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#asyncfirst & #remoteonly – You Must Change Your Life!

We will see companies crumble. We will see a cultural battle. And we will see political parties decline. 

You can see the precursors now. As consultants, we advise large companies on how to deal with digitalization. There we see the manifold tactics that are used, often subconsciously, to uphold classical but outdated beliefs. 

We see them particularly clearly because our company is based in Germany. Here digitalization is being slept through in a specific and very obvious way.

In Germany, many people, especially top managers and governmental strategists, think digitalization is a mainly technical phenomenon: We need to lay a few more fibre-optic cables. Maybe we need to set up a few more subsidies for “data processing”. Then people can work even faster; the gross domestic product will increase even more. Fine, that’s great for the state.

But is digitalization indeed only a question of more cables and faster CPUs? Or is it actually about changing the lifestyles of workers and the electorate?

The Dam Breaks

Some of them may think, If we do it a little slower, it’ll perhaps be OK. Because this benefits any conservative parties that may be in power – an acceleration in changing lifestyles is not in the interest of conservative parties at all. Their central value proposition focuses on conserving lifestyles. They can change everything but not lifestyles; that’s what they more or less promise to their electorate – all will remain the same!

Classical conservative parties have their roots mainly in the Christian belief system, and we know how evangelicals and Catholics relate to progressives and progress. Not very well. Progress, especially social progress, is a bogeyman in many areas of conservative USA. But now they recognize that they can’t stop it. You can’t hold the dam with your hands if it breaks.

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{Survey results of political parties in Germany, April 2021. The conservative CDU/CSU consistently loses approval during the COVID phase.}

COVID has acted as the fire accelerant of change. The propagated conservative model – women at home, men at work – has been radically disrupted by the virus. Suddenly, both are at home in many households. This has the potential to start a change process in voters’ thinking. Why should they continue to follow a party that has spent decades subverting modern lifestyles when modernity is the new salvation to keep the economy up and running? 

In times of disruption, conservative value propositions develop a profound credibility problem. The same happened to the pagan druids when a new, modern, and fresh belief system conquered their territory. At that time, it was Christianity.

New Anthropotechniques Emerge

We are observing a similar phenomenon in the USA, with the GOP becoming a minority party. Remember, the last time they won the popular vote was 17 years ago. The changing composition of the population is destabilizing them in their most inner-value catalogue. 

But it also has to do with their insistence on conservative lifestyles in a time of upheaval. The Grand Old Party seems to carry irreversibly its backwards-looking stance in its acronym. Conservative branding is becoming ballast to them as cultural progress is accelerated by racing innovation.

By the way, most of these effects are valid for labour parties too. They have no interest in workers growing into people whose self-definition is not predominantly defined by subordinate employment anymore. This would cannibalize their electorate. 

As a result, labour parties subconsciously drive the agenda of big employers to sustain the statics of the basic system. From this point of view, the classical labour parties are also conservative. They want to conserve a certain lifestyle – the working class as their electorate.

Peter Sloterdijk’s book You Must Change Your Life was an investigation into human cultural techniques, anthropotechniques, as he calls them. He skilfully outlines how mankind has dragged itself through disruptive phases again and again. And that’s exactly where we are today – starkly, dangerously, and profoundly. 

The world is changing before our eyes. At the centre of this shift are new anthropotechniques.

I would say that #asyncfirst and #remoteonly are suitable names for some of the powerful meta trends affecting the lifestyles of millions of workers. Entire industries are emerging upon these trends, our own company included.

The Babble Flashes of Project Owners

According to more old-fashioned mindsets, humans are fundamentally lazy. They need to be driven extrinsically to perform. On the value side, they are only interested in material prosperity and security. 

Classical economic theory is based on the image of the rationally deciding homo economicus. A game-theoretical slacker for whom it is rational not to work if not supervised by an employer. Huge patriarchally organized industrial complexes with millions of workers are based on these fundamental beliefs. 

The labour laws of Western countries are based on the postulate of a subordinate relationship. I recently received a letter from my health insurance company. It literally said “for submission to your principal” [Dienstherren, lit.: “your master of service”].

These beliefs are condensed into today’s labour contracts. They are based on the principle of submissive time for money. But the COVID shock has irritated this premise. How can time be measured when people work from home? 

It used to be quite simple: When the employee crossed the factory gate, they were expected to work. If they weren’t working, the foreman would see this and admonish them. 

And now? Suddenly there is no longer a factory gate for millions of workers. They work remotely. This is why they do sync calls as often as possible. So they can prove that they at least worked during these calls. 

