Thanks to COVID-19, many organizations and their their workers have had to fast-track their previously hypothetical plans and dreams to adopt remote working.
Where this was once a long-running debate with a handful of more progressive companies actually executing, all of a sudden many of us found ourselves working from home, including spending significant parts of our day in video meetings.
Less commuting, less polluting and much more flexibility in how one achieves work-life balance are amazing benefits.
However, it almost feels like we have to meet, albeit virtually, more than ever before. Add to that the constantly busy office chat (Teams, Slack, Mattermost, and many more offerings) with its groups and private chats, and the day can be quite exhausting even before doing the actual work that is discussed in all of these meetings.
Now just imagine that there was a way to skip most of those meetings, and to keep the office chat only for social reasons.
Wouldn’t that be great?
Well, it turns out that there is an important missing ingredient to making exactly that happen.
The missing ingredient is called asynchronous communication.
With a bit of discipline and some good expectation setting, the application of real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time will lead to a more efficient, better documented and, importantly, a far less stressful remote workplace.
To be clear, real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time makes a great deal of sense also in non-remote work settings.
What is asynchronous communication?
The following is an extended version of the definitions from the company Doist’s blog post on the topic.
Synchronous communication is sending a message and expecting the recipient to process the information and respond immediately.
A meeting is a pretty intensive form of this.
You say something, and I usually have to respond on the spot.
In many cases, email is also treated as synchronous communication.
You hear that notification ping, so you stop whatever you’re doing and you check the email.
Whether you answer immediately or not, you have succeeded in losing concentration on your main task.
Asynchronous communication is sending a message without expecting an immediate response.
For example, you send me an email, and because our workplace policy sets these expectations, I can respond thoughtfully and in depth, in a few hours, during the following day or even later.
A more modern asynchronous communication tool would be the company discussion forum, or online project management system, where thoughtful and usually longer form messages can be contextually posted, that is, close to the project or task they pertain to.
These messages can be read by all relevant colleagues, and discussed in the comments.
A key idea here is that all communication happens asynchronously, with each colleague taking time to think and to respond when it best fits their schedule.
Please see Gitlab’s anynchronous mindset test below.
An additional advantage of this method is that all of these discussions and decisions are by default perfectly documented, can be shared with future colleagues, and can even be surfaced later via intranet search.
What are the disadvantages of a synchronous communication environment?
The following four problems that occur due to a synchronous communication environment are paraphrased from the Doist post:
- Constant interruptions
- Each notification of each incoming message breaks concentration to such an extent that people will have a hard time making progress on the sort of valuable work that requires blocks of focus. Apart from the immediate break, there is also the aggregate effect of all of the day’s interruptions which cause a great deal of unnecessary mental cycles that could have been spent on deep work.
- It becomes more important to be connected than to be productive
- In such environments, it becomes a priority to be available when someone pings you. All energy is now diverted from valuable work into being available and reactive.
- More stress
- Instead of setting their own schedules, and determining how most of their day can be productively spent, workers spend their days reacting to incoming messages, hence losing control of their schedules.
- Lower quality discussions and sub-optimal solutions
- An immediate response is expected, especially during a meeting, so there’s no time to come up with a thoughtful and in-depth response.
In addition to these, there is the issue that synchronous communication further complicates good organizational documentation and knowledge management.
When meetings are minuted, those minutes are brief notes of a third party who does their best to capture the gist of the meeting.
However, when the “meeting” takes place in writing in the first place, the documentation is by construction the most canonical description.
Group chat messages can be stored and indexed, but due to the nature of the medium, namely large collections of many short messages most of which are understandably chatter, this is a not a great way to have in depth discussions or document decisions.
What are the advantages of an asynchronous communication environment?
The following is paraphrased from Doist:
- Workers schedule their workday
- With fewer to no meetings or other synchronous communication expected, workers have full control over when they do their work, which leads to greater work satisfaction and higher quality work. Furthermore, struggling to find a meeting time that in the packed agendas of all participants is a problem of the past.
- High quality communication vs knee-jerk responses
- By default, people can spend more time thinking and drafting their messages and responses. Communication becomes more thoughtful and in-depth. As a bonus, there are built-in cool-down periods between every message.
