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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Effective Remote and Asynchronous Work with Kaleem Clarkson & Tammy Bjelland

Effective Remote and Asynchronous Work with Kaleem Clarkson & Tammy Bjelland

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke with two of the speakers from the Remote Teams track at QCon Plus, Kaleem Clarkson & Tammy Bjelland, about the dangers of “hybrid” working environments and what is needed to make flexible remote and asynchronous working effective. 

Key Takeaways

  • Decisions about returning to the office and employee experience need to be made in consultation with the people impacted
  • “Hybrid” is an almost meaningless term – consider rather the ideas around flexible workplaces
  • Effective flexible working involves being very intentional and strategic about designing processes to enable inclusion of every single employee regardless of where they're located
  • Relying on synchronous communication for every single important thing that you're doing in the business just means that you are slowing your business down
  • Asynchronous work saves time, educes burnout and enables true, flexible work. There's no reason that they have to be on the same exact schedule as team members



Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. In today's episode, we're picking up from the recent QCon Plus event, particularly looking at the running effective remote teams. We've got two of the speakers from that event, Tammy Bjelland and Kaleem Clarkson, who have joined me to continue the conversation. Tammy, Kaleem, welcome. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Tammy Bjelland: Thanks so much for having us.

Kaleem Clarkson: Appreciate it. Love sharing the stage with Tammy.

Shane Hastie: Just a quick refresh, if you wouldn't mind introducing yourselves. Tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to talking about this topic at QCon Plus. Tammy, can I start with you?

Introductions [01:00]

Tammy Bjelland: Hi, I'm Tammy Bjelland. I'm the founder and CEO of Workplaceless. Workplaceless is a company that specializes in improving remote and hybrid work effectiveness through comprehensive training programs that focus on the skills and behaviors that individual contributors and managers need to enable effective remote work. I talk a lot about remote work and the skills that are needed to be successful in a remote and hybrid environment. The topic that I talked about at QCon was improving the balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication to improve personal outcomes, as well as team and business outcomes.

Kaleem Clarkson: Hello, everyone. My name is Kaleem Clarkson, and I am the chief operating officer for Blend Me, Inc. Since 2013, we have been a remote work consultancy that helps startups and small businesses improve the remote employee experience. That really encompasses all sorts of things, from attracting the right employees to inclusion and diversity, operations, another area, internal marketing and communication. Yes. So we've been doing this for a little bit and it's been pretty cool. Can't complain. The session that I gave at QCon was around the idea of the importance of evaluating the remote employee experience, what we, at Blend, call TREE.

Shane Hastie: We'll include in the show notes the links to those sessions so our audience can go and watch those. So, I want to pick this up and say, what's happened since QCon and what are some of the other messages that we want to talk about? Hybrid work, there's a lot in the news at the moment. We're in July 2021. Things are starting to open up. How do we not lose what worked well during the shutdown, the pandemic?

Kaleem Clarkson: First, let's all start off with hybrid, hybrid, hybrid, hybrid, hybrid, hybrid, hybrid.

Tammy Bjelland: We've got it out of the way.

Gamesmanship among tech companies [03:00]

Kaleem Clarkson: We've got it out of the way. We pretty much heard this word so much, so much. Yes. So for us, one of the things that we've just been really shocked by all of these organizations that have been requiring their employees to return to the office and really organizations that we have looked up to for different type of inspiration for work models, not just remote work models, just for work models and best places to work. So, you have Apple. That's probably the most popular story of requiring their employees to return to the office, which resulted an open letter being written by, let's say, 85, 83 employees to want to be more included in the process and the decision-making of what remote work would look like in the future. I believe just recently, I think we just saw last week or this week Google did something similar, requiring their employees to return to the office.

