should have:

  • A set time for everyone to be present
  • A distributed agenda of topics to be addressed
  • Basic rules of courtesy that everyone follows, such as no answering cell phones, texts, or IMs during the meeting
  • Some time for fun team bonding

There is also value in learning about various ways of getting work done and prioritizing communication needs. Sometimes, we would like an immediate answer. Still, it usually won’t make or break a project if the answer comes a few hours later.

When an instantaneous answer is critical, establish protocols so those items can be appropriately addressed. The trick to this is to ensure those processes don’t get abused for non-vital situations.


Measure results as opposed to time spent in the chair

This is a two-sided coin.

You have a responsibility to pay your hourly employees correctly. Time-keeping tools can help you with this part of the process. Interestingly, even hourly employees can be provided scheduling flexibility as long as their hours worked are correctly tracked. In that vein, time in the chair is essential.

To ensure tasks are finished by the deadline, it’s important to clearly communicate expectations.

However, if you had a task that needed to be finished by a specified deadline, and you didn’t receive it, what process led up to that point? Was there:

  • Advanced notice that things weren’t going according to schedule?
  • An offer of assistance or a request for help?
  • Clear communication regarding expected task delivery?

If there’s an opportunity for feedback, it needs to be specific and timely. If process improvement needs to be addressed, that’s an incredibly valuable conversation, too.

On the other hand, if everything has gone according to, or even better than, your expectations, it’s a great time to give some affirmation. Yes, everyone is an adult and needs to do their job. By the same token, everyone likes to hear they did well, and it can be a strong motivator for continued strong performance.

Pulling it all together: Should remote workers be held to a schedule?

While you’re deciding the best approach for your business, remember that the data shows that remote employees are more productive than their traditional office-bound counterparts. Set clear expectations, measure results, track time as appropriate, and you’ll set yourself up for success.

We’ll close with a quote from Sir Thomas More:

“We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.” – Thomas More

Take the step to trust your employees, and they will show that your trust is not misplaced.

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