The rise of remote work has gone hand in hand with an increase in asynchronous communication and with it, improved productivity. Allowing for a better work/life balance, smarter planning of the work day, and the use of automations that let us focus on core tasks rather than grunt work, asynchronous communication is a crucial element of the future of work.
It takes half an hour for someone to fully focus on a task again after having been interrupted. In a traditional workspace where synchronous communication is the default, that means that each time a coworker asks you a question, calls you on the internal line, or drops by for a chat, you don't just lose the time it takes for that to happen, but an extra 30 minutes after.
As remote teams communicate mostly asynchronously, those interruptions fall away, leaving room for longer periods of focused work. More gets done in less time, giving employees more flexibility to adapt their workdays to their personal lives and spend more time on friends, family, and personal pursuits.
Here at Gmelius, we believe asynchronous communication is key to running a successful remote team. In this article, we'll dive into what asynchronous communication is, which tools facilitate it, and best practices to follow.
What is Asynchronous Communication?
Asynchronous communication takes place when you send a message without expecting an instant reply. For example, when you send someone an email and they don't reply until a few hours later. For asynchronous communication to happen, the involved parties don't need to be present at the same time.
Synchronous communication, on the contrary, takes place when the recipient of your message processes and responds to it the moment they receive it. A good example is a meeting, where someone will say something, everyone will hear it immediately, and someone else will respond as soon as they've processed the information.
In general, in-person conversations and (video) calls tend to be forms of synchronous communication, whereas (voice) message-based communication can be asynchronous but aren't always. You could send someone a message on Slack and when they receive a notification, they may read and respond to it immediately.
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Communication
The problems with synchronous communication
It inhibits focused work.
High-value tasks like planning a new marketing campaign, coding, or writing, require a deep focus that's impossible to maintain and hard to get back when you frequently have to answer calls, messages, and emails. As a result of context switching, these core tasks end up taking longer than if you'd been able to block out chunks of uninterrupted time for them.
It prioritizes being available over being productive.
When most discussions happen in real time, every moment employees aren't checking their communication tools is a moment they might be missing something. This may lead them to spend more time in Slack conversations, email threads, and meetings than is necessary, at the expense of their core tasks.
It puts unhealthy pressure on employees.
The aforementioned fear of missing out combined with the expectation that communication needs to happen synchronously, puts a lot of pressure on employees. The good ones will want to make sure all of their work gets done even when they're continuously replying to coworkers, which means they'll try to work faster, putting themselves under more stress.
It takes away people's autonomy.
As employees know they can be called upon at any moment, they have few options to plan their work in a way that works best for them. A morning person may try to do their most important tasks before lunchtime, but if they're constantly asked for morning meetings, that attempt easily becomes futile.
It puts speed before thoroughness.
When synchronous communication is the default and people feel like they always need to respond fast, that's exactly what they'll do. This leads to shorter, less thought-out replies and back-and-forths that would be prevented when people felt at ease to take their time and properly think about a request before getting back to it.
It requires active note-taking for record-keeping.
While email and chat conversations are automatically recorded when used for instant communication, other types of synchronous communication aren't always. Whether you're talking to a coworker in the office, on the phone, or in a Zoom meeting, you'll need to actively take notes if you want to be able to easily recall all of the information later.
Not only is note-taking open to interpretation (what's important to one person might not seem so to another), it also forces participants to focus on two things at once instead of being fully present in the conversation.
The benefits of asynchronous communication
It makes deep work the default.
When people are allowed to disconnect from the rest of the team, they're able to spend considerable chunks of time on their most important tasks. This allows them to get into a flow state where they're able to perform deep, focused work and make progress much faster. Not only that, but the quality of their work will likely be better as well.
It requires better planning.
Knowing that your coworkers probably won't get back to you straight away, means you can't send them any last-minute requests or questions. You'll have to plan and do your work in such a way that there's always some time left for unforeseen things, and you'll need to take into account your team members' schedules as well. The benefit of this is that work becomes less stressful as you're never anxiously waiting for someone to get back to you.
It gives people more ownership over their workday (and private life).
Asynchronous communication allows people to plan their workday based on their own most productive times - and around their private life. This gives them a greater sense of responsibility and helps them lead more fulfilled lives as they can organize their work around their hobbies, friends, and family.
It invites thought-through responses.