So for me, I'm shocked that some of these companies are doing that. The thing that I find kind of comical about the whole thing is that Apple releases the story, and then 48 hours later, Facebook releases a story saying that everyone is going to work remotely forever. I think there was a little bit of gamesmanship there, a little bit of timing there, but I don't think there's really a coincidence that that happened. But anyway, to me, I'm really shocked that these companies are making these policies and making these decisions without taking the time to really include their employees, include feedback from everyone and just have a real inclusive and transparent process before they go ahead and make a decision on what the future work would look like.

Tammy Bjelland: Kaleem, I'm curious, do you think that there's going to be long-term ramifications for a brand as well known as Apple for the employee experience? Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because I'm curious, the brand itself is just so, so big and well-known. Do you think it's going to have an impact on the talent pool that they have access to?

The impact of employee experience on brand, employee attraction and attention [04:54]

Kaleem Clarkson: Tammy, I think that's an unbelievable question and I wish I knew the answer to, but I'm not going to dodge it. I'm not going to dodge your question, like a politician would. Sorry, politicians out there. Sports people do it, too. Everyone does this. Everyone does it. Sorry. The brand is just so big. I'm not quite sure how much it will impact them. But let me just say, how many employees from Apple applied at Facebook two days later? So, does it have the potential to really, really impact them? Yes, I do believe it does. I do believe if the world and individuals and people who have realized this work-life integration situation is possible and is preferred. If they don't adjust, I do believe it could have a serious negative impact. They're going to be some other tech giants that say, "Hey, you know what, maybe we should jump on this Facebook bandwagon as well. We should have everyone work remotely and maybe we can start stealing and attracting their employees." So, it's great entertainment. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. I'm just hoping that bigger brands attach themselves to the correct bandwagon, because we see two directions, right? It's like one, going in the direction of more remote or more flexibility. And then we have people going back home, going back to where they came from, which is business as usual. We're going literally back to normal, the normal that was before the pandemic. I'm also curious to see what happens. I'm nervous. I'm hopeful that bigger brands are going to hop on the more flexibility bandwagon, but it makes me really nervous when really large well-known organizations, especially ones that have made such a name for themselves when it comes to innovation and creativity, because that seems to be one of the hangups in organizations that we talk to.

They're really concerned about maintaining their ability to be innovative and creative when they have a really dispersed workforce. It is possible to be innovative and creative. The fact that these organizations that have built their brand on innovation and creativity, that the fact that they're not looking at this opportunity as a way to be innovative and creative about the way we work, it's really a missed opportunity.

Be realistic about which jobs can be done remotely and which can’t [00:18]

Kaleem Clarkson: Yes. I'm really shocked when I saw that from Apple. I mean, I understood a little bit from maybe the Apple store perspective because now they have the Apple store. Obviously, I feel like a lot of common sense during this period has been lost, too. Of course, there are certain jobs and tasks that can't be done remotely. The warehouse team, we're not talking about these obvious things and maybe that's part of the problem. As remote work advocates, I'm all out here shouting, "Yes, let's do this." But then I'm not saying... Well, obviously, the warehouse shipping team needs to still ship products. The company at GM needs to build cars. They still need to be on the factory line. To me, maybe we're just not articulating that enough that yes, some jobs are not going to be remote. So maybe that's an issue.

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. I do think even that word remote, I feel like there's such a reaction to it because people either assume that that means that their entire company has to be remote and because that creates such a blocker for them to really open their mind and see all the ways that they could optimize their business structure. It's not about going all one direction or all another direction. In that respect, I think that embracing of the hybrid approach I think is more in the right direction because it reflects that acknowledgement that it is going to be a mix of situations for different roles and different functions. But of course, hybrid doesn't really mean anything because it can mean anything. And so, that's my beef with the word hybrid.

Kaleem Clarkson: Yes, me too.

Flexible workplaces not “hybrid” [08:53]

Tammy Bjelland: It's not committing to any real decision and any real vision for most organizations that are just throwing the term around. So that's my issue that I have with the term hybrid, but I definitely think that that word is getting closer to what we're really talking about, which is the flexible workforce that is not tethered by space, place, time, region, any of those things that we typically see as the common thread for a team.

Kaleem Clarkson: Location independence is the term we use.

