Remote work does not present as much of a technological challenge as it would have just ten years ago.
To replicate—or at least approximate—an in-office experience, team leads everywhere are turning to video and chat solutions.
Zoom saw a 30x increase in daily users over just a few short months, with Google Meet and Microsoft Teams not far behind. TrustRadius reports that two-thirds of companies are planning to increase their spending on web conferencing tools, and more than half are increasing spending on collaboration tools and remote desktop software.
Suddenly, everyone from sales teams to PR agencies had to adjust to remote work. Getting ‘face-to-face’ through video and chat seems the best way to keep calm and carry on.
But plenty of us have been working remotely for years. Are all the video calls and Slack pop-up messages necessary, or do they hurt productivity? And what does the alternative look like?
What is Asynchronous Communication?
Asynchronous communication is just a newfangled term for an old-fashioned idea: writing and sending a message without the expectation of receiving an instantaneous reply.
No video conferencing, no notifications, and no real-time groupthink. Crazy idea, right?
It seems that way in a time of one-line emails and Slack streams of consciousness.
Technically speaking, asynchronous communication is the intermittent communication of data between computers and devices. Systems place a ‘start’ and ‘stop’ bit before and after each piece of data.
We don’t deal in technicalities, but the analogy carries over. For you and your team, asynchronous communication simply means the ability to communicate in stops and starts. With the space between, you’ll be able to sort through the noise, make time for organization and proceed with clarity.
Asynchronous communication is:
- Putting together a project brief
- Writing a detailed email reply
- Taking an internal poll
- Adding to your knowledge base
- Leaving notes on documents and mockups
Asynchronous communication is not:
- Sending Slack messages back and forth to hash something out
- Video conferencing with your entire team
- Scheduling one-on-one Zoom calls with your direct report
- Conducting live demos and webinars
- Sending quick, one-line status updates
Even if some of these can later be added to your asynchronous stack (through a video recording or knowledge base addition), they still happen synchronously.
Does Real-Time Communication Kill Productivity?
Workplace fads come in waves, and only a handful stick around. Remember the promise of the open office plans?
We’re not here to herald the next wave of workplace innovation. Both real-time and asynchronous communication have their own set of benefits.
- Real-Time Communication: Get face-to-face time with your team members, clarify questions and encourage a collaborative culture.
- Asynchronous Communication: Clarify your message before it gets sent, set up your organization with long-term resources, and boost communication skills across your organization.
So which is actually better? Your mileage may vary, but expecting real-time communication day in and day out may actually kill your team’s productivity.
“An increasing emphasis on new technology to moderate our workdays isn’t necessarily making our work better or making us more productive. If wielded poorly, it can even make it worse. The addition of yet another communications tool can result in a surfeit of information.”~ Rani Molla, Vox
Adobe found that the average worker spends more than three hours a day on work emails. Workplace communication software was supposed to cut down on that number. But results have been mixed.
After all, it’s not email that took time away from productivity and creativity. It’s over-communicating in any form. In fact, it can take over 20 minutes for people to recover their productivity after an interruption, whether from email, video chat, or Slack message notification.
FUN FACT: Slack users spend 9 hours connected and just 90 minutes active on the platform. That’s a lot of potential distraction.
Should team leads really stick to quick Slack chats and daily, virtual all-hands?
It depends on who you ask, as more of a team (rather than scientific) question.
The Case for Asynchronous Communication
The debate surrounding productive remote work is not a new one. Some people are for it, and some still love the face-to-face you get from video conferencing.
There’s no right or wrong answer here. There’s only what works for you — and what doesn’t.
But, as a card-carrying member of the asynchronous communication fan club, I get to make my case. In general, I see eight reasons why asynchronous communication is an important part of team-wide productivity and collaboration:
- It opens up room for creativity. Interruptions don’t only kill — they can drastically reduce creativity as well. Without the space to think through an outline or mentally mockup a design, creative roles will almost certainly suffer from real-time communication. Think deep work, and build your communication style accordingly.
- It encourages thoughtful communication. Nobody’s diagramming sentences anymore, but everybody can benefit from taking a critical eye to their writing. If your coworker doesn’t expect a response until tomorrow or later in the week, they’ll triple-check that they’re asking the right questions and providing all the necessary information.
- It builds a resource pool instead of draining time. Quick back-and-forth chats can quickly suck time away from productive work. In contrast, creating in-depth emails, tutorials and Q&As means you’ll be able to codify those resources into a knowledge base that saves time in the future.
- It encourages focused work. ‘Good’ communication is important for any role, but it’s not what you hired your sales rep, a content marketer, or a CX manager to do. Give your team the time and space they need to work on what they’re great at.
- It requires self-reliance. Problem-solving is a critical soft skill for all kinds of roles. By reducing the ability to get question after question answered in real time, you encourage team members to rely on what they have and already know.
- It refocuses everyone on what really matters. If you’re limited to just one video call per week, you’ll be more likely to focus on the most critical topics. And if you’re forced to write something out, you’ll be more likely to leave out the unimportant things.
