With the trend towards remote work accelerating due to the pandemic, companies have scrambled to adjust and sometimes tried to simply replicate the office online. This has led to endless Zoom meetings and constantly pinging Slack notifications.
According to the Harvard Business Review, time spent on voice and video calls has doubled since the pandemic, with email, messaging, phone, and video calls currently taking up “85% or more of most people’s work weeks.” This “always on” culture of constant communication is not only sinking productivity, but also leading to stress and burnout.
Many remote-first companies have avoided these pitfalls by adopting asynchronous communication as the default mode because it allows distributed teams to be more productive and less stressed. With remote work gradually becoming the norm, it’s important for companies to consider implementing asynchronous communication as part of their work culture.
What is asynchronous communication?
To understand asynchronous communication, it’s best to start with its opposite, synchronous communication, which tends to be the default mode in traditional, co-located offices.
Synchronous communication occurs when people communicate in real-time, such as when you talk to a colleague in person, or by phone or video call, or if you’re messaging back and forth at the same time. In these scenarios, both (or multiple) people are present at the same time, even if it’s virtually, such as in a Zoom meeting.
Asynchronous communication, by contrast, does not occur in real-time or require simultaneous presence. It does not assume immediate uptake by the recipient(s) or expect an immediate response. For instance, you might send an email to your teammates, and they’ll read and respond at different times, depending on when they’re working and what time zone they’re in. Similarly, you could record a video to explain how something works, or report progress on a Slack channel, and so on, instead of scheduling a real-time meeting. These are all examples of asynchronous practices.
Asynchronous communication is becoming increasingly important as remote work allows people to work from anywhere in the world. In fact, asynchronous processes and tools are essential for managing a remote team spread across multiple time zones.
What are the benefits of asynchronous communication?
1. Enables ‘deep work’ by reducing distraction and stress
Research shows that being constantly interrupted by calls, meetings, and messages increases stress and frustration, and makes it hard to refocus on the task at hand. It costs time and effort to cognitively switch from one task to another, and if our time becomes fragmented by a series of distractions, it’s hard to be productive and get things done.
Unfortunately, a lot of our time gets frittered away in a distracted state of busywork. It’s only by removing the constant disruption and cognitive switching that it’s possible to truly focus and engage in what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work’—work that requires your full cognitive ability and attention and results in the creation of real value. This state is similar to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of a ‘flow state’ when a person is fully immersed and absorbed in an activity.
Working async means you don’t have to be constantly available and can schedule blocks of focused time for undisturbed deep work, perhaps even in a state of flow.
2. Increases autonomy and flexibility of work hours
An async workplace doesn’t require everyone to be available at the same time, which means people have the freedom and flexibility to choose which hours they want to work. In other words, you have more control over your time and greater autonomy in managing your workflow—as long as you clearly communicate your hours and availability to the rest of the team.
Working async allows people to schedule their work hours around family or other responsibilities, and choose whatever time of day they do their best work. A recent study reports that 93% of employees want flexibility in when they work, and that having schedule flexibility makes people feel three times better about their work-life balance and six times better about work-related stress. Being able to fit your work around your life rather than the other way around is not just good for productivity, but also for engagement, employee wellbeing, and work-life balance.
3. Democratizes access to information
Synchronous communication tends to privilege those who are present in a meeting, call, or conversation because they end up having greater access to information and insider knowledge. This puts other people at a disadvantage if their time zone makes it difficult to attend. A 10 a.m. meeting in New York would be at 1 a.m. for someone in Japan, and even if meeting minutes are shared afterwards, it still doesn't capture everything. In a hybrid environment where some people are office-based and others work remotely, the inequality is heightened since the latter don't have access to impromptu conversations or ad-hoc decisions made in the office. The people on the periphery (whether due to location or time zone) end up being marginalized.
Async communication, on the other hand, favors information being shared in writing or recorded form, so people can consume the information on their own time. Hence no one gets sidelined due to their location or time zone. It democratizes access to information since everyone receives exactly the same information, and also can refer back to it later. It reduces the imbalance of power that might be caused by different people having different levels of access to inside information or knowledge.
4. Promotes equity and equal participation
Another kind of inequity inherent to synchronous communication is that it favors people who are more vocal and extroverted, as well as people in more senior positions. Those who are more shy or more junior might hold back and remain silent, and it might often be women or people of color. Real-time meetings or conversations tend to reinforce structural hierarchies. A senior person might just look around the table and others might accept their idea or opinion without wanting to question it or voice a dissenting opinion. The same hierarchy of power is replicated in a Zoom meeting, and it stifles some voices and viewpoints while favoring others.
