#155 - Remote and Asynchronous Teams: We Were Trained For This
Plus: Asynchronous Work Report; Minimum Viable Process; Work For Yourself First; Read the Room
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of research and scholarship make their impact as excellent managers. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
We’re Experts In Complex Collaborations
I like to think of academia as a multi-year advanced group-work bootcamp.
The days of researchers and scholars toiling alone at a desk for months and producing a finished solo project are long over, if ever they even much existed.
Heck, even mathematics papers on average have more authors now (Annals Of Mathematics papers have gone from 1.2 in the 1960s to 1.8 in the 2000s).
Projects on the cutting edge of research and scholarship increasingly involve large collaborations, and frequently multidisciplinary and/or multi institution collaborations. These are exciting, and let us tackle issues that would be intractable for any one researcher, no matter how capable.
My most recent academia-adjacent jobs involved human health genomics projects. These were inherently interdisciplinary, and brought together software developers, biologists, bioinformaticians, statisticians, and oncologists, scattered across not just areas of expertise but also timezones.
You too have almost certainly worked on complex collaborative projects! And you’ve discovered they weren’t easy. Not only did the project involve multiple people, but in many cases only part of their time was dedicated to your project. Even the faculty members who were local communicated on, shall we say, different timescales than you would have preferred. There were conflicting priorities, communication issues, and cross-disciplinary cultural differences.
Those multidisciplinary, multi-institution collaborations have taught you some real but under-appreciated advanced management skills that are essential for the current context of remote or asynchronous work.
Remote and Asynchronous Work Are Everywhere Now…
Remote and asynchronous work is becoming more common and more important in today’s world. Work changed during the pandemic, and for us “knowledge workers” it’s never going to completely change back. We can now work with people from anywhere and at any time. Our companies and our collaborators can hire people from anywhere.
Here in Canada, remote work went from 4% to 32% of all workers, and while it’s coming down in some ares of work, it’s holding steady or rising in others. Other countries are seeing something similar. Even with jobs with an in-office component, hybrid arrangements are becoming increasingly common.
There’s a lot to love about this! It gives us more flexibility, diversity, and creativity. Workers who experience discrimination experience much less of it in remote workplaces (#69).
… But it’s Hard
But remote and asynchronous work also comes with some challenges, such as isolation, distraction, and miscommunication.
When everyone is in one place, you can communicate whenever you want, and quickly go and ask them questions. Talking in person is very high-bandwidth; a lot of information and context gets shared very quickly. Back-and-forths are cheap and easy. Tensions get dispelled much more rapidly when everyone’s there. Transparency happens easily and naturally.
Everything is harder and requires more attention when people are remote. We have to be much more intentional about how we communicate; we have to structure the work to get done well and effectively.
Enter Your Superpowers
That’s where your experience in multidisciplinary, multi-institution collaborations comes in handy.
Even when were were working with one faculty member, opportunities to spend face-to-face time were very limited, and we figured out how to work with that.
We made the most of the meetings we did get by:
Providing lots of structured information before hand, generally in the forms of documents
Having lists of the most important things to get accomplished in this precious synchronous time
Knowing what were the most urgent questions we had blocking future progress
Providing context for everything, knowing that, with the faculty member working on several projects, they would forget what was said last time or why we wanted to know this thing.
Similarly, when we were working in collaborations, we made use of the occasional (every two-week or every month) synchronous meeting to:
Provide the opportunity to ask questions on the state of different efforts
Coordinate changes to the plan
Stay aligned on big-picture goals
Make connections between people working on different parts of the projects
(Interestingly, there are significant advantages to this “bursty communications” models - creative problem solving is improved when intermittent group interactions punctuate periods of individual work.)
Working in highly distributed teams, or where most work is remote, follows this same pattern. Most communication and coordination happens via email or slack, or via project management tools like GitHub project boards or Jira or Asana.
When synchronous meetings do happen - staff meetings or one-on-ones - it’s precious time that has to be used for the purposes that only it can serve. Running down a list of status reports is a waste of scarce synchronous meeting time; it has to be more than that. (Increasingly, this is how high-performing teams think about meetings anyway - leave to project boards or email what can be handled in those media).
In a lot of organizations, this is a new and uncomfortable way of working. But people with the skills necessary to navigate this very familiar (to us) way of working are in high demand in the world of remote and asynchronous teams. We’ve got this.
Defining and Enforcing Goals and Expectations
Another superpower you likely gained from your experience in complex collaborations is the ability to define and enforce goals and expectations.
You probably learned this trick early, working with your PI, by setting defaults. Ever written an email like this? I bet you have, and when you learned this approach you wish you had known it earlier:
Hi Prof X.
The submission deadline for that conference is coming up. After our discussion on Monday, I rewrote the abstract; the current version is below.
I’ll submit it on Thursday; let me know before then if there’s any changes you want to see.
The more collaborative the project, the more important to it is to establish clear goals and expectations for each team member, with clear indications of what happens next. This includes defining specific deliverables and deadlines, as well as outlining the roles and responsibilities of each team member.
You also need to ensure that everyone is held accountable for meeting their commitments. This means regularly checking in on progress, identifying and addressing any roadblocks, and making adjustments to the plan as needed.
In a remote or asynchronous work environment, this becomes even more important. You can't rely on in-person interactions to keep everyone on the same page, so you need to be much more deliberate about communicating goals and expectations, and ensuring that everyone is working towards a common goal.