- It creates a communication stack. Instead of a Slack message here, an email there, and an internal article over there, your team will start to understand organizational communication as a stack. Each tool has its own purpose.
How do you work remotely and be efficient at it with all these expectations for constant, real-time communication? Among the many strategies and tactics, the best way, I argue, is to build asynchronous communication into your workflow.
How to Build Asynchronous Communication Into Your Workflow
Transitioning to asynchronous communication doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of the tools you’re used to. It just means adjusting your expectations and approach to collaborative work.
Slack, Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting are all immensely helpful for project management and remote work today. But they should serve their purpose as tools, not crutches or fallbacks. Depending on the work methodology you use, you’ll employ various tools and techniques for your communication efforts.
If you’d like to move towards asynchronous communication, you don’t have to choose between incessant Slack notifications and unending email chains. Instead, implement a handful of these practices to build communication that encourages productivity.
1. Use a project management platform
The first step is to get the right tools in place. Truly asynchronous communication will be difficult if you’re limited to instant messages, file sharing, and email.
Instead, use a project management platform to set up a team collaboration format that doesn’t require real-time conversations. With conversations tied directly to your workflow, tasks, and projects, it won’t matter when someone has a question or adds something to the project.
Everyone will be able to see, respond and update every task.
Note: If you’re looking for a collaborative task management tool for your employee, check this list of task management software.
2. Clarify your process
Clarify what you’re trying to do from the start. If you’re a team lead, you don’t want to spring a 180-degree change on them overnight. Instead, walk them through what you want to do and what you hope to accomplish by doing it.
Then model the flow to your team members, making incremental changes over time. Start by turning the daily video call into a weekly check-in, then send a weekly roundup email, then step back your availability on the team chat. See what happens and go from there.
3. Explore alternative video tools
Communicating asynchronously doesn’t mean you have to do away with video altogether.
Instead of getting the entire team on a conference call, try recording a team greeting with StoryXpress or Vidyard. Instead of walking your technical team through a system change in real-time, record a tutorial on Loom.
We all have plenty of tools at our disposal — we just have to get creative.
4. Cut down, don’t eliminate
It’s not all or nothing.
Take video calls, for example. Our (small) team at Wiza gets value out of connecting face to face every Monday and Friday. But on Mondays we limit our calls to no more than 15 minutes — just a quick rundown of the week. On Fridays, we take on all the talking points that built up throughout the week.
You don’t have to swear off Slack completely, either. Just treat it as you would email — respond two or three times a day, rather than every time a notification comes in.
5. Turn communication into a resource
Start by organizing your communication as much as possible from the start. Ask teammates to respond to Slack messages as a thread, save key information in a document (or on your project management platform), and label emails.
If you’re a manager, you’ll then be able to start collecting everything into a knowledge base. Common questions, guides, product descriptions, pricing — all of it. You don’t even have to get fancy with it. Put it up on your collaboration platform or keep it as simple as Google Drive.
6. Get into a writer’s mindset
I’m a writer, not a sales rep, so my bias may show. But changing your mindset from “I’m sending a quick text” to “I’m writing out my expectations and questions” will make a big difference in the way you communicate.
Getting into a writer’s mindset as you communicate isn’t difficult: outline everything you want to include first, then write everything out, and finally edit for clarity.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be concise and action-oriented.
Not concise: “I was hoping to get those screenshots I mentioned the other day. When do you think you can get those to me?”
Concise: “I need the HubSpot integration screenshots by EOD tomorrow. Thanks!”
Taking this approach encourages thoughtful communication — which happens to be better communication.
7. Build a remote work ‘hierarchy of needs’
Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
Set up a sort of pyramid of all of your communication tools to establish:
- What takes precedence,
- Who should use which tools, and
- How you hope your team will communicate moving forward.
This approach doesn’t devalue any particular tool; it just makes team communication more effective.
- Turn to written asynchronous communication as the foundation of your pyramid. This includes project management software, a knowledge base, an in-depth weekly update, etc. With this format as your foundation, you can build up as needed.
- Switch out video calls for asynchronous video if you need to tackle a sticky topic or product demo. You can use Loom for tutorials and screengrabs or set up a webinar for team-wide training.
- Use real-time written communication only when necessary. Sometimes you really do need a quick Slack message or have to shoot off an urgent email.
- Level up to real-time video on a regular but rare basis. Weekly or monthly team meetings, product launches, and team-building activities are great additions.
- Finally, save in-person communication for big-picture, people-focused activities. Team retreats, industry conferences, and one-on-one lunches are always welcome. No amount of technology will change that.
All of these dos and don’ts and maybes translate into three things: asynchronous communication is worth a try, getting started relies on using the right tools, and long-term success is about building a knowledge base.
- Asynchronous communication can often encourage more creativity and allow for more productivity.
- Turning to asynchronous communication doesn’t mean getting rid of video calling or the chat box; it just means taking careful stock of which communication forms can be replaced.
- The key to successful asynchronous communication is to turn what you communicate into resources for the future.
First published on July 1, 2020.