CEO at Yac, helping the world communicate asynchronously. Previously the founder of product agency SoFriendly.
Under the new norms of remote and hybrid working, we rely more on messaging apps, project management software and email to keep in touch and do business. These asynchronous communication methods are great tools for making remote work more productive. But, if you’re not careful, they can also leave you open to a time-waster known as “the waterfall effect.”
The waterfall effect happens when Employee A depends on Employee B for completing tasks to move forward with their own. When Employee B doesn’t respond quickly, Employee A might fall behind schedule. The problem can cascade into a cycle of delayed tasking and missing each other online. As a result, work can stall and productivity can plummet.
My company’s platform helps facilitate async communication, so this is something I hear about constantly. Many people struggle to see how work can move forward as efficiently (if not more) when people aren’t working at the same time. I’d argue that working synchronously is unnecessary and, in some ways, part of the problem. In our fast-paced work culture, we’ve become used to immediate responses when we communicate. But as the waterfall effect illustrates, that dependence on instant communication is not always the most efficient way to work. To boost remote work productivity, I recommend optimizing your team for an async work environment.
Here are four ways to do that on your own.
Break free of “bad meeting culture.”
Often, leaders set up excess meetings out of fear of communication loss. They worry that employees will miss opportunities to exchange critical information if they don’t get everyone together. But meetings like this are unnecessary meetings. And unnecessary meetings are bad meetings.
The feeling that information needs to be shared isn’t enough to create a meaningful, outcome-driven agenda. So, these meetings disrupt workflows and waste time with conversations that don’t have a definitive purpose. You can end bad meeting culture by cutting out meetings that don’t need to happen.
Take whiteboarding sessions, for example. Do you really need everyone together for effective brainstorming? Consider allowing these sessions to happen outside of meetings in your online tools. Encourage your people to add content, leave comments and edit over time. The job gets done according to deadlines, but it all happens as it fits into people’s schedules. There are times when you need in-person conversations, like initial meetings with new employees or clients. But when you eliminate unnecessary, time-draining meetings, you can make room for effective communication that keeps things moving.
Break tasks into smaller chunks.
If you want to stop forcing employees into meetings to update one another all the time, I recommend you break work into chunks that can each be handled by one person. I like to use the three-hour rule, where larger projects are broken into smaller tasks that take no longer than three hours. If tasks can’t get done in three hours or less, it’s usually because something is wrong, it’s too big of an assignment or the job is assigned to the wrong person. With this rule, you can catch issues sooner to keep things moving, and your people feel small wins more often as they accomplish each task.
Avoiding those delays and unnecessary meetings comes down to simplification and communication. Ahead of assigning each role for the project, I’ve already been through the entire thing and broken it down into simpler parts. If someone on the team feels like a task will take them longer than three hours, we talk about it. It’s possible that something can be explained more clearly ahead of time instead of running into stalls later on.
Support a culture of asking for help.
Streamlined tasking doesn’t mean employees won’t have questions or come up against problems. To make the most of async and keep workflows moving, you need to normalize speaking up to ask for help. Employees should feel comfortable going to colleagues or leaders when a task is more complex than originally thought. Foster a culture of admitting when you’re stuck so that others can jump in.
Let employees know it’s acceptable — even expected — to voice their concerns. When you support open communication, employees won’t wait until scheduled meetings to discuss the issues, and they’ll solve problems more quickly.
Focus on output, not presence.
To keep remote work flowing, some leaders default to closely monitoring employees’ time online. Many people worry productivity will drop when employees aren’t directly supervised (despite research showing that productivity increased for a number of companies during the pandemic).
I’m always championing the idea of output over “time at the desk.” If you have a member of staff who can do in four hours what it takes another team member to do in eight, that’s ideal. Instead, companies seem to have built up this idea of “eight-hour workdays” that get filled up with inconsequential time-fillers. I believe we should be advocating for a culture of once you complete your tasks for the day, that’s it — you’re done. You get to focus on your personal life for the rest of the day.
From my perspective, your output is a better indicator of productivity than presence. Instead of checking that employees are online every minute of the workday, set task deadlines and shift your focus to their output. Do they get everything done on time? Is their work up to standard? Provide people with the freedom to do remote tasks in the way that works best for them. Step back from micromanagement, and I believe you’ll watch productivity grow.
Keep remote work running smoothly.
When it comes to remote work productivity, allow yourself and your people to work around their best hours and balance that work with their personal lives. But remember that seamless remote communication doesn’t happen overnight. Approaching the problem of maintaining workflow momentum by mandating more meetings tends to be counterproductive. A better solution to the waterfall effect is to make tasks less interdependent, give your people more freedom and support and foster a culture that embraces async communication.