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.