Cross-Team Efficiency, Hybrid Work

Why “async” is critical to growth and scaling

Q&A with Thomas Kunjappu, CEO & Co-Founder of Cleary
Asynchronous communication
CEO & Co-Founder of Cleary
Thomas Kunjappu has been obsessed with how organizations can be more productive, connected, and aligned, working for over a decade in the employee experience space first at companies like Twitter and Medallia, and now as CEO and Co-Founder of Cleary, building out the digital lobby for hybrid and remote companies like Square, DoorDash, and Flexport. In this in-depth Q&A, he shares best practices and trends that he’s seeing from Executive teams, People Ops/HR, and Comms leaders that he partners with.
Q1: What is asynchronous communication, and why should companies embrace it?

Asynchronous communication or “async” is when information is exchanged without being tied to time. This typically means a referenceable artifact is a part of the communication – something in writing, or an audio or video recording. It is the opposite of synchronous communication, which requires info exchange to be done live, immediately, and all at once.

Starting in the 2010s, consumer culture flipped from phone calls (synchronous) to text messages (asynchronous) as the primary method of communication. People tend to text to ask for permission to call or set up a time to meet. In the work context, a phone call or meeting is interruptive as it forces both people to stop and work together at the same time.

With in-office work, you can just tap someone on the shoulder. But in a remote structure, it’s harder to assume that you can just interrupt and have that live conversation.

With the massive shift to the remote and hybrid workplace, async is more important than ever before. It now becomes a core skill set. Companies that are able to develop async communication as a core skill set can grow faster by growing across time zones with more cohesion and productivity.

Companies are now establishing their “go forward” workplace models and we’re seeing a big continuum. On the one side, there are companies that have decided to be all in-office, in the same time zone. But many of the hypergrowth companies that we partner with are at the other extreme. They have rapidly growing remote workforces located all around the world, across every time zone.

Flexport, for example, now has over two thousand employees, working in over 25 offices and warehouses around the world. They have fewer hours of the day to communicate together in “live” mode. The more you go in this direction, the more important it is to have the muscle to communicate and collaborate asynchronously.

Q2: What do you see as the top benefits of async?

Async has opened up huge opportunities for companies.

It unlocks hiring in multiple geographies and makes remote onboarding easier for new employees, if done correctly.

Companies can offer employees flexibility and employee choice for when and how to work, giving the freedom to organize one’s day. This is impossible without good async capabilities in place.

It also results in better business outcomes by unleashing a diversity of thinking. It better incorporates the work of more introverted people or people who prefer time to process ideas before they contribute to an initiative. So there is less over-indexing on reactive “fast-thinking”, allowing for valuable deliberative “slow-thinking” as well.

Good async communication ahead of a meeting can help you start the meeting two-levels deep. In colleges, for example, lectures on new concept introductions happen increasingly via video while classroom time can be spent going deeper on discussing the nuances of those topics. The same holds true for any structured meeting in a corporate environment.

But async needs to be incorporated properly. It requires writing things down and having referenceable artifacts to communicate and collaborate effectively. Systems and habits need to be in place so employees can easily record videos and share documents in a way that is easily shared and found. 

One concrete example is the All Hands Meeting. It used to be a one hour presentation that the whole company had to attend live. But async can make that ritual event much more efficient and effective. You can build in a digital All Hands Meeting page to solicit questions, crowdsource topics, and an on-going discussion the week leading up to the event. The live meeting can then be focused on the most important topics and the discussion can continue post-event with the posted recording and ongoing chat discussions after the event.

Q3: When is it important to pick up the phone, hop on a video call, or communicate synchronously?

It’s important when the communication starts moving to sync. Slack is a channel that can be sync or async depending on the situation. If we’re going back and forth real-time on a decision in Slack, it’s now moving from async to sync. You want to jump on a call or Zoom live to figure it out right away because the problem needs fully focused, high bandwidth attention to solve.

When you have a deadline, sync is necessary because it’s faster and you can be assured that a resolution will happen in that live meeting.

