The rise of the asynchronous worker

A new worker type means yet more changes for the office

August 31, 2022

It’s 6 a.m. in New York City, and Brian is logging into Microsoft Teams to discuss a project with a colleague in Singapore, who is 12 hours ahead of him. While such a call once meant that both employees would need to extend their workday, a shift in how employees get the job done is changing traditional work models.

In what is being called the next step beyond the hybrid office, asynchronous work allows employees to determine when and where to work. 

Asynchronous [ ey-sing-kruh-nuhs ]
not occurring at the same time: The factory has two asynchronous production lines with end products paired in final assembly and shipped to buyers.

For some employees, working 9-to-5 in the office is the most productive way to accomplish their workload. But for others, there’s a whole host of options. For example, some may prefer to start their day at 6 a.m. and can get more done before noon than in a traditional 8-hour day. Others may be more productive in the office in the morning but prefer to work from home or a third place in the afternoon. And some might find it more efficient to compartmentalize their personal and work obligations throughout the day – working in blocks instead of straight hours.

Such personal choices are sparking a new set of challenges for companies and landlords. Unlike remote work, asynchronous work creates a new set of logistical challenges for the physical office space, says Tony Josipovic, JLL Global Product Management executive director. 

“A particularly challenging pain point is the discrepancy between how employees say they work in the office and what building and utilization data shows,” Josipovic says. “Getting a true benchmark is already challenging and it’s a must have – think of it as a table-stakes.”

Measuring the erratic

While asynchronous work elements might already be familiar to some, the idea itself is still in its infancy stage, with tech companies like Automattic, the company behind, becoming one of the trailblazers.

Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg told the Wall Street Journal that the old model of 9-to-5 work wasted his employees’ time and was awkward for those who work in teams across different time zones.

“Asynchronous also allows people to structure their days to be more productive. Right now, with traditional offices, we force everyone to work in a lowest common denominator way,” Mullenweg said in the article. “Everything—workspace, environment, schedule—is kind of a compromise, versus when people can design their own work time, their work environment, and can tailor it to what they know about themselves to get their own personal best work done.”

The erratic nature of asynchronous work is projected to be a challenge for corporate real estate executives and others trying to figure out their company’s space needs. When all employees worked in the office from 9-to-5, it was easy to predict how many desks and conference rooms were appropriate. For example, a company that had 100 employees could estimate at least 90 would be in the office at any given time.

“The equation was straightforward,” Josipovic says. “If my staff grew, I needed more space. If it shrunk, I needed to get rid of space. Today, the problem is that demand for space is erratic and irregular and doesn’t necessarily result in a 1:1 seat to worker ratio, and that will only grow as asynchronous work is adopted.”

“Right now, one of the biggest challenges companies face when managing their workspace is they don’t know when employees will come in, what they want to achieve in the office, and how long they will stay. It’s very difficult to curate a personalized experience without this information.”

Overcoming challenges

From a built environment point of view, asynchronous work raises many questions around access.

In a June 2022 report, JLL found that 60% of office workers wanted to work in a hybrid style, and 55% were already doing so. But are they happy about it? That same report revealed that 48% of those surveyed saw their company as a great place to work, and one out of four told the firm they contemplated leaving over the next year.

These stats mean it’s important for employers to overcome challenges in the physical space so that employees view it as enhancing their workday, rather than being a burden to bear, says Lindsey Walker, JLL occupancy planning and management senior product strategist.

While employees can often access their buildings 24 hours a day, the amenities and services often go dark in the evenings (from coffee service and shared space to security). For example, a building is not running its air conditioning 24 hours a day, but what if some people want to work later or earlier in the morning? That creates a hindrance.

The technology advantage

Josipovic says technology will play a crucial role in space planning and occupancy management in the asynchronous office environment.

Platforms such as Envio Systems, which JLL recently acquired, helps aggregate, analyze, and get insights from sensors and other data sources. AI software learns from the data and insights and helps with the supply side of the equation – the assignment and allocation of space and the understanding of how to maximize collaboration and human connection in the workplace. Lastly, scheduling and experience apps provide the crucial demand signal indicating when workers plan to be in the office; a key data point in understanding and anticipating future space demand.

Apart from the obvious ability to curate and personalize the workplace when integrated with the other systems, combining building access into the equation creates a more frictionless experience that also can alert people who collaborate when teammates intend to be in the office.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in the ability to create workplace vibrancy on days when demand is light by consolidating occupants, which when linked with building systems, could reduce carbon emissions by adjusting HVAC, lighting, and other building systems to the anticipated daily space demand.

“As we customize our offices and adopt more variety and choice, we have to figure out if those spaces align with the asynchronous profiles of the employee,” Walker says. “If Brian in New York needs to communicate in real-time with his coworker in Singapore, does the workspace support that? Ultimately, it will come down to the data you’re collecting that will help you make the right decisions going forward.”

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