If you are one of the lucky ones who didn't lose their jobs during the current pandemic, you may also be one of the involuntary volunteers taking part in the world's largest work-from-home experiment.
There are several well-written guides on how different companies and individuals do it. Software developers, who have been more or less working from home for the last decade, have particularly good tips - if you haven't yet read any of those guides, you can find a great thread here with practical suggestions.
A less-talked point, and the topic of this article, is learning how to work asynchronously with your team. That means: adapting your team's work style not to rely on other people being available to you right now and, conversely, not being "on call" for everyone all the time.
Synchronous work in the time of Cholera
In a regular, sane office setting the rules are clear: if my colleagues need something from me, they can come by and ask. If I'm busy they'll notice it, either because I'm with someone or because my door is closed. But otherwise, answering their question is literally my job, and when they ask me they get an immediate response. This is a synchronous situation.
Remote work, on the other hand, does not lend itself well to this. There can be a multitude of invisible reasons why I can't answer your question right now: I could be on the phone, stretching from hours sitting on my uncomfortable chair, discussing lunch with my (also at home) partner, answering the door, or multiple other situations that rarely happen in an office setting and cannot be conveyed with a status icon.
For the synchronous worker, this situation is unacceptable. They will send you an e-mail and five minutes later call to ask whether you received it, or are the type of bosses who film their employees to check whether they are working. Working synchronously while remote means being constantly dragged to pointless calls ("hey, quick question!"). You dread leaving your desk because you know there will be endless redundant notifications waiting for you. And you end the day exhausted from switching tasks all the time.
A new paradigm
For a term that's so difficult to write, working asynchronously is rather simple.
As part of a team, you need to embrace the idea that you cannot know whether your coworkers are busy. For all you know, they are in a different time zone and asleep. If you need someone's input you send them an e-mail or an instant message (see below) and then... you move on to something else. Your coworker will reply when it's convenient for them to do so. And meetings must be agreed beforehand - no more calling out of the blue!
As an individual, you need to mute your notifications. I recommend that you turn off all notifications except for when someone "tags" you (that is, they write your username and you get notified) for important topics that require your input. That doesn't mean that you can go fishing during work hours - you will still work, reply within a reasonable time frame, and be reachable when time is of the essence. But you no longer have to reply right now.
Working like this presents many advantages. Important points that would previously be discussed and forgotten are now being communicated on a need-to-know basis via e-mail; workers can easily step away from their desks knowing that nothing critical will be missed, and will stop spending valuable time catching up on notifications. And did you know that longer periods of interruption-free work can save up to 40% of your productivity?
"Asynchronous" does not mean "hermit"
The most common argument against asynchronous work is that you lose "human contact". And, while misguided, that's not a bad point: loneliness is a big factor for lots of people right now, and talking to their coworkers helps them cope in these uncertain times.
Luckily, there are solutions. A classic one is the "random" channel: a virtual board where people are encouraged to post non-work-related topics and discuss about their day. Another one is the "virtual office lunch" where everyone gathers for an hour with their cameras on and just talk.
And this is perfectly fine! I'm not saying "do not use Skype ever again". But I hope you'll agree that there's a difference between "I'm in this meeting because we planned it", "I'm in this meeting to waste some time because it's fun", and "I'm in this meeting to waste my time because someone thinks my time is worthless".
Working asynchronously is a team effort, where everyone needs to be on the same page. But it's not hard to pull off, and it can make your day more manageable. It might not be as helpful as toilet paper or flour, but it's a good start nonetheless.