Difficult and nuanced multi-faceted decision-making that requires alignment should be done via synchronous communications to ensure there is a meeting of the minds. There’s no denying that for small team projects where you’re collaborating closely, especially with a fast timeline, that sync is the way to go.

Resolving contentious decisions and disagreements should be done synchronously to minimize misinterpretation and misunderstanding, a common side effect of async on email or slack.

For culture and trust-building, sync is paramount in combination with async. Collaborating over live chat or meeting in person is naturally a medium where you can be more human. It’s just harder to do with the written word. Trust-building is a fundamental layer of high-performance teams. When you keep depositing into that trust account with synchronous communication, it makes async much easier and less prone to misunderstanding. That combination is important.

Asynchronous video
With the massive shift to the remote and hybrid workplace, async is more important than ever before. It now becomes a core skill set. Companies that are able to develop async communication as a core skill set can grow faster by growing across time zones with more cohesion and productivity.
Q4: What are your tips for leaders working with their teams to transition to asynchronous communication? 

Pick a process or a company ritual that you want to change in the way you communicate. It could be that the CEO update used to be done live at the front of the lunch room. You can test changing it to a weekly recorded video to see if that format works and you get strong engagement, then you can make a habit of that.

Another example is your quarterly planning process. Maybe you used to work together all in one room over the course of a week. You can break that down so that people contribute in writing and comment asynchronously beforehand. But then you still spend the time together, but now you’re changing HOW you spend that time together and focusing more on aligning on high priority items or on relationship building.

This meeting could have been an email is basically a meme now. Ask your organization for feedback on what structured meetings would be better served as emails or some other form of async communication.

Tools you choose to asynchronously communicate on also matter because they make the transition easier. You need to build it into the tools that employees use daily so that it feels effortless, for example, to send video recordings. Video recordings especially are a relatively high bandwidth way to communicate asynchronously. It follows that the same skill sets that help media content creators (YouTube, TikTok, etc.) can be useful for knowledge workers and leaders as they communicate with colleagues and partners.

But also guard against going too far in overloading people with comms. During the pandemic, we’ve seen many orgs switch to remote but also still stay productive. Possibly even more so. But with that change you have to guard against stress. Sync is limited based on the number of hours in the day. But with async communication, there is practically no limit on the number of communications that can be sent out. This leads to burnout if you’re not careful as an organization.

In fact, with the switch to remote at many organizations, we’ve seen a pattern across client partners where employees feel the need to showcase and be recognized for the work they’re doing. This has led to an explosion of company emails, newsletters, and messages to show progress to others. That needs to be managed so that the async communications are targeted and of high quality.

For example, we’re working with one of our client partners using analytics to see where people start tuning out due to comms overload. We’ve helped them consolidate their comms into the most important messages and then leverage audience targeting and permissioning to ensure the right messages go to the right people at the right time.

Q5: What are the tools companies need to use to be successful with async, and how should they use them?

There are a number of key categories and “go to” tools that have emerged:

  • Performance Management – Lattice, Culture Amp
  • Messaging – Slack, Microsoft Teams, What’s App (Global)
  • Screen Recording – Loom, Screencastify
  • Video Conferencing with Recording – Zoom, Google Meet
  • Project Management – Asana, Monday, Jira
  • Sales Enablement Video Recordings – Gong, Chorus
  • Document Management – Google Drive, Dropbox Paper, Wikis

 

With the proliferation of async tools, there’s a new problem … platform fatigue. We’re seeing companies now moving to simplified employee experience platforms that operate as the “digital lobby” layered on top, acting as the door into those various platforms.   

It’s important for companies to design a thoughtful employee experience for the remote or hybrid environment with an engaging central hub – for onboarding new hires, to empowering employees to make it faster and easier to find the information they need, to incorporating celebrations and events that are the hallmarks of a company’s culture.

Q6: How does async play a role in the future of work?

Remote work is challenging us to think about, at its extreme, if any meeting is ever necessary. We’re not there yet. But it’s clear with the technology that we have today that a lot of rote meetings can be a thing of the past.

Companies that truly unlock this can successfully transform and grow by tapping into a completely remote and global workforce. These are the companies of the future!

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