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. We have to rethink about what is that common thread that really defines a team that works together? For me, it's not about place, it's about the work that you're doing in the mission and whether you can see that your contributions are moving that mission along. I'm definitely watching all of that. And then, of course, you see op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. There was one recently that was a hot take, which was not a hot take at all, about we can't go remote because we need to come back to the office. I'm like, "That's not a hot take, because that is literally how we've been working for centuries." It really is like you have to be in the same place. And so, I'm exhausted by that.

Kaleem Clarkson: There's another thing that really bothers me about this situation, is that that hot take that you're talking about, there's no research evidence behind it. So for me, you have all of these PhDs, you have all of these scholars all over the world, and now we're going to just listen to the CEO of Goldman Sachs because remote work is an abomination, just because he believes that. Although there are literally numbers, especially I think even in that situation and one of the articles, somebody said, "My numbers are higher. My numbers are higher." So to me, I just can't stand the idea of people who are in these positions of power, just making a decision on zero data and just saying, "Live with it or else."

The dangers of imposing a hybrid approach without careful consideration and adequate investment [10:58]

Kaleem Clarkson: And then the other future thing that I would like to talk about hybrid is I do believe, potentially, a hybrid, there's two ways it can go, right? So there's an organization that's going to say, "Okay. Let's do hybrid." Most organizations aren't going to do it correctly. They're not going to add all the resources that they need to to make it work, because note, a hybrid remote work setting is by far the most difficult to implement because of all the variations there are within just that definition of hybrid. So you're going to have a whole group of organizations that are going to say, "Let's try this. Let's do it," and then not do it correctly and then go back. So then there's that thing. "Well, we tried it. Sorry, it didn't work."

But the other thing that I think could backfire for some of these organizations that are just saying, "Okay. Well, let's try a hybrid. We really don't want to, but we're going to try it anyway because we have to." I think what could potentially happen is is that people, once they go back to the office and we talk about this before, and they get over that honeymoon period and they get stuck in traffic one time. I live in Atlanta, so traffic is a significant here. You get stuck in that traffic one time, I'm just wondering if people are going to say, "You know what, hybrid is fine," or are they going to say, "You know what, I've been doing hybrid, and it doesn't even make sense for me to go into the office, those one or two days a week that they're making me. So I'm going to find a fully remote job"?

It's almost like it could go either way because people are going to be going into the office. They're going to be excited. They're going to see their friends. They're going to see people and then they're going to get stuck in traffic or they're going to miss their child's baseball game, or they're not going to be able to take their dog for a walk on that day. Something's going to happen. And then the question is going to be, "Do I actually need to go into this office?" So, it's going to be really interesting.

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. It all does hinge on those resources that are available, because if you have the resources and you have the support from all levels, making sure that that hybrid situation is effective, you have one bad day commuting, you can overlook that if you have a really great employee experience and if you have the resources and if your leadership is really effective at managing a hybrid team. But if you have that bad day on the Interstate and also your manager always forgets about you because you're only in the office once a week, as opposed to a colleague of yours that's in the office more often, or you don't have access to the same opportunities or information as your teammates that are in the office more often, you're going to be like, "Well, forget it. This isn't worth it."

The importance of investing in the employee experience for flexible working [13:27]

Tammy Bjelland: So the best way for organizations to safeguard against that situation that you're describing, Kaleem, is investing in that employee experiencing and creating the resources that are needed so that everyone can manage effective hybrid teams, as well as individual contributors and other team members being able to manage those intricacies of the hybrid experience.

Shane Hastie: Can we delve into that? What is potentially a good hybrid experience? For the audience, people who are often in the team leader, technical influencer position, how do they make it work?

