Since the pandemic began, organizations have struggled to convert remote operations to a more sustainable model. A major contributing factor comes from a deep reliance on real-time, synchronous communication, compensating for lack of structure, visibility into work, and self-management skills. Synchronous communication may be getting in the way of your organization’s success may include calendars full of meetings, workforce burnout, long-hours worked across time zones, inefficiency, and decreased productivity. The most successful remote organizations are able to maneuver between asynchronous and synchronous communication and collaboration, optimizing for efficiency, inclusivity, and wellbeing.
What is Asynchronous Communication?
Asynchronous communication is defined by messages that aren’t shared or received in real-time. Common ways teams experience asynchronous communication and collaboration are through a string of threads in email, project management systems, customer relationship management and content management systems, messaging tools, shared documents and digital whiteboards, and video recording tools. One pitfall many teams face is using asynchronous channels in real-time, classic examples are dropping everything to respond to non-urgent messages or emails, creating a vicious cycle of reactive work and unproductivity. The challenge for organizations is both in setting standardized rules and expectations for communication and enforcing them.
What are the Benefits of Asynchronous Communication?
Building an organization-wide communication strategy that maximizes asynchronous methods brings lasting benefits to companies of all sizes. With reduced reliance on synchronous meetings and messaging to get work done, workforces see increased productivity, time for deep work, and thoughtful responses, while enabling a more seamless employee experience regardless of location and time zone. These benefits create a more inclusive and supportive environment allowing for both introverts and extroverts to contribute equally, and allows individuals to optimize their workday for their own personal efficiency preferences, not needing to be as tied to dedicated 9-5 hours.
“The criteria can feel blurry while deciding when a conversation should be moved from async to sync or vice versa. The trick is in not forcing it and finding an optimal balance between the two. If before a meeting you retrieve updates on task completions, project statuses, blockers or additional context then real-time communications can be reserved for topics that benefit from immediate exchanges such as brainstorming, problem-solving, or decision-making,” says Tariq Rauf, CEO and Founder of Qatalog, a work hub that asynchronously funnels tools, people, projects and goals together under one digital roof. “Discoverability can also eliminate dependency on sync communications, and unlock new levels of collaboration. Too many team leaders forget this. Making documents, goals or processes accessible across teams is a simple but powerful collaboration habit because it allows colleagues to discover information relevant to their work, on their own time, without disrupting productivity and flow.”
Helen Kupp, Product & Strategy Leader at Slack’s Future Forum shares how to make flexible schedules work for teams, “For many people, 9-to-5 workdays, regular meetings, and ‘always on’ interactions were never the right work environment. It resulted in burnout among women with children, barriers to advancement among underrepresented employees, and other issues. That’s become truer than ever in the pandemic. Rather than being chained to a day full of back to back meetings, asynchronous communication and work puts individuals back in the driver seat — in control of when to engage in content and messages from others, and when to instead carve out time for deep focus work. That balance is key to productivity. More importantly, each individual’s situation is different. I’m a mom to a new baby, so my most efficient deep focus time may be different from yours. Asynchronous allows us to tailor work to each individual’s optimal work situation, and unlocking productivity.”
What are Best Practices to Optimize for Asynchronous Communication?
Given the reliance asynchronous puts on tooling, it’s important that organizations are intentional in not overwhelming their workforce and infrastructure with a sea of apps, creating information and communication silos, and wasted expense.
Asynchronous tends to rely on written communication, so it’s important to both screen for written communication skills and train the workforce on improvement. Video recording tools like Loom help the sender provide verbal and visual context, supplementing written communications with a high context, human-centered opportunity to collaborate and connect asynchronously.
Plenty of tasks and meetings can be moved to asynchronous channels, but should we be reliant on asynchronous only? No, there is still a time and place for synchronous. Work should be organized into three categories:
Type 1: Synchronous & Collaborative
The work that we’re used to doing together in an office should now be reserved for interactive tasks that will be more valuable with real-time engagement between multiple team members on a phone or video call — scenarios in which producing a result together is urgent, a conversation that will be enhanced by active listening, or thinking quickly on your feet as a group. For example, performance reviews, group brainstorming, trust-building activities, team decision making, and strategic planning.
Type 2: Asynchronous & Collaborative
In asynchronous and collaborative communication, a two-way exchange is expected, just not at the same time. Messages are made accessible to all by sharing openly across tools, channels, tasks and projects. For organizations that see the value transparency has on overall success, the vast majority of asynchronous communication often falls into this category.
“Status meetings is a simple but powerful example of asynchronous communication. Our Future Forum research showed that teams that moved status meetings from live meetings into asynchronous, written updates actually scored higher on sense of belonging than those teams who kept the live meetings. That’s because asynchronous updates do a couple of different things. First, it signals that live team time is reserved for higher value team-building activities. Second, it makes the updates & information more accessible to everyone on the team — they can consume the information, ask questions, and provide feedback in a deeper, richer way than in a quick sync meeting”, says Helen Kupp.
Type 3: Asynchronous & Independent
Messages that aren’t intended to have a response fall into asynchronous and independent. Routine status updates, and FYI’s are great examples of things that are better done independently to guard for people’s time, and being done asynchronously provides for another benefit, recorded information that can be easily referenced any time it’s needed, leading to more self-managed teams, and less taps on the virtual shoulder.
“Discoverability can unlock new types of collaboration. Specifically, making documents, updates, goals or processes accessible across an organization can allow colleagues to discover new information relevant to their work, on their own time. If someone comes back from vacation and they need to catch-up on everything, they’re likely to seek updates across teams and projects. For some items, they’ll want to turn on a tap instead of a firehose. So, rather than schedule meetings to retrieve updates, asynchronous communication can give them a chance to review updates at their own pace”, says Tariq Rauf. Read more about Qatalog’s tips for sharing updates effectively.
Bottom line, asynchronous messages can wait… so let them. Organizations need to set and articulate clear expectations in employee handbooks and communication charters that give workers structure for response time on various types of messages, so they can better self-manage their time, tasks, and energy. “Many of the norms and rituals of how we work together are unintentionally office-centric. The basic assumption is that everyone is working in the same place, at the same times. And honestly, when most companies were forced to make the shift to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, many of the issues & challenges we were seeing around burnout, increase hours and meetings, etc. were from the fact that companies weren’t intentional about the change and mainly lifted & shifted old office practices onto videoconference”, says Helen Kupp.
Teams that differentiate and navigate between using asynchronous and synchronous communication instead of defaulting to real-time connectivity, have success in increasing productivity, and wellbeing in a remote environment. With some creativity, intention, and dedication, organizations are often surprised at how much synchronous work can effectively be replaced with asynchronous communication and collaboration, leading to happier, more productive teams that experience higher quality synchronous time together than ever before, no matter where they are located.