Is this why so many sync calls are held in big corporations? Workers demonstrate to each other that they have worked because they are present in these exhausting calls. Working hours are proved by the schedule. 

The classical old belief system comes into effect. “I have done something strenuous, which is good. That is work. I will be rewarded for that.” Well, the workers are exhausted – some of them with zoom fatigue, a burn-out 2.0 upgrade. 

But companies are starting to recognize that these meetings are also incredibly expensive. Ten people sitting passively around, listening to the babble flash of project owners who nervously try to generate value. Everybody feels uncertainty. No one’s position is secure.

A Changing Set of Values

What kind of values are they trying to generate? Money and selling products – so far, so clear. But what can you sell tomorrow in a shifting world? 

Well, that’s extremely difficult to define when the thinking of employees is guided by fading values. Try to make post-COVID an office-first workplace tasty for Gen Z. It won’t work.

One thing companies can do today is adapt their catalogue of values to fit with present developments. Companies should be actively interested in their employees living a modern lifestyle. 

Although it sounds to some ears economically paradoxical, it is in the interests of employers that their employees discover the joys of life. That they learn how beautiful it is to have a well-balanced workday.

Only those who know how this feels will know how the food of the near future will taste, how the medicine of tomorrow will function, and how the car of next year will drive. If you want to innovate, make your employees #asyncfirst and #remoteonly. 

Bring them to independence and autonomy. The more, the better. As Richard Branson said in 2014, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”.

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You don’t need sprawling office landscapes anymore. Infrastructures need to change and be better utilized. The money spent on prestigious buildings to which workers had to commute every day would be better used to improve their daily lives. 

How about investing the money instead in a subsidy for kindergarten costs for young families? That increases the attractiveness of your company for Gen Z much more than the glass palace. 

Dematerialization Is Only the Beginning

If you think about these things consistently, they culminate in the dematerialization of companies. One year ago, #remoteonly sounded like a crazy idea, but now it’s imperative for almost all start-ups. Only for start-ups, or also for big corporates?

In 2019, we glimpsed the flaring rage that Gen Z has regarding climate change. For young talents and bright, modern minds, the climate damage caused by huge concrete structures is obvious. The same applies to the emissions caused by daily commuting and unnecessary air travel in business class.

These things have lost their broad acceptability. 

Rather, a modern company helps its employees live a holistic and balanced life. This means a reversal of circumstances. The centre of interaction is no longer the company – with its pretentious headquarters – but the employee. The result is decentralization. 

The money for glass palaces is more likely to be invested in decentralized hubs that can be moved as quickly as possible as employees’ lifestyles also become more mobile. 

But this trend does not stop at manifest infrastructure. It also affects employment relationships. Asynchronous remote work shifts the focus from the time orientation of classical employment contracts to value generation. 

Ultimately, employers could care less about how long a person works. What is more important is whether the result is valuable and whether it arrives on time. Some people need longer, others shorter. 

This raises the question, How is value measured? Are there KPIs? Are there OKRs? Or is there a brilliant team leader who knows how to assess the value of the product?

Myriads of Microinteractions, Not Evaporating Knowledge

And here we come to another trend of asynchronous work. The sum of valuable microinteractions makes a successful product. This is exactly where the strengths of #asyncfirst companies lie.

They produce a rich treasure trove of electronically documented microinteractions. These are all knowledge points that teams can refer to. Any team member can research these nodes at any time and enrich the network with their own contributions. The trove grows.

This is a diametrically different process than sitting in synchronous calls where the output is a few bullet points. The rest of the knowledge exchange evaporates with the half-life of the team’s collective memory – usually in a few days or weeks. But this is what you’ve paid enormous hourly rates for. 

It’s inefficient and ineffective. Why? Because sync calls are a relic of 20th-century thinking. They should be reserved for emergencies. But even then, I wonder if async communication is perhaps the better choice in some cases.  

In our environment, very interesting start-ups are emerging that rely precisely on this effect. I would like to refer here to Cobiom, which offers Swarm Intelligence as a service. This is precisely about the sum of high-quality microinteractions. It’s no longer about buying a person in their entirety. It’s about stimulating a set of microinteractions that is as emergent as possible. 

The process decouples from the individual. The focus is on the valuable microinteraction. You add a piece of the puzzle to the manufacturing process, and you drive the process forward. A swarm of knowledge carriers circles around the process, and whoever can add a piece does so.

From Leadership to Process Orientation

Team leaders function less as authoritarian overseers than as facilitators who provide ideal support for the process. They look for and identify hidden hurdles and conflicts. They refer questions and knowledge gaps to experts. They invite knowledge holders and stakeholders. Huge quantum leaps can happen with just a few minutes of interaction when the right personas are addressed.