Tammy Bjelland: Kaleem used a word earlier and that I'm going to start with that word, and that's inclusion. I think the way that he works on that with his clients, it probably includes what I'm going to talk about, but it involves being very intentional and strategic about designing processes to enable inclusion of every single employee regardless of where they're located. And so, you have to think about every piece of the employee experience. Kaleem, again, is going to go more into detail on this, I'm sure, but every single piece of that employee experience and looking at that and looking at how you can design processes so that somebody working remotely will have the same outcome as somebody who's in the office. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of consistent attention to your biases and your behaviors. And so, it's not like a one and done thing.

Kaleem and his team won't be able to come in and design a program and just set it and forget it. Same thing for our team, we work on behavior change and mindset adjustment. It's not just about, "Okay. I learn how effective hybrid teams should be run." The real question is are you actually practicing the behaviors and putting those things in place? Is that visible and recognizable by your team members and are they seeing the impact? So it's continuous behavior change along with learning about what is different about the hybrid experience. I'll let Kaleem go into detail about the things that he and his team consider.

Trust is key to effective flexible working [15:54]

Kaleem Clarkson: Ooh, the pressure, the pressure. So for me, it's really hard to say what is a good hybrid work model, because again, we've talked about there are so many different variations within that definition. You can require each person to come into the office once a week. You could have a whole set of your team required to come into the office five days a week while some people are working remotely. You can have a situation where it's coming to the office whenever you feel like it. I mean, there's a good amount of variances in there. But to echo what Tammy was talking about was, so the employee experience, just outside of remote, trust, people have to trust you. You have to trust your employer. Responsibility, your employer needs to take on the responsibility to provide all the resources for you and you've got to take on the responsibility of getting the job done.

You've got to attract the right talent. You have to hire the right talent. You have to onboard them correctly. Then you got to make sure that they're engaged. Then you've got to make sure that their performance evaluations are complete. Then you got to develop them. And then if they leave, you got to have a good off-boarding or departure situation. So, I just went really fast as to what that whole employee experience is. There's no doubt that change, behavior change, is definitely the top priority. What's been great about... I don't want to say what's been great about the pandemic, but what the pandemic has brought to light is the idea of self, the idea of person, the idea of people. People have shifted priorities, hence why they moved from the city to other places. People have reflected on what's important to them.

As a manager, you have to shift to more of a coach. It's more of a coaching situation. It's more of an area of personal and professional development. Workplaceless, great opportunity, great tool for managers to learn how to manage. We have to all upskill right now because this is new and I'm learning every day. I learn something every single time I get on a call with someone or anything like that. So, I think the perfect situation is definitely an environment, where psychological safety is critical, where people can feel like they can make mistakes, a coaching environment, shifting from that, "What are you doing today? I'm looking over your shoulder," to results-based assessments.

I mean, that's a lot of work. If you haven't been doing KPIs or OKRs or whatever terminology you're going to use and you haven't been using that to determine success, we're talking about changing the whole way you operate. So, exactly what Tammy said, this is a long marathon. We literally just started the marathon. So, I don't know if that answers your question because I don't know if I can actually give you the perfect answer for that because we're all learning.

Shane Hastie: It's a complex environment. One of the things that we touched on briefly before we started recording is what we're starting to see in some organizations and we've certainly seen this in the InfoQ trends reporting is a shift to fully asynchronous work in some organizations. How do we make that work well, and should we?

Shifting to asynchronous work [19:01]

Tammy Bjelland: I'll start with the more philosophical question about, should we? Should we focus on async? I very much believe that we should focus on async communication and skills. I am not talking about going fully async. What I am talking about is improving the balance of synchronous and asynchronous. So typically, in organizations that have not had a strong remote work culture, they rely very heavily on synchronous communication to get anything done, whether it's updating, whether it's making decisions, whether it's connecting, whether it's creating or innovating. All of those core work tasks, they're done synchronously and not all of those tasks need to be done synchronously. And so, if we really want to leverage the benefits of remote work or flexible work, even beyond location flexibility, we're talking about schedule flexibility.

