When Kaspars Dancis started working for the Exigen Group in 2000, he was just a few years out of university, and although his employer was based in the US, his home was in Latvia. But Exigen was a software development company and Dancis was a software engineer, so they found a way to make it work without him having to relocate.
“That was the first generation of distributed work,” says Dancis, who now runs his own business from his Latvian base. “It was very eye-opening that I could be in Riga and work with peers in California and customers in Australia. That was for the first time what made me think this could be the future.”
For Dancis it literally did become the future, with his early experiences at Exigen going on to inform his 2017 creation of Whimsical, a software business designed to make online collaboration in distributed organizations seamless. The pandemic has seen demand for its services explode, to the extent it has just closed a $30 million fundraising round as more and more companies grapple with how to maintain—or enhance—productivity when the bulk of their workforce is remote. “The pandemic has had the effect of fast-forwarding this gradual shift towards distributed working by probably a decade at least,” Dancis says.
Asynchronous working, in which employees are allowed to work where and when they want, is being touted as a productivity boon for employers. The idea is that companies will get the best work out of their staff if they give them the freedom to manage their own schedules. And if teams can organize themselves in such a way that someone is always available to deal with clients, the additional benefits are obvious.
This has been the experience of Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA chief executive at New York-headquartered brand agency YMLY&R. He is responsible for 4,500 people working out of 24 base offices across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and he says he is a “big believer” in asynchronous working because it has enabled him to “harness the right talent, at the right time, in the right place.”
“Ultimately, we do projects for clients, and there’s always someone who needs to plan the resources to answer questions from our clients, but once that’s done the team can work together to deliver the objectives,” he says. “They figure that out.”
There is plenty of evidence that people in creative industries work better when their work time is self-managed or truncated. Indeed, both four-day weeks and five-hour days have been shown to create happier workforces that bring productivity gains while maintaining most aspects of synchronous work. But that is where the issue with asynchronous working emerges: There is just no empirical evidence that it is actually achieving what it is setting out to do.
Dancis says the anecdotal evidence is clear: For companies willing and able to fully embrace distributed working there will be productivity gains, but currently there is no solid data to back that up.
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“There’s almost a 50/50 split between people who say they’ll never go back to the office and those who say they can’t survive working from home,” he says. “What’s important to recognize is, I don’t think this notion of hybrid work makes sense or is going to survive. You can’t work from home for a few days and for a few days come into the office—that eliminates the benefits of remote work for both employer and employee. My personal opinion is that distributed work can be as effective as being in an office, maybe even more effective, and over the coming years we’ll get more evidence of that; we’ll see more and more evidence that it works.”
Yet while there may not be any data to prove that asynchronous working creates happier, more productive workforces, in some people’s experience it can actually bring rigidity and long hours, not freedom and shorter days, into the process.
Dan Hooper cofounded the alcohol marketing agency YesMore along with Tom Harvey, and he runs the US side of the business out of Los Angeles while Harvey takes care of the UK arm from London. Hooper says having bosses in two different time zones is “hugely beneficial” for the business, as it effectively gives it two full working days of on-hands management time in every 24-hour period.
“Team members in the UK know that they have me and a whole other team to hand if deadlines are ever crunched majorly by clients—this happens a lot,” he says. “If the team has come to the end of the day and something is absolutely needed for first thing tomorrow, it's no problem to hand it over.”
It also enables the firm to work with designers and freelancers around the world, and staff are given the freedom to work where they want, even if that just means tacking a few days of work time onto the end of a holiday. But there are downsides too, with the disconnect of working on opposite sides of the world meaning LA-based Hooper’s own working day has become more, not less, restricted.
“A small struggle is in order for me to still really know what's going on with our UK clients. I usually have to start work around 6 am California time, meaning I clock in around 2 pm London time,” he says. “Logging in at 9 am PST and 5 pm GMT really only gives me an hour or so to connect with the team and be updated, and for any client calls for the UK I might need to be on. We trialed it for a while, but we found there just wasn't enough time for me to get everything I needed. While online tools fit the bill 90 percent of the time, 10 percent of the work needs a good old-fashioned phone call to really run through the details. Most managers or people in an organization who will be relaying information from team to team might need to prep for a slightly earlier or later start.”
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For Laura Giurge, a research associate at London Business School whose work focuses on organizational behavior, this is the crux: Having a job that lets you work where and when you want may seem like the dream, but in reality it could just end up with everyone working harder or longer.
“We recently did a project looking at email, which is an asynchronous tool that we’ve started to use synchronously, because we’ve started having the expectation that people respond right away,” she says. “That’s turned it into a continuous stressor.”
Giurge agrees with Dancis that there is currently no empirical evidence to compare productivity levels between people who work synchronously and those who work asynchronously, but she adds that, in any case, “particularly with knowledge work it’s hard to measure productivity.” But if productivity goes hand-in-hand with employee well-being, those going down the asynchronous path need to pay far greater attention to the latter in order to realize any gains with the former. That is where the real issue with distributed working may lie.
“Asynchronous work can push the idea that everything is urgent, but employees need to have time to work on tasks that are important but not urgent,” she says. “They are the things they were hired to do and that they enjoy at work. When people get to do what they were hired to do, at the end of the day, they feel a better sense of accomplishment, and can disconnect from work and take a step back. That is one of the biggest challenges employees now have to deal with; they’re not really finding the right balance.”
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