Have you ever been in a conversation where you felt put on the spot and you wished you could hit pause so you had time to think before responding? Asynchronous communication allows you to do just that. It enables employees to take a step back and reflect, as well as take the time to craft a clear and complete reply.
It makes it easier to provide honest feedback.
While people should always feel comfortable to bring up issues and give feedback, it can be particularly hard for some. In those cases, it may feel more comfortable sending an email than talking to someone one-on-one.
This ties in with the previous point: synchronous communication forces you to think and talk in the moment, whereas asynchronous communication allows you to formulate your thoughts and write them down in a clear way, without you running the risk of getting overwhelmed by the other person's reaction.
Time zones become a non-issue.
As team members don't need to be connected at the same time, you can work with talent from all over the world rather than limit yourself to certain time zones. Whereas in more synchronous companies, remote workers may feel a little left out when they're missing out on all the live discussions, that isn't a problem in companies that communicate asynchronously by default.
You automatically have a record of all conversations.
Chat messages, email threads, comments in project management tools… They're all automatically saved so you and others can reference them again later. This allows for greater transparency across the company and ensures that nobody misses important information.
Don't discard synchronous communication entirely
While the benefits of asynchronous communication are plentiful, it has one major downside, and that is that it lacks those human elements that help us connect with coworkers and interpret their messages better. Body language, the tone of someone's voice, and facial expressions are all things that help us in day-to-day communication and when they're no longer there, that can lead to misinterpretations.
Further down in this article, we'll discuss how to avoid these misinterpretations and make asynchronous communication work for your team but first, we'll go over a few cases in which you'll want to choose synchronous communication instead.
Building report and connection
No written message, as well as it may be crafted, can replace face-to-face interaction when it comes to building report with someone. Remote workers often lack that element of connection with their coworkers but there are ways to establish it, even when your company communicates mostly asynchronously:
- organize yearly team retreats.
- have periodical video call team check-ins.
- go on one-on-one video meetings with team members.
- have weekly social chats or video calls where people can get to know each other better.
Sharing sensitive feedback
We mentioned above that it may be easier for some people to share sensitive topics asynchronously, but in general - and especially if you're a manager - synchronous communication is the way to go. It allows you to convey your message using body language and you'll be able to see the other person's reaction as well, so you can interact with that and answer any questions they may have right then and there.
An urgent issue should be dealt with as soon as possible which means talking to people directly. You don't want a spark to turn into a fire because someone took two days to get back to you.
Brainstorming and complex discussions
Something like brainstorming a new product or discussing a new strategy is better done through synchronous communication so participants can instantly build on each other's ideas and comments. Addressing complex topics asynchronously would lead to lots of back-and-forths, oftentimes undoing the increased productivity normally gained with asynchronous communication.
Outlining big changes and new projects
When announcing big chances or new products, it's a good idea to do so through a team meeting. This makes it easier to get everyone on the same page and address any questions that may pop up during the announcement.
Examples of Asynchronous Communication Tools
Messaging tools like Slack, Google Chat, and Discord allow for instant communication but they don't need to be used that way. You can leave both group and direct messages for coworkers to read and respond to at a later time, and it's possible to scroll back to catch up on conversations you may have missed while you were doing focused work.
Project management tools
Project management tools like Asana, Monday, and Trello allow you to create workflows, assign tasks, share files and leave comments for team members and external parties all asynchronously. Most of these tools are cloud-based and sync in real time so everyone always has access to up-to-date information.
Email is one of the earliest digital tools that allow for asynchronous communication. You send a team member an email, they read it a few hours later, they decide they need to think about your message, and they email you back the next day.
Video meeting tools like Zoom have gotten a massive boost since COVID-19 hit the world in 2020. So much so, that many people are suffering from "Zoom fatigue". Video calls have taken the place of traditional face-to-face meetings and while useful at times, there are asynchronous alternatives you can use when you don't need an instant reply.
With tools like Loom and Vidyard, you can record videos and screencast for your coworkers to view at a later time. It's great if you want to explain something that would take too long to write out and illustrate with screenshots.
Most teams use a range of asynchronous communication tools, which holds the risk that messages get lost or remain unseen. This is especially so as most people prefer one tool over the others and will check that one more often.
A stack-connecting tool such as Gmelius syncs changes across different tools so team members can manage tasks and messages on the platform of their choice. Here are just a few of the ways Gmelius allows you to link and sync different parts of your communication stack:
- Use email notes to discuss emails in a synched thread from both your inbox and Slack.
