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Asynchronous communication: the super power of remote work

July 12, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous versus synchronous communication

When to use asynchronous communication

When to use synchronous communication

How asynchronous communication impacts mental wellness

Best practices for implementing asynchronous communication

Every team today — whether remote, in-office, or hybrid — uses some form of asynchronous communication. It's a necessity. But there's more to async communication than meets the eye.

There’s no getting around it. As teams get bigger and more geographically diverse and projects get more complex, staying in sync is hard. Tools that let people stay aligned while working independently without being in a live conversation or meeting is the only way to keep up. Teams need to have more than one communication channel at their disposal to move fast and stay agile. 

More than just a necessity for remote teams, asynchronous communication tools also open the door to real advantages no matter our work arrangement. 

Asynchronous platforms often have built-in collaboration tools, which streamline communication for all kinds of teams. And the benefit doesn’t stop at increased productivity. Used thoughtfully, increasing comfort with async communication lets teams and people managers rethink the way they work and collaborate, too.

As the world of work continues to change and develop, asynchronous communication can help all kinds of people participate in a more flexible environment. It has been especially beneficial for working parents, neurodivergent employees, and distributed teams. There’s even a chance that asynchronous tools could have an important role to play in addressing the connection crisis many workers are now finding themselves in.

Download The Connection Crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work

Learn when and how to use asynchronous communication, the impact it could have on your team, and how to implement it.

What is asynchronous communication?

Traditional workplaces relied heavily on synchronous communication —people had to be together in the same place or at least at the same time. Synchronous communication includes mainstays of office life like meetings, live trainings, and conference calls.

It also includes less formal options. Some, like casual chatting in the hallway or a quick discussion around a whiteboard, are particularly well-suited to in-person work environments, but quick 1:1 phone calls are another common form of synchronous communication.

On the Remote blog, Preston Wickersham summarizes async communication by saying, “Asynchronous work is a simple concept: Do as much as you can with what you have, document everything, transfer ownership of the project to the next person, then start working on something else.”

For many of us, email is the most basic form of communication we use asynchronously.  However, many messaging and project management tools are designed to work async. These include platforms like Slack, Asana, Trello, and Loom.

There are many uses for async communication tools. They can be used for brainstorming, workflows, remote workers in different time zones, collaboration, or deep work. Any time an immediate response isn’t necessary, an async tool could do the trick.

asynchronous-communication-person-looking-at-phone-messages

Asynchronous versus synchronous communication

Generally, any communication that happens face-to-face is synchronous. That includes virtual platforms, like Zoom, Google Meet, or even a good ol’ fashioned phone call. 

It can also be text-based, like instant messaging or live commentary on a video feed. Anything that’s in-the-moment, features real-time communication, and provides instant feedback is synchronous. Synchronous doesn't necessarily mean that it is interactive or that it does provide feedback, though. Think of a big meeting or conference session in a hotel ballroom or any format based on a "sage on the stage."

On the other hand, asynchronous communication doesn’t need to happen in real-time. It’s often done through email, text messages, or with messaging tools like Slack. To be a bit reductive, what you’re doing is leaving messages for another person or group. That party can check in at their own pace and respond to your comment or question.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

  • Can improve efficiency and productivity
  • People don’t have to be in the same place at the same time
  • People can work on their own schedule
  • Can help reduce distractions and supports practices like time-blocking 
  • Helps improve work/life balance
  • Helps reduce meeting fatigue and Zoom burnout
  • Higher quality of records, notes, and information-sharing
  • Encourages different forms of participation that might be more inclusive of different personality types and neurodivergent employees, as well as people across time zones and working caregivers

Response time is a major factor to keep in mind when choosing what type of communication to use. However, it’s not the only thing to keep in mind. Here are some considerations for choosing how to get in touch with your team:

When to use asynchronous communication

1. Time differences

At times, you’ll need to communicate with someone who isn’t available at the same time as you are. This might be because you’re working across time zones, messaging someone on PTO, or who just has a different chronotype. Asynchronous communication is the key to making productivity hacks like time-blocking work well.

2. Documentation needed

Async is the way to go if you want to have a written record of the conversation. Emails and Slack channels create a record of your communication as a matter of course. Many of these tools are searchable, making it easy to go back and find what you were talking about.

3. Information overload

Do you need to convey a lot of information or detail? I generally can’t absorb everything I hear at once — and neither can most people. Research indicates that, on average, people only absorb a fraction of what they hear. Providing information in a way that they can digest on their own increases the potential for retention and adoption.

4. Avoid misinformation 

Async platforms necessarily require spelling everything out, since you can’t respond in real-time. But the benefit to this is being able to provide additional information. You can add links, charts, and other tools to clarify your message.

5. You need time to think

It’s impressive to be able to speak off the cuff, but most people need a minute or so to process and formulate a response. Moving conversations to an asynchronous format gives people a chance to process and respond constructively.

When to use synchronous communication

1. Time-sensitive

If you need immediate feedback, direction, or real-time collaboration, it makes more sense to work synchronously. Often, work happens faster if everyone is available and focused on it at the same time.

2. Needs a personal touch

One of the downsides of async messaging is that it often eliminates nuances like body language and tone. Difficult or sensitive conversations are better handled in person or with video conferencing.

