Employees everywhere were impacted when the pandemic forced many into remote work, but perhaps no professionals were more affected than the HR executives responsible for developing a functional environment in which those newly remote workers could operate. It certainly tested our mettle to redefine organizational rituals and processes, some of which have been in place since the beginning of the modern workforce, like the traditional work meeting.
One of the first common mistakes during this transition was thinking you could lift and shift in-person workflows to remote environments and maintain a similar cultural identity. The reality was an overabundance of virtual meetings that became colloquially referred to as causing “Zoom fatigue,” which impeded worker productivity. So, as a way to soft reboot our culture here at TechSmith and help build a truly hybrid-first flexible work policy, we engaged in a full month of no meetings, challenging our ability to use asynchronous communication methods to perform work rather than relying on meetings as a crutch. The end goal was never to fully replace meetings long-term, but rather to understand how to match the right type of communication with a particular work task.
Also see: HR Tech Number of the Day: virtual meeting fatigue
The experiment was tough and not always smooth, but we reported a 15% increase in employees feeling productive, along with 85% who wanted to further explore the use of asynchronous communications as a means to limit meetings. The intent was also to help forge a path for others to try to balance asynchronous and synchronous communication in their own organizations. Here are some lessons learned for other HR executives:
Put people first, ahead of work meetings
While this experiment was rooted in using technology to reduce meetings, it became clear that the driving force of change was understanding the people behind it. We never realized until we took away meetings how differently each team behaved when they were able to choose alternative ways to collaborate. We may be one single company with a unified goal but the methods to achieve those goals were highly diverse. Pain points for one team were not the same for others. It’s important to involve employees from the beginning to make big changes work for them, whether they are individual or team ones.
This realization is what drove us to create a workplace policy in which daily decisions around where and how work is done are primarily made at the team level, rarely at the HR level. Core working hours have also been removed as a means of empowering each team to create a flexible schedule that works for everyone. Only the people themselves and their closest colleagues can really understand how best they work—so, let them.
Focus on balance and communication
When collaboration primarily takes place synchronously and in person, workers don’t have to be so intentional about the nuances of communication. For example, when everyone is together in a meeting, communicating can appear the same even if it’s not an effective dialogue; no matter what, a meeting happened. In a remote or hybrid setting, a lackadaisical attitude toward information sharing through digital channels can lead to frustration, confusion, creative roadblocks and productivity loss. To compensate for this change, companies need to clearly communicate responsibilities and next steps, and set realistic expectations.
Our experiment provided us with valuable insights to establish company-wide guidelines around how to balance the use of in-person, synchronous and asynchronous communications. For example, we determined in-person represents the richest form of collaborative work and is the ideal fit for when the goal is to build and maintain relationships (e.g. onboarding, team-bonding, celebrations) and when working on a single project or problem to completion (e.g. brainstorming).
Synchronous is ideal when immediate feedback or time-sensitive decisioning are required, and when there is a high degree of ambiguity or sensitivity to the subject matter, where emotional intelligence becomes critical (e.g. discussing a new problem that spans multiple teams, IT fire drill, etc.). We recommend asynchronous communication when collaboration isn’t immediate and doesn’t need to occur in real-time (e.g. solicit feedback, review content) or when there is a one-way share of information (e.g. quarterly updates, campaign results). These guidelines have helped employees begin to approach meaningful communication in an intentional and repeatable way.
Invest in the right tools
During the pandemic, companies were trying different tech tools to see which ones worked for hybrid and remote work, but now it’s about optimizing tech stacks to make sure the only applications that stay provide true value. Just like organizations invest in synchronous tools like Zoom and Teams, it’s important to place similar investment in asynchronous solutions, including a combination of image- and video-editing tools, project management and real-time collaboration tech like Google Workplace.
It’s important to never underestimate how challenging visual communication with colleagues can be in a remote setting. We found the translation of visual concepts to written word, whether shared over email or Slack, was at the highest risk for being lost in translation. If something is easier to “show” instead of “tell,” there should be resources that make it seamless to share and interact visually.
See also: Is your return-to-office policy flexible enough? It’s not just about location
Rethink your approach to work meetings
An interesting outcome of our experiment was that it led to a nearly 8% increase in meeting importance for employees. Initially, a positive correlation in both employee productivity and sentiment towards meetings might seem counterintuitive given the experiment. But the month-long Async-First experiment only took away the meetings that should have never happened in the first place and left the ones that were necessary and productive. Employees now looked forward to meetings when they felt that they were important and useful. There was also a noticeably positive shift in how our teams operated day-to-day and how they went about scheduling their meetings.
This realization led to creation of the “flipped meeting,” which enhances necessary meetings and saves time. It involves the meeting lead recording a brief video with contextual information and sharing with participants in advance so they can come ready to speak on the subject. We also have gotten much more comfortable with canceling meetings when we are not ready to have a productive conversation, whereas in the past we would’ve just had it. Essentially, this experiment helped lift the fog about the waste of “lesser meetings” and better understand how to routinely create a great one.
In conclusion, flexibility is once more the key
Overall, the most important lesson we learned is that to create a flexible hybrid or remote work environment for employees, you must also be—you guessed it—flexible in how you get there. These changes take time, certainly more than a month, and sometimes what you anticipate happening turns out to be the opposite. HR executives must not be afraid to pivot quickly and be transparent when communicating to employees that this is a constantly evolving process. But we now have a much better understanding of how significant an impact how, when and with whom we communicate during the day has on our productivity and work culture.