- Create a project Kanban board within Gmail that syncs with your favorite project management tool.
- Build custom integrations using the public Gmelius API or Zapier.
Insight: it's how you use the tools
The above are just a few of many asynchronous communication tools remote teams have at their disposal nowadays. What you need to be careful of is that practically every one of these tools can be turned into an instant messaging platform - and often is. All it takes is for someone to jump on every notification they get or always have the tool open in a separate window.
Asynchronous communication isn't as much about which tools you use, as it is about how you use them. Below, you can find some tips on how to make asynchronous communication work for your team.
Asynchronous Communication Best Practices
🔕 Turn off notifications
The number one thing to do if you want to default to communication that is asynchronous is turn off all notifications. Notifications create a fake sense of urgency and it's simply too tempting to have a quick peek when something comes in. On top of that, the notification alone is enough to interrupt your focus.
⌛️ Block out time to respond to messages
To optimize your productivity, it's not just important to block out time for your most meaningful tasks but also to do the same for responding to messages. If you make it a habit of checking emails or Slack in between tasks, you're more likely to fire off a quick reply than a thoughtful one. You want to make sure you give them the attention they deserve without letting them interfere with your work.
✍️ Communicate clearly, leaving nothing out
- Don't use acronyms or abbreviations.
- Use exact dates, times, and time zones instead of relative time indications like "in two days at noon".
- Add annotated images, screenshots, and other relevant supporting documentation.
- Don't assume the recipient knows what you're talking about.
- Do assume the other person means well.
- Refer and link to earlier conversations when possible.
- Ask for clarification when needed.
- Use GIFs and emojis when you fear your message may come across negatively.
If you're a team leader, you can train people in this, giving examples of what good communication looks like.
⚙️ Plan ahead
When planning your tasks, take into account that you may need input from others who aren't on the same schedule as you, and that it may take them some time to reply. Additionally, you want to plan your work in such a way that you always have something to do while you're waiting for a reply so you don't find yourself depending on others to make progress with your workload.
🔓 Make sure everyone has access to necessary documentation
Everyone of us has received an email with a link to a Google doc or another type of file that they then didn't have access to. This may seem like a small thing, but it adds another back-and-forth to your communication and can lose you a lot of time if you're communicating with someone in a different time zone.
👩🏻🦰 Assign decision makers
When not everyone is of the same opinion on how to move forward with a project, conversations can get stuck. In those cases, it's important everyone knows who the decision maker is so they can make the final call.
A project can have different decision makers depending on the stage the project is at. When it comes to outlining a content strategy, for example, the CEO may ask their SEO manager to focus on quick wins rather than long-term results, whereas the SEO manager will have the final say in how optimized an article should be when working with a writer.
📊 Focus evaluations on output and results
To give employees a sense of ownership over their work and make them apply asynchronous communication, it's important that they're evaluated based on the actual work they do and not on the time they spend doing it - and replying to coworkers while doing it.
📍 Have team rules for response times
Making asynchronous communication the default doesn't mean that everyone can just reply whenever they want. Ideally, you'll have internal rules for how long it should take someone to get back to a team member. You can set different rules for urgent and non-urgent communication but the best is to keep this as simple as possible.
⚖️ Use tools that facilitate asynchronous communication and collaboration
With asynchronous communication, transparency is key. Everyone should be able to access the information they need and follow conversations relevant to them at all times. This is where digital collaboration tools like Trello but also Google Workforce come in.
⚠️ Have a separate channel for emergencies
If there's one place you leave notification on, it might be your emergency channel. This is either a tool or a group within a tool (like a WhatsApp group) that you use solely for emergencies. The idea is that this channel is only used a few times a year, and you don't need to check it for day-to-day activities.
The rise of remote work has given asynchronous communication a boost and shown its benefits for productivity and employee satisfaction. Use the tips and tools in this article to successfully make asynchronous communication the default in your organization but don't discard synchronous communication entirely, as it's still more effective when it comes to addressing more complex topics, quick problem-solving, and creating a bond between coworkers.
Want to prioritize asynchronous communication without adding yet another tool to your toolbox? Gmelius is the answer. Check out our features and integrations and learn how Gmelius is built to improve team communication and collaboration.