The pandemic caused one of the most profound changes in the workplace, forcing most people and companies to figure out how to do distributed work. But some great companies have been working this way for years. Their secret to success? Asynchronous communication. So let's dive into what it is and how's it different...
So, what is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication is when people communicate or collaborate together without needing to be present or connected at the same time.
Most traditional communication in the workplace is likely synchronous. That is, information is sent and received at the same time (and in most cases, there is the expectation of an immediate response). Consider work meetings or phone calls. The participants either need to be physically present in the same room or at least connected at the same time, for the meeting or phone call to happen.
Even as technology has advanced, workplaces have largely stuck with synchronous communication. Think about tools like Slack, Microsoft teams or Zoom calls. One person sends a message, a notification is received and there's the expectation of a near-immediate response.
Synchronous communication is when people send and receive communication at exactly (or close to) the same time.
Asynchronous communication examples
When people are disseminating and consuming information on their own time, rather than when someone else wants them to.
- Email (when there's no expectation of immediate response)
- Written status updates over Slack or Microsoft Teams
- Complish (asynchronous meetings, 1-1s, standups and status updates)
- Asynchronous collaboration in documents like Google Docs or Dropbox
- Asynchronous collaboration in task management tools like Trello or Monday
Synchronous communication examples
Basically any form of communication or collaboration where people must be (or there is an expectation to be) connected or present at the same time.
- In-person work meetings
- Phone calls
- Video calls (Zoom, Google Meet, MS Teams calls)
- In-office conversations
- Email - when there is the expectation of immediate response
- Team chat tools (Slack, Microsoft Teams) - when there is the expectation of immediate response
What's the problem with synchronous communication?
Over recent years, we have kept the expectation of immediate response and developed more tools (mobile phones, notifications, workplace messaging, video calls) to make sending and receiving work communication easier at any time of the day.
- Synchronous communication leads to constant interruption - both in and outside of work hours. This constant interruption makes it exceptionally difficult to do any focused, thoughtful or creative work.
- Real-time communication incentives employees to be seen to be connected all the time or in as many meetings as they can, instead of being focused on actually producing results.
- It leads to poor quality communication and poorer decisions. People tend to communicate short messages with less context, and when you're forced to make decisions immediately without further time for investigation or consideration, you're much more likely to make an ill-informed decision.
Benefits of asynchronous communication
- More time for focused work
When people aren't constantly interrupted by instant messages or pulled into meetings all day, they can block off large slots of time for uninterrupted deep work. Communication becomes more thoughtful and higher signal, and everyone can work in a way that respects their mental state and flow of work. This translates to deep work when you're in flow, and responding to messages when it suits you.
- Better decisions
People have more time to reflect or even sleep on something to better consider it. This results in less emotional responses and more thoughtful decision making. This also allows more people to get involved in the discussion and there's less likelihood that the loudest voice will dominate the decision.
It's not uncommon in an office situation for people to have meetings simply to communicate what was said in another meeting. Asynchronous meetings leave an artefact (document or video) for anyone to consume later, allowing more people in the company access to the same information.
Aside from the productivity benefit of focused work from point 1, you can now get involved in discussions or see what happened in a meeting without being there. This means no unnecessary meeting attendance - you no longer need to "attend" meetings just to find out what's going on.
- Promotes diversity and inclusion
Asynchronous communication means companies are no longer limited to hiring people who can come into the office. This opens up a new pool of talent, new timezones, locations and cultures.
- Work-life balance
Asynchronous communication allows people to have a non-linear workday. People can better look after their responsibilities outside of work and get work done when best suits their schedule.
Best practices for asynchronous communication
- Set clear goals and objectives people can work towards. Instead of micromanaging, people will work more independently, but they'll need clear goals to work toward.
- Document everything in a central place. Use Notion, Google drive or a dedicated asynchronous communication tool like Complish.
- Document how your team will communicate. Write down what type of communication should be asynchronous and where it should be placed. Write down the types of communication that warrant more synchronous communication or a meeting.
- Think about projects and activities that can be smaller, that can be done with less coordination across teams. Ship in iterations. This way changes can be made without much agreement in advance.
- Start by assuming everyone is asleep the next time you're communicating something!
With the world shifting to distributed teams, now is the time to reconsider how your team can be effective. Experienced remote companies have figured out that asynchronous collaboration is a superpower for distributed teams. It's important to identify when to use asynchronous vs. synchronous communication. When used in the right way, asynchronous communication could unlock a new level of productivity and transparency for your team.
Looking for the right tools for asynchronous communication? Here are a few of the best tools below.
Tools for asynchronous communication
- Complish - Asynchronous collaboration tool for running discussions, meetings, 1-1s, defining goals and daily check-ins
- Google Docs - For long form communication, documentation and comment threads
- Basecamp - Project management and lightweight asynchronous chat
- Loom - Recording video to be shared later is a great way to work asynchronously
- Yac - Voice recording for distributed teams