The concept of authoritarian leadership loses its meaning in this context. Process orientation, on the other hand, becomes more important. At a time when people can nano-balance their lives, they do not need a leader. Rather, they need an inspiring process. They need the right questions and inquiries to contribute with inspiring answers. 

As they are remote-ready and in self-control of their daily lives, they don’t need an external controller of their performance, team leaders of the past. But of course they need targets and facilitation.

Rather, the sum of their microinteractions proves their performance. It doesn’t matter exactly which team they contributed to because their microinteractions could work across all teams.

Modern companies function more like social media. The value of interactions is expressed in likes, views, reactions, answers. All this can be expressed and identified in the network analysis with mathematical coefficients. The early precursors of this attitude are today negotiated under #collectiveleadership or #distributedleadership.

I just had in interesting discussion with my cofounder, Katya, who is also the product owner of timz.flowers. She claims that leadership will still be necessary, even with more process orientation and asynchronous knowledge creation. Perhaps we should talk about leadership versus process owenership in a flower and write on it another article.  

Personal Connection Grows

Now the process orientation sounds very technocratic, and it is at first glance. Performance becomes mathematically measurable. It is measured and evaluated with artificial intelligence. That sounds frightening.

But it’s not because it eliminates incredible frustrations. These evaluations create transparency for all stakeholders. Workers know exactly whether they are currently performing well or not. They get immediate options to improve.  

Since every microinteraction also creates a transparent feedback loop, over time, contributions become higher-quality. This constant improvement process is much more satisfying than sitting in unproductive meetings, hoping no one notices the overall inefficiency – the possibility that top management could shut down an entire department or team is deeply stressful.

But you’ll also find that thousands of valuable microinteractions create a much deeper connection between team members than inefficient sync calls with a majority of passive participants. Especially since asynchronous microinteractions are no longer limited to anonymous text deserts. 

Asynchronous video calls are now available for this purpose, where people talk directly to each other, see each other’s faces, and meet on a much more private level than in the stiff video meetings of the past. People creating great products together in that process develop deep ties. 

Gig Economy and Changing Lifestyles

You can ask the question, Will all this really come to fruition? If you ask Gen X and Gen Z, you will get different answers, and I would rather rely on Gen Z’s response. Their answer is visible everywhere. On Reddit, TikTok, Instagram – everywhere we see them creating huge value assets via collective microinteractions. 

Young start-ups rely precisely on these behavioural patterns. They are #remoteonly and #asyncfirst. We anticipate a trend of companies turning into social media, consisting of a huge data treasure trove of asynchronously generated knowledge nodes. 

Now, of course, the issue is how to apply a specific value to these microinteractions, which then translates into real money in the actor’s account. We will see very exciting concepts here in the coming years. 

Token systems will help accelerate product development to the maximum. Here, too, we see the two meta trends of dematerialization and decentralization.

In the future, the most important “employees” – let’s call them contributors – may not even sign an employment contract. Rather, they will opt in with a mouse-click and collect tokens via their microinteractions, which they will then trade on crypto exchanges. 

I know none of this is news. We’re just a quantum leap further in that direction because of the COVID shock. 

These new forms of the gig economy, actually more of a spectre of sociologists, in combination with unconditional basic income, will bring about new societies.

Where Is the Cultural Battle Now?

We will see these things over the next 10 years. We will see how people’s housing behaviour changes: Why should they continue to live in countries with a lack of sunlight when they can do their work asynchronously and remotely? 

As a result, we will see a new form of inverted labour migration – knowledge workers will move with their delicious wages from rich northern countries to warmer southern countries. 

And how will tax authorities react to this? What laws will political parties fight over? Migration has always been a contentious issue, but how will it evolve under these influences?

Can the conservative parties adapt? Some people who can’t keep up with the pace of change tend to radicalize. The developments scare them, and they try to stop the change, sometimes with inappropriate means. 

Companies that don’t transform themselves quickly enough into a knowledge network of asynchronous microinteractions won’t be able to keep up. Some will fall out of the system. And with them, many people.

And of course, I wonder how the millions of jobs that depend on manual labor will evolve. Will the work of a nurse actually change? Or just that of knowledge workers? So is this trend, if it’s really coming, only in certain areas? And will this split create a conflict of different social classes? 

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{Peter Sloterdijk’s book “You Must Change Your Life” referred to a repetitive line in Rilke’s poem about a torso of Apollo.}

I guess, we all have to change our lives somehow. 

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