Remote work has fundamentally changed how we work, communicate, and collaborate. One of its most significant contributions has been making the follow-the-sun model accessible to all.
The follow-the-sun (FTS) model is a collaboration workflow that helps businesses run their operations around the clock without losing capacity.
By following the sun, teams can exponentially increase their productivity and punch above their weight. A software company can deploy higher-quality products faster and tackle critical issues at any hour. A marketing team can keep the lead engine running 24/7.
However, the ability to go remote and hire across multiple locations isn’t enough to successfully follow the sun. In order to prevent 24/7 anarchy, successful FTS teams have a not-so-secret weapon up their sleeves — asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication: the antidote to remote chaos
Asynchronous communication is the act of exchanging information without the need for participants to be online simultaneously. This mode of communication enables team members to collaborate more flexibly and efficiently. They can respond to messages, review documents, and contribute to discussions at their own pace, without the pressure of immediate responses or the limitations of time zones.
Take, for example, a software development company with a distributed team working on a critical project. The developers in India are facing a complex issue that requires input from their colleagues in the United States. If they relied solely on synchronous communication, they would have to wait until their U.S. counterparts were online to discuss the issue, causing delays in the project. With asynchronous communication, however, the Indian developers can provide a detailed account of the problem, and their U.S. teammates can review it and respond when they begin their workday, ensuring continuous progress.
Asynchronous communication makes the remote and FTS model sustainable by dismantling the always-on culture. No team has to be available after core operating hours, preventing burnout and remote fatigue.
Documentation is for winners
Crystal clear and concise documentation is the backbone of asynchronous communication. It ensures that every team member has access to the same information, even when they’re not online at the same time. Documentation provides a foundation for collaboration, decision-making, and progress tracking — preventing confusion, misunderstandings, and delays.
Template library in Confluence
Creating documentation is just the beginning. What you do after creating a knowledge repository is equally vital:
- Have a clear caretaker — Ensure each document has a dedicated caretaker who is responsible for updating and maintaining it.
- Encourage peer review — Frequent peer reviews create a culture of continuous improvement, as team members work together to learn from one another and grow as a collective.
- Feedback loop — No documentation is set in stone. Encourage team members to share candid feedback on existing processes. This leaves room for improving all internal workflows.
You can swim, but can you swarm?
FTS isn’t just about maintaining a presence across all time zones. It means the teams should be able to hand off work seamlessly and continue production. A good test of this is whether your team is capable of agile swarming, i.e., collaborating on a single user story across time zones until it’s completed.
Let’s say there are two teams in two different time zones — Bangalore and New York. The Bangalore team starts working on a feature, tracks progress, and consolidates necessary information in a project management tool. At the end of their day, the New York team picks up the baton. It reviews the documentation in the PM tool and finishes the feature using a shared code repository and continuous integration system. This is a common follow-the-sun example.
Note that the above example can only work if both teams have full-stack development expertise. For example, if only the Bangalore team has a QA and only the New York team has a DevOps expert, they’ll often rely on each other to clear bottlenecks. But if both teams are autonomous and have the appropriate documentation, they can simply pick up from where the other has left.
Shared responsibility and leadership
Although it’s the scrum master’s job to ensure successful follow-the-sun collaboration, they aren’t solely responsible. Instead, it’s the shared responsibility of each team member.
You also need a lead in each timezone to avoid waiting for approvals. Delegating decision-making to team members fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility, leading to increased motivation, improved efficiency, and enhanced collaboration in asynchronous environments. When team members are given the authority to make decisions, they become more proactive, take greater initiative, and feel more invested in the success of the project.
However, it’s also vital to set boundaries for decision-making so everyone has clarity on the limits of their autonomy:
- Define decision-making criteria that outline the types of decisions team members can make independently and those that require collaboration or escalation.
- Create clear escalation paths that specify when and how team members should seek input or approval from others, such as the product owner or scrum master.
- Encourage collaboration and communication among team members to enable collective responsibility.
Tools aren’t everything, but they matter
Process before tools, people before processes. While this is undoubtedly a golden mantra, it’s often misunderstood to undermine the importance of tools.
Asynchronous communication can quickly become chaotic if you don’t use the right tools. Collaboration tools provide a centralized location for information and communications, creating a shared space of distributed teams.
There are three major categories of tools needed for creating effective shared spaces:
- Knowledge management — Tools that serve as your information repositories and knowledge base. These provide your team with a single, trusted source of truth. Examples: Confluence, Notion, Stack Overflow, and Google Drive
- Work management — Tools that allow you to assign, track, and measure the progress of your work. Such tools provide much-needed transparency to asynchronous teams and help them communicate with context. Examples: Jira Work Management, Trello, Asana, Basecamp, Monday, and Taskworld.
- Real-time messaging — Being asynchronous doesn’t mean the absence of real-time channels. You still need a reliable messaging channel for escalation and important updates. Examples: Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Webex.
Kanban board in Jira
Finally, a critical piece of your tool strategy is integrations, i.e., how your tools interact with each other. For example, you can integrate your Jira with Slack to receive a message when the status of an important issue changes or if someone mentions you in Confluence comments. Be careful though, as when it comes to integrations, more is not always better.
Don’t rush into adopting the FTS model
Higher productivity, better work-life balance, more creativity, less risk — the benefits of the follow-the-sun model are undeniable. Still, rushing into it without preparation can do more harm than good. If your team doesn’t have the right process, documentation, and tools in place, it might not be ready for asynchronous communication. Forcing the transition might lead to burnout and resentment.
Remember, going asynchronous is not a one-time process. You need to be aware of the most recent developments and innovations, incorporating new ideas and strategies into your workflow. Once your team finds its sweet spot in the asynchronous spectrum, it’ll be ready to follow the sun and set the stage for truly global operations.
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