- Less stress thanks to better planning
- When people can’t rely on instant communication (requests) anymore, they learn to plan ahead more carefully.
- Deep work becomes the default
- Because there is no expectation of being connected and always available, people start their day with a block of deep work. Again because of the change in expectation, workers can check async messages a few time a day, when it suits them, and especially when it doesn’t interrupt a block of deep work!
- Automatic documentation and greater transparency
- As mentioned in the previous section, because good asynchronous communication happens through thoughtful writing and written discussion, all decisions are automatically documented. Furthermore, it is straight-forward to make discussions available to any group of people, now and in the future.
- Time zone equality
- For organizations that are spread out over multiple timezones, asynchronous communication means that everyone participates on the same platform with the same opportunities.
The solution: Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time
Sometimes synchronous communication is justified.
Buffer lists the following reasons for synchronous, real-time communication, such as a video meeting or a distanced face-to-face meeting:
- Casual hangouts, catch-ups, and celebrations
- Urgent situations
- Relationship-building (one-on-ones, masterminds, etc.)
In their extensive asynchronous communication guide, Gitlab has a longer list of occasions that merit starting with synchronous communication:
- A sales engagement
- First-time meetings with external parties
- First-time meetings with team members who have not previously worked together
- One-way door decisions (e.g. when stakes are high and decisions are difficult to reverse)
- Complex initializations (e.g. defining a corporate narrative, a major overhaul to scope, etc.)
- Emotionally sensitive topics (e.g. discussing personal issues, career path/promotion, difficult feedback, etc.)
- Supporting and unblocking your direct reports (e.g. a regular 1:1)
- Celebrations and retrospectives (it feels good to celebrate wins with a group, and lightweight retrospectives can serve as kickoff points for future sprints)
If asynchronous is to be preferred, but we do sometimes need to use synchronous, what would be the best way to approach this?
Fortunately, Basecamp has a great perfect-world rule of thumb:
real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time
In other words, prefer and default to asynchronous.
If you opt for synchronous communication such as a meeting or a phone call, you should have a really good reason to do so.
By making asynchronous the default, with synchronous the exception, your organization will be able to reap all of the benefits listed in previous sections.
Conclusion: Just do it
It’s clear that applying the real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time communication strategy can contribute greatly to an organization’s performance.
More thoughtful communication, better decision-making, more focused work, automatic documentation and increased work satisfaction constitute an offer that really should not be refused.
Applying this in your organization starts with ensuring that:
- everyone understands and applies the asynchronous mindset (see gitlab’s async mindset test for an example),
- your async practices and expectations are documented, and
- you have the necessary tools available to apply asynchronous communication effectively.
If you read one other piece, Doist’s post would be my recommendation. It contains a complete description of asynchronous communication, with interesting statistics, and it also contains a short guide on how to apply this in your organization.
As part of their Virtual First Toolkit, Dropbox has also made available their guide “How to communicate effectively”. This has practical tips on writing, tools that can be used for different forms of communication and tips for effective meeting.
Basecamp have been making the case for remote work and for asynchronous communication long before most others.
In their post “Group Chat: The Best Way to Totally Stress Out Your Team” they discuss the disadvantages of group chat, and how you can go about addressing them.
I first wrote about that post of theirs in WHV #205.
Their piece “The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication” contains 30 general principles and rules of thumb for communication, followed by a compact and practical description of the tools and procedures that they apply.
Gitlab wins the extensiveness competition with their detailed manual titled “Embracing asynchronous communication”. This contains low-level and detailed sections on how async is used within the gitlab organization, how to implement asynchronous workflows, benefits of asynchronous, and finally limitations and challenges of async.
Gitlab asynchronous mindset test
Their rule of thumb to enter an asynchronous mindset is worth quoting here:
The easiest way to enter into an asynchronous mindset is to ask this question: “How would I deliver this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team (or in my company) were awake?”
This removes the temptation to take shortcuts, or to call a meeting to simply gather input. (After all, every meeting should be a review of a concrete proposal, and only called when it will lead to a more efficient outcome than would be possible asynchronously.)