Want your distributed workforce to thrive? A new study reveals how leaders can make it possible.
Whether your distributed workforce engages in real-time or asynchronous work—or both—research points to three systems that support it all.
Words by Ariela Kozin
Illustration by Jordan Bogash
For many, the picture of our hybrid and remote work world is still developing. With each passing season, the image of what this new era looks like becomes a little sharper. A study on six companies has helped bring this picture into focus and illustrates how firms can succeed in the years ahead.
In a recent study published in the academic journal Administrative Science Quarterly, University College London School of Management assistant professor Jennifer Rhymer compared six asynchronous organizations to find solutions to the challenges of working remotely. The research couldn’t be better timed: According to a McKinsey & Company survey from June 2022, 58% of U.S.-based workers can work from home at least one day per week—and executives and employees are still learning the best way to collaborate from a distance.
The top line is this: Rhymer discovered that leaders could solve problems with trust, information sharing, and communication by building and maintaining the following three systems:
Develop an open-access source of truth for all employees
Create systems that require teams to leave a detailed record of their work
Foster an action-first mindset that leverages centralized information
“And [a solution to any problem] has to include all three,” Rhymer tells The Workback. “A single source of truth won’t work without detailed documentation, and workers won’t feel empowered to take action without permission if they don’t have all the information.”
How leaders can determine the future of how work gets done
Rhymer outlines two kinds of work practices: Real-time and asynchronous. While a real-time method focuses on mimicking in-office practices—such as more meetings and making information available as needed—an asynchronous approach uses documentation to replace meetings.
The six organizations Rhymer studied were founded without an office and began with an asynchronous orientation, so their workforce was enthusiastic about remote work from the start.
“If we’re considering companies that are shifting to remote work, a real-time orientation might feel like an easier transition since the changes feel smaller,” Rhymer explains. “Whereas with asynchronous work, you’re jumping in headfirst. It’s about determining your organization’s bandwidth for change.”
1. Develop a central source of truth
A knowledge repository, or a digital hub that includes all information about what each team member is doing, is vital. “If it’s done right, a knowledge repository can help eliminate meetings because all the information is already available,” Rhymer says.
A knowledge repository, however, can’t just begin as a blank document filled with each team member’s notes. This single source of truth has to have an infrastructure so workers can keep it up to date with the right technology and adopt norms to enhance participation.
“Having norms allows for shared expectations and understanding.” —Jennifer Rhymer, UCL School of Management
Creating and sharing basic rules for engagement — such as tagging team members in new comments or organizing projects by a set of established subjects — means workers feel empowered to use the tool.
“How can workers appropriately communicate with one another if they update the repository in different ways and store information in different places?” Rhymer says. “Having norms allows for shared expectations and understanding of where information lives and how others should engage with that information.”
It’s also important to listen to the employees using the repository and allow for rule changes.
2. Document works in progress
All workers should continuously document works in progress, including all discussions and debates for future planning. “This is where knowledge repositories can improve upon in-person human-to-human interaction because it’s not typical for more traditional workplaces to have easy access to detailed work trails,” Rhymer says.
It’s equally imperative that all employees have access to all the information a repository provides. That includes no gatekeeping, even in the most seemingly sensitive exchanges. Open access creates transparency and builds the trust remote communities often struggle with, but it can further explain how and why decisions are made across the organization.
Also, as Rhymer puts it, “When access is limited, it removes the opportunity for unexpected collaboration that often happens in the office, and it means employees will have less context for their employer’s progress to achieve their goals.”
3. Empower employees to make decisions
Though the idea of an employee making decisions seems risky, a 2019 study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that only 20% of participants were confident in their organization’s decision-making processes. The rest said they devote too much time to making decisions without improving quality, so why not try something different?
Rhymer’s proposed process may mean less risk because employees have the information to make informed decisions. For example, if an employee decides to change a rule for a new code, they are encouraged to do it. They don’t ask for permission or even opinions before making the change because they’re confident in their choice based on the information they’ve been given.
Because this employee follows company-wide norms, they know to document steps taken so that when their boss does log on, they can trace thought processes and quickly solve any errors. At the same time, when other team members log on, they can comment on the change and make their own action-first decisions.
Subscribe to The Workback
Receive exclusive insights on leadership, strategy, innovation, and collaboration from The Workback—right in your inbox.Subscribe for free
Future technology will make asynchronous work even more efficient
“I think when people read my work, they assume that when I refer to information-sharing, I’m talking about text only,” she says, “but I can imagine a world where these knowledge repositories are filled with audio and video too.”
For example, she suggests it would feel far more personal for employee biographies to swap out written “About” sections for personal videos.
“Besides creating an experience that better mimics the personal interactions we get from office spaces, audio & video means reviewers can also adjust listening speed,” she explains. “It goes back to creating more variety to meet each employee’s personal needs without sacrificing the ability to streamline collaboration.”
The real-world benefits of these systems
Jonathan Palmer, executive director of Conservation Technology for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the New York-based nonprofit organization founded in 1895, says maintaining a central source of truth and documenting work enables WCS to thrive when leaders are managing a distributed workforce.
“Managing everything in one place gives us the ability to run virtual organizations that include my team, other WCS employees, other organizations, and vendors,” Palmer previously told Asana in an interview. “We push tasks from one part of the virtual organization to another, and we have mutual accountability and responsibility across our projects.”
Study abstract: Collaboration is critical to organizations and difficult when work is distributed. Prior research has indicated that when individuals are distributed, organizations respond by structuring their work to decrease reciprocal interdependence, reduce the complexity of tasks that individuals perform, or accept moderate inefficiencies. Yet in an increasing number of organizations—location-independent organizations—employees are fully distributed, exist without a physical office, and engage in reciprocally interdependent work. To understand how these distributed organizations collaborate, I undertook an inductive multiple-case study. I identify two patterns of collaboration, an asynchronous orientation and a real-time orientation, and reveal the specific enabling practices for each, with a focus on asynchronous-oriented organizations. This research contributes to the distributed work literature by detailing three novel practices that enable effective collaboration for reciprocally interdependent work without geographic or temporal alignment and to the organizational design literature by identifying distinct approaches to distributed collaboration. This study also engages with the future-of-work conversation by providing empirical grounding that enhances our understanding of the theory, boundary conditions, and nuance of the phenomenon of distributed organizations, specifically location-independent organizations.