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Asynchronous Collaboration the Ben Franklin Way

Erika Carter

This weekend(ish) marks the two-year anniversary of what many in the US remember as that time in history when we were told to work from home for a couple of weeks because of a strange and frightening virus going around. Two weeks to stop the spread, remember? Right.

Well, here we are, two years later, fully acclimated to masks, toilet paper shortages, keeping our distance, and working with our cats.

Earlier, somewhere during the beginning of the most apocalyptic-feeling phase of the pandemic, we started a blog series here at Shortcut called Distributing Joy, which is a look at how to manage software teams (and other teams), both remotely and in person. We talked a great deal about the joys and unenjoys of fully remote work - a new concept to many at the time, while a routine concept for remote-first companies.

For some people, working from home was, and still is, fantastic - the best possible way to get paid and enjoy life at the same time. For others, it’s considerably less than fantastic, blurring the lines between work and home, and distributing stress, rather than joy, throughout all hours of the day.

This blog post will also discuss how Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine is the twin of Shortcut.

What?! Benjamin Franklin!? That’s right, he’ll be making an appearance later on.

Whether yours is one of the companies headed back to the office, or whether you plan to work from home forever, the landscape of work has changed indefinitely, and you’ll hopefully learn something below because Benjamin Franklin, after all, thought that we should all learn something new every day. So here we go.

What is Asynchronous Collaboration?

Async. It’s a vibe (this is still a cool, relevant thing to say?). It’s also known as asynchronous collaboration. Shortcut, as a remote-first company, was designed for asynchronous working - empowering teams to work together on an idea or a project in their own time, which is not in real time.

You accomplish what you need to accomplish on your own, and team members do the same thing, in their own time. And you don’t have to talk to people, you can type at them. And when someone types at you, you don’t necessarily need to type back at them right away.

In other words, rather than sitting around a conference table, or brainstorming face-to-face behind closed doors, it’s more like having penpals who are entire teams.

Asynchronous communication is especially important for globally distributed teams - when remote teams are spread across various locations around the world, don’t use the same physical workspace, and work in different time zones to accomplish work. At Shortcut, we have about eighty co-workers working across eight countries.

That means that our Senior Brand Designer in Dublin is going to be working different hours than our Senior Manager of User Education in Oakland; but, thanks to async collaboration, they can still work on projects together every single day.

For locally distributed teams, async is still important when you don’t share physical office space, and even when you do - because if you’re a software team, we can assume you’re using computers to complete your work instead of sticky notes on a dry erase board. You’re definitely not using sticky notes on a dry erase board to plan your work, right?

To facilitate asynchronous collaboration, Shortcut’s interface does cool things - like it doesn’t alert you to who’s online, or who’s typing something, or who’s viewing a Story, Epic, or Milestone. 

We also keep alerts and interruptions to a minimum in the Shortcut app (@ mentions being one of the few things that do alert you in-app).

Of course, there is a time and a place for fast/synchronous communication and slow/asynchronous communication during the workday. For fast communication and sync in real time, it’s good practice to have short, daily or weekly standup meetings and the like, in person with whiteboards, in video calls, or through other communication tools.

Shortcut also has Fields and threaded comments and has facilitated the return of Write to help keep async teams collaborating effectively.

Project Management, Benjamin Franklin-style

Speaking of penpals, as in someone who had them, we’ve arrived at the Benjamin Franklin section of this blog post.

Wait, what does Benjamin Franklin, the guy on the 100-dollar bill, have to do with project management for software engineers?

Well, whether exploring the phenomenon of electricity, inventing bifocals, creating the first computer, or carriaging to the Continental Congress (only one of those four things is a lie), Benjamin Franklin managed his work and followed the same focused routine as much as possible. Here we have Ben Franklin’s actual daily schedule he kept and documented every single day:

Project Management

Benjamin Franklin’s schedule teaches us some valuable lessons about managing work, and it brings to mind the same principles that Shortcut highly endorses. Here are some of these principles.

1. Flexibility

Like Shortcut, Franklin’s plan is structured enough to begin following as a guide, yet flexible enough to be easily adapted to a variety of situations and scenarios likely faced in real life. As Covid-19 taught us all, things change. Plans change. Teams grow. Milestones move. Developments develop. Especially if you’re a startup.

Your project management tool shouldn’t be so rigid and opinionated that it limits you, but one like Franklin’s plan, which is breathable and flexible, so that no matter what happens, you can change it, grow with it, and always have a single source of truth in which to collaborate. Franklin’s schedule teaches us that the best kind of project management, after all, is the kind without all the management. Especially the micro-management.

2. Organization

A messy and unorganized workspace - whether physically or virtually, is counterintuitive to accomplishing real work. At the end of every day, Franklin “puts things in their places” so that in the morning, he can pick up where he left off to “prosecute the present study.” Without an organization and hierarchy of work, it’s hard for teams to stay organized, find what they need, and pick up where they left off. How can people conduct asynchronous collaboration without being able to find anything, without the communication and project management tools to store and manage their work?

3. Reporting

Notice that Franklin asked himself every evening what good he’d done that day, asking himself, more or less, whether or not he accomplished his goals. This is called accountability. Holding yourself and teams responsible and accountable is easy in Shortcut with all kinds of reporting features, such as burndown charts and cycle time / lead charts.

4. Routine

Benjamin Franklin used his schedule every single day to manage his time. Shortcut is a product collaboration tool that can also be part of your daily work routine. For some, like Elliot Katz, Senior Director of Engineering at Thirty Madison, it’s the first meaningful thing they look at every morning.

“Shortcut is the most meaningful thing I look at every morning,” Elliot says. “I look at the sprint. I see what's in progress. I look at what's in code review. I see if there are any comments people left. I look to see what's next up. All of our sprint stand-up meetings revolve around Shortcut. We also go through Shortcut with our Board.”

Remaining Focused

What would Bennie Franks (yes, we’re referring to him casually now) have made of TikTok?

His was a simpler day, with fewer distractions. Fewer texts, fewer emails, fewer Google Hangout chats, fewer Zoom calls, fewer video games (though he always made time for From Software’s latest abacus compatible Dark Souls release), fewer podcasts, fewer Slack notifications, fewer news updates, and even fewer blog posts.

So how can we still apply Ben Franklin’s principles of time management to async collaboration for distributed teams? Here are some Ben Franklin-worthy tips:

  • Ben Franklin got his news by being the news. Literally, he created news and he was also a newspaper editor and printer. However you get your news, preferably from professional journalists, set aside a 15-30 minute block of time a day to consume it, and keep your phone alerts to a minimum. More on this in the next bullet point.

  • Use Screen Time and related software like RescueTime to self-monitor how you’re spending your time. This kind of software can also block apps and websites during working hours to restrict your ability to wander down reddit, youtube, or wikipedia rabbit holes. 

  • Use tools like Clockwise to intelligently rearrange your calendar to give yourself dedicated multi-hour blocks of time to work.

  • Take breaks. Benjamin Franklin, after all, took a 2-hour lunch every day.

Shortcut is project management without all the management. To start your routine in Shortcut and be as eclectic and well-rounded as Ben Franklin, sign up for a free trial.

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