Asynchronous communication, often referred to as async, is defined as information exchanged in a way that’s not tied to time. This simple concept has made its way firmly into leadership’s awareness with a massive pivot to more remote work. Why? Because as distributed and remote teams become more common, async becomes more necessary.
Synchronous communication, the opposite of async, happens when two or more people have to be present at the exact moment in time to exchange information with one another. Phone calls are synchronous, texts and emails or not. Team meetings, where all team members need to be online in the same virtual place at the same time, are also synchronous.
Synchronous Work Presents Challenges in a Remote-First World
Companies dealing with distributed teams often struggle to effectively get everyone in the same place at the same time. This is particularly challenging if you have international team members. Even with all US-based employees, a three-hour gap in ‘traditional work hours’ can make it hard to plan meetings that fit all desired attendees’ schedules.
Figuring out how to bring a large group of remote employees “into the room” when there’s no physical room is another major hurdle. This has been particularly painful for companies that were operating mostly or completely in-person pre-pandemic. These organizations had to do an abrupt about-face and figure out how to overhaul the way they handle day-to-day business in a remote setting practically overnight. Many companies have now resorted to virtual meeting spaces, and many request that employees turn their cameras on while speaking to one another to build a more natural feeling ‘meeting’ environment.
Unfortunately, we all learned all too well that there can be a lot of technical disruptions with this setup. One presenter may be having a bad internet day, which causes them to freeze with an awkward look on their face, or to sound like a robot. Others may continually forget to unmute themselves, so you can’t tell if they’re trying to address the room or if they’re hollering at their kid to pipe down. And let’s not forget the executive who had us laughing hysterically when she accidentally turned herself into a potato and couldn’t figure out how to become a human again.
Beyond logistics, the biggest issue with excessive synchronous work is that it’s disruptive. You have to stop what you’re doing and switch gears to tackle something entirely different over and over again throughout your day. Sometimes there are minimal time gaps between meetings, so participants don’t have a chance to prep their minds for the next conversation.
When employees are tied up in meetings all day or their agenda is pre-determined, it’s impossible for them to pivot to a specific project when they feel like they’re in a good headspace to make significant progress. This limitation, which is directly correlated to too much synchronous communication, negatively impacts productivity and quality of work.
Advantages of Async
Asynchronous communication presents a handful of limitations. Specifically, it can take some practice to perfect, and having the right systems and tools in place are key to getting it right.
Even with those stumbling blocks, asynchronous work is growing in popularity. When done well, prioritizing async combats the issues presented by excessive synchronous work and offers significant benefits to both employees and employers. Let’s look at some examples.
Benefits to Employees
The perks of ‘async done well’ are vast and varied. Here are a few key things that make a big difference in the overall employee experience as it relates to their day-to-day life at work:
- Context is accessible, searchable, and visible across teams.
One of the biggest benefits of async is that it reduces – and sometimes even eliminates – the likelihood of miscommunication or confusion. Discussions and meetings are indexed and can easily be referenced. This eliminates the busy work and frustration that comes from constantly searching Slack, emails, shared folders, and more to find a note on a project that only exists in vague memories (unless you can find that dang document you don’t remember the title of). The caveat is, companies need to have a smart filing system in place to make cataloging as effective and intuitive as possible.
- Faster, smoother onboarding with less legwork.
Normally, team leads and managers have to build out all kinds of documentation for a new hire. However, historical archives created by async communication can serve as excellent training tools. can make it much easier to bring new team members up to speed during onboarding.
- Autonomy and personal agency cultivate happier employees.
The value in being able to take a break if you need to stroll around the block to reset your focus can’t be understated – especially in today’s work culture. So many companies are burning the candle at both ends as they race to achieve success. The unfortunate side effect of this is that employees quickly feel the pressure and face big-time burnout.
The big takeaway here is prioritizing async communication and giving employees room to breathe, an opportunity to set boundaries, and the agency to decide how they want to spend their time. Each of these things is a known morale and productivity booster. Employees who feel happier, more in control, and more productive are far less likely to flame out.
Benefits to Companies
Researchers at Stanford actually found that productivity among employees with a hybrid schedule increased by 13% and attrition decreased by 50%. Here are a few more ways businesses benefit by adopting an async approach:
- Access to more talent in more places.
Asynchronous work also allows companies to embrace remote and distributed workforces, opening up access to a much larger talent pool.
- Reducing reliance on ‘business hours’ opens opportunities for higher output.
Companies who do embrace this approach can take advantage of multiple time zones by working with global teams overseas who literally work “overnight” in their daytime hours. You can get twice as much done if you play your cards right.
- Gain a competitive edge in the war on talent.
Offering flexibility as a key benefit is also a huge win for companies bidding to win the war on talent. Modern knowledge workers seek out companies that measure results, not work hours.
- Happier employees result in better retention.
Losing a skilled employee can cost a fortune. By implementing forward-thinking async communication styles that support your team’s autonomy and mental health, you can increase morale and job satisfaction. This focus results in a better environment, and ultimately increasing employee loyalty.
- More employees feel empowered to contribute.
Async can result in better business outcomes by unleashing the diversity of thinking. Introverts who typically wouldn’t speak up in a meeting but feel comfortable sharing in a group chat are able to share their ideas.
- There’s more room for critical thinking.
Async lets you give the smart people you hired the time to mull over a challenge and think through possible scenarios and solutions before they present ideas to the team. As a result, reactive off-the-cuff calls don’t need to be made as often. Instead, decision-making becomes more informed and deliberate.
Async Best Practices
The concept of async communication is still quite polarizing. While many more traditional companies have been chomping at the bit to get back to in-office, full-time hours, more and more hypergrowth companies are embracing async as the new normal.
- Build consistent historical archives
To effectively build asynchronous communication into your organization, you need to have the right tools in place to support it. This includes strong file hierarchies, good organizational structures, and good artifact management across teams. Saving and sharing document and videos should be quick, easy, and all these assets should be intuitive to find. Use living documents for things that are still in flux and update them to match the most recent version to avoid going down a rabbit hole of reviewing content that’s no longer relevant.
- Be selective about when to use synchronous communication
If a fire comes up that needs urgent attention or the team needs to make a decision on a fast-moving deadline, it’s time to sync up. Synchronous communication is also important when multiple stakeholders with widely varied viewpoints all need to be equally considered to make a decision, or if a dispute needs to be resolved. In all of these cases, a phone call or impromptu virtual meeting is your best bet. Struggling to decide which meetings could become emails? Ask your team for feedback.
Balance is Best
Having a good system in place that achieves a balance between real-time conversation and asynchronous communication is critical to achieving a balanced workplace. As great as async is when it comes to productivity and focus, you can lose some of the human element if your approach isn’t well balanced. Teams get to know each other’s mannerisms and personalities when they connect via video chat or on phone calls.
A recent article posted on Medium suggests using an ‘asychronous sandwich,’ which is a very practical three-step process that helps teams balance synchronous and asynchronous communication in an efficient way.