And in remote or asynchronous work, managing the step-by-step of how work is done is almost impossible - we’re pretty much forced into managing the what of the goals and what success looks like, and iterating on that.
So in our collaborations we got very good at making sure we know what goals each person on the collaboration is working on, what the status is, whether they’re behind schedule or not, and whether they’ve learned anything that needed to be shared. Our emails (or slack messages) got very short and unambiguous like that email to Prof X. We made sure everyone knew the consequences if their lateness pulled the whole project off schedule.
All of these are very advanced management skills of newly urgent importance!
Asynchronous Forms Of Communication
As researchers and scholars, collaborating around documents (like papers or chapters or presentations) was kind of our whole thing, so we tend to take it for granted. But this sort of asynchronous collaboration is new to a lot of organizations.
Being comfortable setting up work so that it’s:
Organized around relevant documents and data
Built on a shared repository for work outputs,
Got a clear protocol for making comments and requesting changes
is, again, new and scary to a lot of different teams wrestling with what is to them a new form of working. But to us it’s just been how we’ve always worked.
We were made for this new world of work
I’m not even going to get into other things we’re good at in this context - splitting up a project so that it has pieces that can be worked on maximally independently, problem solving remotely, keeping teams focused on the big-picture goals even when there’s changes.
Just because we’ve worked long and hard to make this stuff familiar to us, doesn’t make it obvious or easy for anyone else. You’re probably starting to see peers who haven’t had this background we share struggle with things like the above. Our background prepares us for a number of really challenging management and leadership situations; situations others are having a hard time with. When we develop our basic skills, our advanced skills like the above really shine.
What do you think? Do you agree that multidisciplinary, multi-institution collaborations have prepared you for managing remote or asynchronous teams? Do you have any other skills or tips for readers? Hit reply, leave a comment, or email me and let me know other techniques you’ve used and were successful (or not!)
By the way - I’m starting an experiment - introducing paid tiers of subscription.
Nothing will change on the free tier - the archive remains free, and the weekly emails will remain the same. Those signing up for the paid tier will receive one free coaching call; those signing up for the Coaching tier will receive monthly coaching calls.
I’ll talk about this more in future weeks - let me know if if you have any questions at all.
And now, on to the roundup!
Asynchronous Work Report: What knowledge workers want and what’s working - Miro Blog
Remote and Asynchronous work are to some extent orthogonal. It’s true that highly far-flung remote teams are more or less forced into asynchronous work, since the time zones make synchronous meetings hard in those circumstances. But remote teams in similar time zones can have “core hours” and lots of zoom meetings, and in-person teams can emphasize asynchronous work, with lots of collaborations around documents and data, and coordination mostly done on status boards and over email.
Asynchronous opens up a lot of flexibility. People don’t have to work the same hours; peers collaborate on their own time; team members can be everywhere. There’s real advantages.
Here Miro reports on a study of knowledge workers about asynchronous work:
Only 14% of knowledge workers want less asynchronous work, and 42% want more;
2/3 are more comfortable sharing ideas with managers asynchronously, and 60% are more comfortable providing individual feedback asynchronously;
61% say asynchronous reduces burnout due to greater flexibility, easier to take breaks, and it just being generally less stressful;
84% say there’s less micromanaging;
There’s real diversity advantages - in synchronous meetings, women feel less engaged and inspired and fewer say their best brainstorming happens then men;
But 64% of junior Gen Z team members worry about annoying their coworkers with async questions, which suggests that there’s work we need to do on normalizing questions during onboarding, and clarifying expectations about when and how to ask and answer questions.
Minimum Viable Process - Molly Graham
Graham talks about starting out with “minimum viable process”, taking the same minimal, nimble, agile approach to processes that teams take to products and goals. A minimum viable process, she says:
Starts with principles
Solves a real problem
Is iterative - processes change
Processes are removed as well as added, and process steps are removed as well as added
Finally, Graham tells us that not every problem has to be solved - “it’s ok for things to be sh*tty” - and even if they do need to be solved, process isn’t always the solution.
Managing Your Own Career
Work for Yourself First - building your transferable skills - Daniela Ostovic
When we’re working with team members, helping them develop professionally, we pay attention to their career goals and try to give them tasks that will help them build their skills in a way that will bring them closer to those goals. (I like using quarterly goal setting for this - #60).
Ostovic writes that we should extend that consideration to ourselves:
Regardless of industry, a manager is expected to guide, motivate, and support their teams, manage resources, solve problems, and make critical decisions. Developing and refining these skills can enable you to thrive in any environment.
Ostovic mentions industry-specific knowledge, as well as general purpose management skills, and suggests spending some time to develop skills you want to grow:
When you invest in yourself and prioritize your own growth, you’ll not only benefit personally, but you’ll also help your team and organization prosper.
Reading the Room - Deb Liu
For most of us, in our research past, our training emphasized mastery of the voluminous minutia of our field much much more strongly than, you know, dealing with other human beings. Even though achieving anything required dealing with those humans pretty regularly.
Liu talks about her own experiences, learning to watch in meetings and pay attention to what is happening on multiple levels:
What words were being said
What each person actually meant
What it means in the context of the relationships and history
She suggests the following practice for getting better at this:
Place yourself in the other person’s shoes
Understand what motivates the other person
Reflect on our own biases
Speak the other person’s language [LJD: this is such a surprisingly powerful technique]
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,