So, Shane, you're in New Zealand. Kaleem and I are on the East Coast. The scheduling, even just a podcast recording was challenging. If this task was core to the business's success, it would have had an impact on the overall success of that outcome, right? Because it would've taken longer than it really should have. And so, relying on synchronous communication for every single important thing that you're doing in the business just means that you are slowing your business down, especially if you're trying to now increase your talent pool by hiring people outside of your immediate region and time zone. So as soon as you start diversifying your workforce when it comes to time zones, you have to rethink your approach to async because the only way that you're going to get anything done is by adopting more async work practices.

Kaleem Clarkson: Tammy, just for everybody, what is synchronously? Because I've known what they were for a little bit, but sometimes, you know...

Tammy Bjelland: Sure. Synchronous communication is communication that happens simultaneously. So the message sender and the message receiver are sending and receiving messages at the same time. So an example is a Zoom call, a phone call, a face-to-face meeting. Some people, unfortunately, treat Slack or other apps like that as synchronous. Depending on how you view those tools, they can be synchronous or asynchronous. So asynchronous is the opposite of synchronous. So the sender sends a message and the receiver does not receive it at the same time and does not have to respond at the same time. So, there's a delay. And examples of that would be email, messaging, any other collaboration tool where you can add comments, like commenting on Google Drive, for instance. All of those are examples of asynchronous communication.

Tammy Bjelland: So basically, I can do it on my own time. And then the receiver of that message, if response or action is needed, they can do it on their own. And that's specifically for communication. So when we talk about asynchronous work, that is work that is not dependent on other people getting work done at the same time. So for instance, writing a blog post for me would be an example of a task that I could complete asynchronously. Whereas in some organizations, if they can only come to consensus synchronously in a live Zoom call, that would be something that they consider synchronous work.

Access and transparency are key to effective asynchronous working [22:34]

Kaleem Clarkson: Awesome. Thank you. So as far as asynchronous and synchronous work, in the async piece, where do you talk about access and transparency? So for me, the big advantage to working asynchronously, you get the most out of it if multiple people can view that asynchronous communication. This is basically why Slack was originally... Not why they originally created. They originally created Slack for a video game, but we all know that story, but their first marketing message was reducing the amount of email. We all remember what it was like when you had to have an email with your team of let's just say 10 people and you're talking about something, what your inbox would look like? It would just fill up.

Kaleem Clarkson: So the advantages to me that I look at Slack and the async is access and transparency. So something is posted somewhere and everyone can actually read it. It's there for most of the people on the team to read or whoever, and they can respond when they see fit, or maybe they don't even need to respond. So when you're talking about asynchronous communication and asynchronous work, where do you fit in transparency and access?

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. I think transparency and access are sort of like at the start of async because it's one of the reasons why you do it, but it's also one of the things that you need in order to adopt async as a practice in general. So documentation is definitely a key piece of asynchronous communication. So, document everything, right? That's one of the key pieces and that definitely improves access to information and it cuts down on individual's reliance on other people to get access to information and actually keep moving, keep work moving. So, that access is definitely a key benefit of adopting a better balance of asynchronous communication.

And then transparency, too, is there's definitely a mindset shift for some organizations, too, about what are we transparent about. You really have to be committed to that concept of making information accessible to team members. That's definitely one of those key pieces of making even remote and hybrid work effective at all, because if information is not accessible to employees that are not in the office, then they're not going to be included. So those are definitely key benefits, but also key aspects of the mindset that's needed to even move forward.

Kaleem Clarkson: To do async right. Yes. Yes.

Be clear about response and usage expectations for different communication modes [25:09]

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. Our experience with organizations that are looking to adopt more async practices, they're on that track of realizing that they're getting blocked in terms of moving forward with work because there is limited access to information. Nobody knows what the expectations are for communication. So their inboxes are jam-packed with messages that could have been in Slack or probably are also in Slack. So people are sending messages in multiple channels and all of that is contributing to burnout. You're getting multiple messages. You don't know... I need to spend all of my energy figuring out, "Okay. How do I respond to somebody hasn't responded back to me in two days? Do I need to follow up with them? How do I follow up with them?"

