My team is spread across four states and three time zones. People often ask me how we find good times to meet. My answer: It’s not easy, but it’s also rarely necessary. Working remotely, especially when your team is distributed across the globe, means working asynchronously. And it’s a skill.
Zapier has nearly 300 employees scattered around the world, so it’s not efficient—or even possible—to have quick, ad hoc meetings. We regularly need to act without the luxury of a real-time discussion, so we’ve adapted.
Here are some tips for working outside the constraints of time, none of which involve quantum mechanics.
Ask good questions
There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but there is such a thing as a clumsy, burdensome, unproductive question.
If you work asynchronously, you’re familiar with this situation: you ask someone a question on Slack, wait a few hours, get some follow-up questions, answer those, then wait a few more hours. And while meetings allow for instant follow-up questions, you can achieve the same result—and even more efficiently—by simply asking good questions in the first place.
When asking a question, don’t assume the person knows what you’re talking about. Provide them with some clarifying context. Reread your question, trying to identify the places that you make assumptions, and preempt any questions that someone might have. Also, include links to whatever you’re referencing, so no one has to go hunting on their own for this information—and so you can guarantee that they’re looking at the same thing you are.
Work in public
In addition to working asynchronously at Zapier, I’m also taking some classes outside of work that require asynchronous communications with my classmates.
In a group chat for a presentation we were working on for class, someone asked a clarifying question about a Gantt chart. I asked them to send me the chart, expecting they’d just drop a link to it in our chat. Instead, they emailed it to me, without cc’ing the rest of the team. Later, when our other teammates checked in on the chat, they also asked to see the chart, thinking it had never been shared with me in the first place. It took a few hours for them to get a response. It slowed us down, and worse, it was completely avoidable in the first place.
The solution: Default to transparency. That’s one of our core values at Zapier, and working in public is the best way to do this. Think of it as giving people the opportunity to opt out of too much information, instead of having to ask for access to more.
Here are a few specific tips on how to work in public.
Change your settings in Google Drive so new files are editable by anyone in your organization. This way, if someone wants to make a change, they can do it while they’re looking at the file—not hours later when they may have lost their train of thought. You can always revert changes you don’t like, but you won’t benefit from your coworkers’ suggestions if they don’t have permission to make any.
Always include links. At Zapier, if there’s a Slack thread about something that results in a GitHub issue or a Quip doc, we share a link in that thread. The same goes for including links to other Slack threads if an issue ended up being resolved elsewhere. That way, anyone who’s jumping in at a different time knows where the most up-to-date info lives.
If you use a group chat tool, communicate in public channels unless it’s a sensitive or personal issue. You might not know everyone who needs to be aware of something or whose help you’ll need, but if you work in public, you increase the odds that they’ll see it. Plus, a massive public database of chats allows teammates to find the answers to their own questions by searching.
If you have a video call, record it and share it for folks that weren’t able to make it. That way anyone who missed the meeting due to time zone issues can still stay in the loop and contribute.
There’s less small talk when you work asynchronously. This makes sense: It’s weird to ask someone, “How’s it going?” and then wait two hours until they wake up, see your message, and respond. At which point you’re at lunch, and you get the point. But small talk is often how people stay in the loop with work projects.
Posting updates about what you’re working on allows for better alignment with the rest of your team and company. How you share will depend on the size and culture of your company, but be sure you have a system for it, so there’s a high signal-to-noise ratio when people post important updates.
At Zapier, we have an internal blog for this purpose. Employees write about what they’ve been up to, both at work and personally, and teams share reports about projects they’re working on. By scheduling time to read the blog, we can drop in on things that interest us but which we weren’t around for in real time. It’s also a great place to start conversations about those projects and possibly contribute.
For example, as a customer champion at Zapier, I have a lot of experience with how error messages are misconstrued, confusing, or ignored by our users. But I’m not able to be there every time engineers are talking about how to deliver these error messages. Whether it’s due to time zone differences or simply not knowing the conversation is happening, I’m not able to contribute as much. Our internal blog lets me review any conversations I might have missed and jump in on my own time.
Default to action
Asking for permission takes time—especially on a distributed team. That’s why it’s essential to figure out what you can preemptively unblock. At Zapier, if we’re 80% sure about something, we “default to action” (another one of our core values). We’ll still report on what we did, and even ask if it was the right thing. But as long as there’s no irreversible risk, we act first. We can always adjust later.
If you’re in Denver and the person you’re asking is in Perth, waiting for approval or 100% certainty will slow every decision down by essentially a full day.
To work well asynchronously requires you to be constantly vigilant for blockers that you’re throwing up for yourself and your teammates. Set yourself up for success by asking good questions, doing your work in a publicly accessible place, overcommunicating productively, and defaulting to action.
Spencer McCullough is a customer champion at Zapier based in Denver, Colorado. When not working, he’s probably working on his You’ve Got Mail fan fiction or advocating for bicycle infrastructure.