Weighing the pros and cons of asynchronous collaboration

UCaaS vendors are developing tools that let remote workers collaborate on their own time. That flexibility can reap benefits, but what does it do to the value of teamwork?

Now that asynchronous collaboration is part of the hybrid work narrative, unified communications as a service, or UCaaS, vendors are quickly moving to integrate those features with ones used for synchronous collaboration.

With so many employees working off site and in isolation, it's getting more challenging for teams to work together in real time. As a result, organizations need UCaaS tools that enable all team members to contribute.

The goal is to give both office- and home-based workers the same opportunities to participate. Generally speaking, synchronous tools work best for real-time scenarios where all team members are together, either in person or virtually. There are many cases, though, where team members cannot be there; with asynchronous tools, they can still be full participants. Their involvement might be after the fact, but oftentimes there are no issues with workers who wait until a meeting is over before contributing. Indeed, this approach to working has merit.

Still, even as UCaaS vendors tout the virtues of asynchronous collaboration tools, IT leaders should tread carefully. Deploying these tools might align well with broader organizational objectives, such as improving productivity, increasing workforce engagement and reducing your office footprint. But asynchronous collaboration can also usher in some unintended consequences, so it's essential that organizations thoroughly consider both pros and cons before putting these tools to work.

Let's examine two core drivers, along with some potential consequences.

1. Supporting the hybrid work model

Remote working isn't new, but as hybrid work takes root, it's now a bona fide alternative to office-based work -- at least in sectors where off-site working is an option. Regardless of where an employee works -- either full- or part-time from home -- the hybrid model means many businesses must now support distributed workforces.

Collaboration is now more challenging. Face-to-face meetings are less likely, and it's even unrealistic to expect distributed team members to be available for every meeting or to be there the entire time a meeting is taking place.

Remote work applications from collaboration vendors play well for the hybrid work model, but these tools are user-centric. Consider employees who work from home: They are working in their space, not the employer's. They are using their PCs, their broadband and their desks. Mobile devices extend remote work even further to cars, airplanes, public spaces and customer sites.

This flexibility gives employees some control over how they work, but it also signals that hybrid work centers around the user. Organizations that try to extend employer-centric, rigid work practices from the office to a remote environment will face resistance, and these efforts can quickly become counterproductive.

Today's user-centric capabilities also make it challenging for employers to expect that employees will work the same off site as they would in the office. When workers can pick and choose where and how they work, they will be more inclined to do the same for when they work and with whom. That has implications for how they collaborate.

Today's user-centric capabilities make it challenging for employers to expect that employees will work the same off site as they would in the office.

Hybrid work checks a lot of boxes that drive employee engagement -- and can also benefit the employer -- but the concept also gives workers a lot of control over their environment. Remote workers might receive very little direct supervision and it's likely they'll have very little in-person contact with co-workers. Employers, therefore, must accept -- and trust -- that remote employees will largely work on their own personal schedules. This is a new and different way of working, and one where asynchronous tools are a must-have for remote and hybrid work.

2. Improving workplace efficiency

UCaaS makes remote work possible -- for better or worse -- and asynchronous capabilities play a growing role in collaboration. Hybrid work is a good pandemic-borne strategy for many types of businesses, but workers will be less productive if they only use synchronous tools. There are just too many instances where a team cannot all work or meet at the same time. Rather than missing out altogether on a meeting, workers can use asynchronous tools to contribute when their schedules permit.

While UCaaS is a progressive use of technology to support hybrid work, its real driver is improving efficiency and productivity for both individuals as well as teams. By its very nature, teamwork is about people working together. Most businesses think about teamwork in linear terms, where everyone is at the same place at the same time. This model is, in fact, highly efficient, but it breaks down quickly when teams are highly fragmented.

That's the reality for hybrid work in 2023, and at face value, asynchronous collaboration can absolutely improve efficiency. When a team member, say, only needs to participate for 10 minutes during an hourlong meeting, isn't it more efficient for her to spend that time working on other things and then replay the relevant portion later?

That same employee might also use a virtual assistant to receive real-time updates and to respond to simple queries that require an immediate yes or no response. The virtual assistant could also compile a summary of the meeting, along with specific action items. Isn't a two-minute review a more efficient way to work than sitting through the entire meeting?

Potential drawbacks of asynchronous collaboration

At face value, it's easy to see the attractive efficiencies asynchronous collaboration tools enable. By extension, these capabilities make hybrid work viable. Efficiency and productivity are important value drivers for UCaaS, but these benefits come with a cost. Yes, asynchronous working is better than the alternative -- an environment where remote team members are unable to collaborate because they only have synchronous tools.

Efficiency, however, doesn't necessarily translate into better outcomes, especially for the organization overall. Remote work has been widely embraced, and its user-centric foundation makes it easy -- and even preferable -- for employees to work asynchronously. From the perspective of the individual employee, it's more efficient to work this way. But asynchronous work is highly transactional: It's driven more by the employee's preferences than what's best for the team.

The true value of teamwork comes from the cohesion and collective sense of purpose to achieve a goal or outcome. In today's world, we cannot work synchronously all the time, but we all know good teamwork when we see it. Asynchronous work is nonlinear, as team members each contribute on their own timeline, and the result isn't always greater than the sum of the parts. It's a more fluid model, and the personal efficiencies are apparent -- but don't be surprised if team outcomes aren't as good as the synchronous model we've used for so long.

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