We're spending all of this energy, making really mundane decisions about communication every day. When it comes to big decisions, there's a limited capacity that we have for making decisions in our day. By setting really clear expectations for how your team is supposed to communicate, you can eliminate a lot of those mundane decisions and reserve energy for bigger decisions. So, there's a lot of benefits that come with improving async. So Shane, hopefully I answered your question about should we?

Kaleem Clarkson: The answer to the question is yes.

Tammy Bjelland: It saves time.

Kaleem Clarkson: But you have to be transparent. You can't do it in a vacuum. You got to have documentation. So yes, get it done and contact Tammy.

Tammy Bjelland: It saves time. It reduces burnout. It enables true, flexible work. There's reason for many individuals who can work on their own and independently, there's no reason that they have to be on the same exact schedule as team members if they only really need to overlap one hour a day. And so, when we talk about flexibility, it's not just location independence. It's also that scheduling, and that's really also where async communication can really make a huge impact on an organization and team's ability to keep work moving even when everyone isn't in the same virtual or physical room.

Shane Hastie: Personally, I work in a very flexible environment. We do a lot of asynchronous communication. So I have a bias towards exactly what you're talking about. In my day job, that works well for us. We're a completely distributed remote-first team spread around or servicing people in every time zone in the world. So, that sort of time shift happens a lot.

Find the right balance of in-person, synchronous-remote and asynchronous work [27:40]

Kaleem Clarkson: The one comment I would like to make, not leave synchronous communication lonely and out there by themselves. The idea is that I think where I hope that we get to is being realistic on why we want to go to the office. I think just being realistic that some people, we are a tribal species and we need to be around people. That's why we've always had tribes. For some people, and shout out to all the single people out there and making it happen and enjoying the single life, the workplace is where they get their socialization, where they're able to be engaged with society. So to me, I just feel like Google, you have this great campus. Okay. Make the workplace what it is. I'm going to use a little slang here. Don't front, don't trip and act like everybody's really going to the office to just get the work done because the last year and a half has proven that's not the case.

The reason why people want to go to the office is to high five, to talk, to just be around my colleagues, to go get a beverage, a coffee or whatever after work and do some of these things. I mean, to me, I feel like moving forward, the company retreat is more important than it ever has been, and that company retreat should not be about work. It should not be about, "Let's get together and do a strategy meeting and do all of these things about work." It should be about connections, building connections. And that's where synchronous, to me, is always going to live. That's in building connections and establishing more on your existing relationships. So yes, I am a huge, huge advocate for remote work and asynchronous communication, but when it comes for building those deeper connections, when it comes to socialization and being social, plan that retreat, make it fun, more fun and even more fun.

Tammy Bjelland: Yes. One of the things that we teach in our programs is if you learn how to improve your asynchronous communication practices, for some of what we call the lower order tasks on our placeless taxonomy, like informing and decision-making, you save time for connecting. And so, you're reserving that really valuable overlap of time with other people's schedules to develop those connections, instead of wasting that really valuable time on status updates. I always use that as an example, but it's really improving that balance so that you can use the synchronous time in the most effective way possible, and that, like Kaleem said, developing that social capital is a really key piece that a lot of technology has not yet been able to support in the way that we, as humans, have come to expect in our different social circles.

Shane Hastie: Some really interesting points and good advice here. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find the two of you?

Tammy Bjelland: You can find me on Twitter @TammyBjelland, T-A-M-M-Y-B-J-E-L-L-A-N-D. Also, you can find the Workplaceless website at

Kaleem Clarkso: Yes. For me, you can find me on Twitter @KaleemClarkson, K-A-L-E-E-M-C-L-A-R-K-S-O-N. LinkedIn as well. I don't do too much Instagram, but you can check me out there with the same... I'm Kaleem Clarkson everywhere. And then feel free to check out our website at

Shane Hastie: Kaleem, Tammy, thanks ever so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It's been great.

Kaleem Clarkson: Thank you so much.

Tammy Bjelland: Thanks so much for having us.



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