Over the last couple of years the enforced shift to remote work and then hybrid work has led many organizations to shift how they work.
One of the most fundamental changes in shifting from office-based to distributed teams is the need to move from synchronous to asynchronous work.
Synchronous (at the same time) is the common mode for much office work, where people get together for meetings and collaboration. Asynchronous (at different times) is the default way of operating for any well-established distributed organization.
The poster child for this is Automattic, which makes WordPress. Founder Matt Mullenweg has run the company as a completely distributed company since it was founded in 2005.
Mullenweg has shared his Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy framework to describe how organizations tend to progress from traditional work to structures more suited to distributed work. He says:
“Level four is where you go from synchronous to asynchronous, and this one’s kind of magical. By the way, it’s also really, really hard. It’s much easier to work together if you’re there at the same time and you can kind of ping pong back and forth. But if you’re able to design an organization that people popping in and out at whatever timezone or whatever times are able to fully contribute and move forward the goals in a meaningful way, then you unlock access to the world’s talent. You unlock ultimately flexibility in everyone’s day. You give people a ton of autonomy, and I believe asynchronous interactions can be far richer than synchronous ones.”
For the record, level five is ‘Nirvana’, which Mullenweg describes as “unattainable but what you always want to aspire to”.
The crux of this is that aynchronous work depends on capturing your work and thoughts for people to build on at another time. This can be in audio or video, but is usually and most efficiently shared in writing.
Good writing is highly valued at Automattic, as it is at the heart of effective work. Mullenweg says:
“Automattic is a written communication culture and I believe clear writing represents clear thinking, and we filter for this in our hiring, and we talk about writing a lot.”
Others are now realizing the critical role of clear, succinct writing in distributed work.
The Economist notes that “for the structured thought it demands, and the ease with which it can be shared and edited, the written word is made for remote work”, expanding:
“The move to remote working has enhanced the value of writing to the entire organisation, not just the corner office. When tasks are being handed off to colleagues in other locations, or people are working on a project “asynchronously”, meaning at a time of their choosing, comprehensive documentation is crucial. When new employees start work on something, they want the back story.”
As individuals, we need to work to improve our writing, making it unambiguous, to the point, and useful to others. As Mullenweg points out, this means editing your writing.
Organizations need to expect and explicitly laud good writing. Poor communicators – in a distributed work environment increasingly meaning poor writers – will impede progress.
The invention of writing was effectively the birth of civilization, allowing us to capture and communicate our ideas.
The power of writing remains still vital today, providing a critical foundation for the next phase of high-performance organizations.