Conversely, a 'meeting' held asynchronously via an email chain or Slack thread provides a more equitable opportunity for everyone to participate. It gives people the time and space to formulate a response, as well as the psychological safety to voice a different point of view. Everyone has a chance to weigh in and provide input without the stress or pressure of a live meeting, and responses can be more thoughtful and considered. It reduces implicit bias since you are seeing someone's words and ideas, and not how they look or sound. As a result, async communication reduces 'groupthink' and the diversity of viewpoints leads to better informed and more robust decision-making—in fact, this is one of the superpowers of distributed teams.
How to implement asynchronous communication in your company or team
How often have you attended live meetings where you got bored and started scrolling through your phone? Consider which meetings are actually necessary, and which ones can be accomplished by sending an email for announcements or updates, or a Loom video to explain a new policy or process, or posting on Slack to solicit input on an idea.
To successfully adopt asynchronous communication requires deliberate effort and time. The company or team has to set behavioral norms and expectations regarding communication and collaboration; it has to become part of the company culture.
- Setting expectations: The leadership team will have to set clear expectations around how communication will be handled. In other words, there should be clear policies and processes in place, so that everyone knows what's expected of them and what they can expect from others. For instance, there might be guidelines about how frequently people are expected to check email, or how to keep their teammates updated on their progress on a project. Writing an email might require over-communicating in order to reduce unnecessary back and forth. Setting clear expectations and standard operating procedures will lead to more efficient async communication.
- Software tools: You'll need to decide on a set of software tools to facilitate async communication, collaboration, project management, and documentation. Some popular tools and platforms include Slack, Twist, Asana, Trello, Notion, Google Workspace, Loom, Miro, and so on. Once again, there should be clear expectations about which tools are being used and for what purpose, so that there is no confusion.
- Policies and processes: The norms and expectations regarding async communication norms, processes, and tools should be codified as policies and operating procedures, which are documented in detail in a company handbook. The handbook should be centrally available and accessible to everyone, so that it can serve as a point of reference and source of truth.
- Documentation: At the individual level, all employees should get into the habit of thoroughly documenting their own work so that team members are always clear on the progress of a project, what needs to be done and by when, etc. Good documentation is essential to working async since it promotes efficiency and autonomy while minimizing friction.
Ideally, implementing async practices should be led by someone in the leadership team who will take ownership of the process. This might be the Head of Remote, Director of Operations, Chief People Officer, etc.
Knowing when to choose sync over async
While async communication offers many benefits and improves productivity, it's not always the best choice. There are some situations where synchronous communication is necessary and preferable.
- Staying on track: You might need a regular cadence of live meetings to ensure everything is on track. This might mean weekly team meetings or bi-weekly all-hands, and regular 1:1 check-ins between managers and their direct reports in order to make sure things are progressing and any roadblocks can be removed.
- Building community: Besides ensuring smooth operations, periodic sync meetings and check-ins are also important for building relationships and a company culture. Synchronous meetings, meetups, and events are helpful for welcoming new hires, holding virtual social hours, team activities, annual get-togethers, etc.
- Brainstorming and getting unstuck: Some types of collaboration are better done in sync. If an engineering or design team is stuck on a knotty problem, they might need to jump on a call to brainstorm together in order to get unstuck. Or if one person's progress is going to be held up without input from another, then a quick call could help resolve the issue quickly.
- Sensitive conversations: A phone or video call might be preferable in situations that you want to handle with care. It's hard to read tone in written communication since you can't hear the person's voice or see their facial expressions or body language. This opens up the possibility of miscommunication. So if you're a manager offering feedback to your direct report, a live conversation might be preferable because it reduces the possibility of tone or intent being misconstrued. Conflict resolution is another area where a video call might be preferable. These kinds of potentially sensitive discussions may be handled more effectively in a real-time conversation by phone or video call.
Effective communication ideally includes a healthy mix of sync and async. Synchronous communication is fine as long as it's carefully planned and intentionally chosen (not just by force of habit), and kept to a minimum.
Implementing async communication requires a mindset shift. There might be pushback since most people are used to traditional, synchronous practices like constant meetings. You'll need buy-in from the leadership team, and will have to allow sufficient time and training to make the shift to async. For inspiration, you could look at companies like GitLab, Automattic, Doist, Buffer, and others that successfully use async communication to operate efficiently despite having globally distributed teams.
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