The future of work is remote-first, async and low-stress

Freelancer working forom a cafe

A lot has changed in the way we work during the past few years.

When the COVID pandemic first hit, most companies were forced to switch to full remote working mode almost overnight. Hardly anyone had time to build a proper remote-first working culture. Two years later, we’ve learned a lot and many companies have given their employees the possibility to work between 20% and 100% of their time remotely.

But are we really there yet? Have we reached full efficiency when it comes to working remotely?

For example: almost all companies use communication tools like Slack, Zoom, and Teams. But the way these tools are used is based a lot on immediacy: that we should be available at all times and that we also expect a reply from others right away. This can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

This shows that we’re still treating the remote working environment like a traditional office environment. But that just simply isn’t the case.

Could we do better? We at Saber Feedback certainly believe so. We think that for the post-COVID work to flourish we need a new set of rules.

In this blog post, we’ll look at three cornerstones that could improve the way all companies think about work: the remote-first approach, the asynchronous working style, and the low-stress working environment.

The remote-first approach

First of all, it’s good to differentiate between the terms ‘remote-first’ and ‘remote-friendly’. Remote-friendly companies allow employees to work remotely some of the time. The underlying assumption is still that most work is done in the office.

In remote-first companies, the fact that all work is done outside of the office is a given. The whole company culture is built around that idea.

The key benefits of having a remote-first company culture are:

  • Team members can live anywhere and build a lifestyle they prefer.
  • Reduced real estate costs for the company.
  • Everyone saves the commute.
  • Less stress caused by interruption, more focused working time.
  • Everyone can set up their preferred workspace just how they like it.
  • Company carbon footprint is greatly reduced.
  • Flexibility leads to happier employees and higher retention rates.

At Saber Feedback, our team is scattered around the world. There are no offices, everyone works where they best see fit. Everyone can freely choose their working times: be it the middle of the night or standard office hours. We also have very few meetings, usually around an hour per month or so. The rest of our communications are done asynchronously (more on that in the next chapter). This enables us to deep focus on our tasks for extended periods of time.

How is this possible? One word: trust.

To succeed, remote-first working culture needs trust as a building block.

Employees need to be allowed to work when and where they want, on their own terms. Micromanaging should be kept to a minimum. Management can still of course measure the results and reward those who can deliver. But instead of tracking the tiny details, the focus should be on empowering employees and removing any roadblocks in their way.

Simply put, people need to trust that their colleagues will do their jobs.

(If you want to dig deeper with how to start building a remote-first company in practice, GitLab has published a full guide on this.)

This puts a high emphasis on suitable characteristics of employees. It takes a certain personality type to succeed in a remote-first environment: self-starters, clear communicators, and natural problem solvers have an edge. Transparency is key when hiring: people need to know that the company is operating fully remotely and this will show in every aspect of their daily work.

It’s also good to remember that remote-first doesn’t need to mean remote only! Your team can still meet up in real life. Real-life meetings humanize remote workers, build empathy and offer us a way to communicate more effectively (for example with facial gestures). Even if it’s just once a year, bringing all your people together in the same room is well worth the effort.

Female freelancer working from home

The asynchronous working style

Again, let’s define some terms first. Synchronous (or sync) work is when things are done at the same time. Asynchronous (or async) work is not done at the same time.

Synchronous work makes sense sometimes. For example, brainstorming new features for a product might not work as well when done async. Or, handling an urgent customer request might also need some synchronous work from the team.

But synchronous work can be inefficient and unnecessary for the modern knowledge worker. Why should everyone work from 9 to 5? Asynchronous work, where everyone on your team works when they choose, recognizes that different people have different needs, allowing for true flexibility and freedom.

Key benefits of async working style:

  • More efficient communications.
    • Async working style emphasizes carefully crafted messages and reduces time wasted on meeting transitions and tech problems.
  • Hiring the best talent.
    • Async working culture allows you to hire talent from different time zones since working at the same time is not crucial anymore.
  • Transparent company culture.
    • For async to work you need a lot of written instructions and guidelines. Everyone needs access to the same crucial info. This fosters transparency.
  • Focused work.
    • A minimal amount of meetings means more time for doing deep work and less time spent on transitions.

At Saber Feedback, we extensively use Notion for documenting upcoming plans, measuring past results, and writing wiki-style guides for others. We rarely have meetings, so writing well is a key skill. This also has an additional benefit: once you’ve written something down in a shared tool it becomes usable also for all future employees, not just the current ones. In essence, you’re saving hours of work down the line since you’re not explaining the same things over and over again dozens of times. In addition to Notion, we also use Slack and emails for communicating.

In general, async work relies mainly on three aspects: multiplexing, communication, and action.

Multiplexing means that tasks are broken down into smaller pieces than usual. This allows faster iteration between subtasks and produces quicker results. It ensures that a single person will spend the least possible amount of time waiting for another person’s work to finish before starting their own.

Communication in async context means that 1-on-1 conversations and constant interruptions are replaced with well-written emails, great documentation, and quality messaging. In short, a lot more writing than talking. And a minimal amount of time wasted on non-essential meetings.

Action in async context means that if there is something to be done and no one to help you out, you should default to action instead of waiting. This way, over time, a lot less time is spent waiting and more time is spent doing things, even if there’s a small risk of doing the wrong things.

You can read more on multiplexing, communication, and action in this article.

In summary, async working style produces more efficient communications, happier and more focused employees, and a great database of documentation.

The low-stress working environment

This is probably the most ambiguous of the three cornerstones. How do we define low-stress? What do we even mean by it?

Stress is different for everyone. What stresses me might not stress you and vice versa. That’s why building a low-stress work environment starts from asking where the most stress originates for you:

  • Is it making quick decisions without enough info?
  • Is it dealing with difficult people?
  • Is it working long hours each day?
  • Is it trying to make the big bucks?
  • Is it the environment itself (noisy, can’t concentrate, not enough space)?

When you’ve found your answers, you can start setting up your ideal working life. For example, let’s say you found out that the biggest stress for you originates from working long hours, dealing with difficult customers, and working from home. You could decide that:

  • You’re only going to work 25-30 hours a week and do everything that needs to be done inside those hours (as you might know, work expands to fill the time allocated to it).
  • You’re going to focus on the product/tech. part and outsource customer service to someone else.
  • You’re going to rent out a room from a co-working space, at least for 50% of your working days.

At Saber Feedback, we’ve focused on making sure that seeking growth doesn’t define our company. In essence, it means putting our people before our growth. We’d rather see a gentle growth curve that we can easily control and maintain without having to sacrifice too much from other areas of our lives.

Furthermore, it means that we’ve set the following basic principles for the company:

  1. We’re self-funded, so we don’t have investors bossing us around.
  2. We pursue slower-burn marketing strategies (like SEO content).
  3. We make our product as self-service as possible.
  4. We aim for achievable rather than ambitious growth.
  5. We get pretty comfortable about saying ‘no, we can’t do that’.

But those are just examples. The main point is that you don’t have to build a company that admires the hustle culture and 100-hour long work weeks. It is possible to achieve meaningful revenue and build a sustainable company without sacrificing all other areas of your life.

If you’d like to read more on building a low-stress company, Alexis Grant has written a great article how she has approached the topic.

I hope this article has shed some light on how we’re trying to build both a sustainable and an enjoyable work life for everyone at Saber Feedback!

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Please note: This post was written by Steve McLeod, CEO of Saber Feedback. While we usually publish our own content only, we might accept highly relevant guest posts from time to time.

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