3. You don’t need notes

This isn’t to say that you can’t have great notes from a synchronous conversation. However, in lots of meetings that happen in real-time, people throw out a lot of great ideas and have no record of them afterward.

If you have a designated note keeper, they’re often unable to fully participate in the conversation. But if you don’t need lots of notes, synchronous calls can often be more personal and engaged.

asynchronous-communication-person-working-late-at-night

How asynchronous communication impacts mental wellness

For many of us, constant connectivity can feel like a necessary evil. We've become so accustomed to being on all the time that the idea of unplugging can be daunting. But if we could learn to disconnect in a way that didn't feel like we were missing out, it would pay huge dividends. The benefits would impact our productivity and well-being — which are intrinsically linked. 

Asynchronous communication may be the key. For some people with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, this connection might relieve them from feeling like they always have to be ready to respond. These individuals can focus on their well-being first, replying when it makes sense for them to reply.

Async teams also struggle less against a culture of presenteeism. When we drop the expectation of immediate response, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal to step away from the desk. Whether this is to take a 15-minute break, grab a snack, visit a doctor, or climb Mount Kilimanjaro, people can bring their whole selves to work. And sometimes, that means not showing up to work — or at least, not showing up constantly.

To make asynchronous communication work, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. Here’s how to successfully implement and get the most out of asynchronous teamwork:

Best practices for implementing asynchronous communication

1. Embrace “always off”

The heart of asynchronous communication is that no one is expected to be working at any given time. If one party is expecting a near-instantaneous response, it will create a lot of frustration and mistrust.

Embrace the idea that people will likely not respond immediately. Your team and organization may set expectations around whether async means not in the same hour or even not on the same day. Not responding immediately doesn’t indicate a lack of commitment or professionalism.

Give others (and yourself) the freedom to let messages wait until it makes sense to respond. At the same time, be mindful of your organization's standards and your teammates' need for information. It's best to be explicit about expected response times and choose the form of communication suited to the need to allow work to proceed effectively.

2. Be clear and concise

When writing messages in team workspaces, prioritize clarity. Async platforms are, by nature, low-context cultures — meaning you’ll need to be direct and explicit with your messaging.  

Write out what you need or want, and be specific about deadlines or dates. Add links, charts, and next steps so that people know how they should respond — and by when. 

3. Use more than text

There are many ways to communicate, and many platforms have ways to communicate that go beyond text. Forget what you’ve been taught about “professional communication,” and augment your conversations with emojis, reactions, and GIFs. 

Yes, seriously.

A little humor at work can go a long way. When we’re sending messages, we lose much of the nuance of a face-to-face meeting. Using emojis, GIFs, and memes can soften some of the harshness of text. They can add personality to team communication and contribute positively to team culture. Tools like Slack even allow you to import custom emojis, so you can create your own inside jokes or reaction buttons.

In addition to these, make use of statuses, out-of-office messages, and auto-responders to let people know when you’re available or when they should expect a response.

4. Choose the right tool

Not all asynchronous tools are built the same way. It’s essential to pick the tool designed to accomplish what you need to do. Here are some of the most popular tools and how to use them for your team:

Asynchronous communication tools

Asana

Asana is a project management platform where you can assign deadlines and specific tasks to team members. It makes it easy to see and track the status of multiple projects at once.

Confluence

Confluence is a content management system for internal resources. It’s similar to Wikipedia, in that it can be edited by anyone on the team with access. With wikis, multiple users can contribute to one document, then publish it for reference by the rest of the organization.

Google Drive

Google Workspace is a popular choice for remote work because it provides an entire suite of collaboration software. Users can work together on spreadsheets, Google Docs, presentations, or keep assets in a shared drive. Google Meet even provides options for video meetings.

As one of the most widely used cloud-based solutions, it boasts a large number of integrations to increase an already-impressive range of features. 

Jira

Jira was originally designed as an issue management tool, helping teams track bugs and usability errors. Now, Jira has expanded to include project management, making it a useful option for teams to manage both in-house and external efforts.

Loom

Loom is an asynchronous video platform, similar to Marco Polo. With Loom, you can record your screen, presentation, message, or voiceover to share with others on your team. For example, one coworker frequently creates looms to demonstrate how to do things like creating CTAs or pulling metrics on the  HubSpot marketing platform. Her peers can revisit her excellent instructions multiple times and she doesn't have to take valuable time to give the same training every time someone new encounters the problem.

Trello

Trello is a project management tool that organizes large projects into boards. It’s similar to Asana, but in my experience, it’s better suited for people who think visually. 

Slack

Slack may hold the current championship title for most widely used messaging platform. Small teams or entire companies can send communication through a shared workspace. These can be organized into channels, threads, and groups. Slack supports integrations with many other popular platforms and is the number one choice for many remote and hybrid workplaces.

5. Take time to unplug

One of the biggest challenges for remote workers is learning to set boundaries around work. In particular, those of us who come from corporate, in-office life may feel pressure to respond immediately.

Take time away from your screen and from communication — ideally, at least every hour. Designate “focused time” so you can work without interruptions. And set boundaries around work hours and non-work hours. You can set these tools to pause notifications at the end of the workday automatically.

Final thoughts

If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that people prize autonomy and flexibility in how they work. Asynchronous communication means employees have more freedom to process information and respond on their own time. This pays dividends in reduced stress, better work-life balance, and improved productivity. It’s well worth making the shift.

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Published July 12, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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