Everyone wants to be in sync with their coworkers, right? When you're in a traditional office setting, it's easy. Maybe you head into the daily stand-up after getting your morning coffee from the breakroom. Or your supervisor calls an unscheduled meeting to discuss an upcoming project. Or you go off-site for lunch with a team member, which usually means the conversation will at some point turn to work.
These are all examples of synchronous communication — a message that you respond to in real time. It might be a meeting, a conversation, a phone call, or even an email. And in traditional workplaces, it's the standard. But as our modern workforce evolves and remote work becomes not just accepted but normalized, asynchronous communication is on the rise.
Which begs the question...
It's basically the exact opposite of synchronous communication and includes any form of communication that does not request or require an immediate, real-time response.
Some of the most common forms of asynchronous communication are:
We've all been to those meetings that could've been an email, right? And we've probably all been a part of those awkward office parties that quickly devolve into impromptu work meetings. Traditional synchronous communication has its place, but often, it becomes a roadblock to productivity. And among employers who cling to it even while their teams are going fully remote, it leads to a "butts in seats" mentality that counteracts any real deep work time.
Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, cuts down on unnecessary interruptions and —when done correctly — can lead to longer blocks of deep work, increased productivity, more flexibility, and less stress.
It creates space for "deep work." Deep work is a phrase that means long blocks of time where workers can complete tasks and be productive without distraction. This hyper-focused work time can be difficult to carve out in traditional, synchronous work environments.
It allows for collaborations across time zones. Most remote workers report having colleagues in multiple time zones, which can make synchronous communication a challenge.
Async communication makes it easier for employees in far-flung locations to work and communicate when they're able while still feeling like contributing members of the team.
It promotes greater flexibility. When workers aren't chained to their desk for a typical 9-to-5 workday, they're able to plan their schedule how they want so they can work at times they're most productive. Overall, async communication can lead to a better work/life balance, but that often depends on how the individual employee manages their time.
It creates a (digital) paper trail. One of the downsides of synchronous communication is that conversations can be misunderstood or misremembered, and unless someone is copiously taking meeting notes, they might miss out on key points. Async communication ensures every conversation is on the record and can be referred back to when needed.
But just like anything, there are a few pitfalls to be considered, especially if you're working toward implementing async communication within your own remote team.
It can cause delays and roadblocks. Sometimes, a team member needs a quick response, but the person who has the answers they require is unavailable. It may be that they only check emails once or twice a day or their chat status is set as away because they're in a deep work block. To avoid this, you must have processes in place that employees can follow when they have an issue that needs immediate attention.
It's sometimes tougher to build a workplace culture. Socialization is inherent in synchronous communication — you may chat around the coffee maker or catch up during a Zoom call. But with async communication, that natural camaraderie is harder to come by. This is fairly easily countered by incorporating non-work-related communications into your workflow. That could include Slack channels for sharing pet photos, a team playlist on Spotify, or a remote book club (all things we do to boost morale and culture at First Page).
It takes workers out of context. Those deep work blocks are critical to productivity, but workers will still encounter times when they need feedback or support from colleagues. That means sending an email, video, or chat to a coworker who may not be "on" at that time. And that means waiting for a response and shifting to another task in the meantime. Switching context like that takes time and can bring productivity to a grinding halt. The best way to avoid this is to put more emphasis on transparency and information sharing — such as a knowledge hub — so employees can look for quick answers to their questions without a long delay.
For remote teams, asynchronous communication is vital. But that doesn't mean synchronous communication should go the way of the dinosaurs. We've found that a mix of both forms of communication is most effective for maintaining productivity, building culture, and ensuring every team worker works to their greatest ability.
We have a few tips and best practices on how to strike the right balance between async and sync communications:
Use video often. We utilize Vidyard to create everything from brief tutorials to process walkthroughs to status updates. Not only is it a valuable tool that can be used for reference over and over again, but it also helps put names with faces (and voices), which can build stronger relationships and work culture.
Leverage chat statuses. We have a series of Slack statuses we encourage team members to use regularly. This lets other team members know when you're out of the office, when you're availability is sporadic (e.g., while traveling), when you can't take calls (because you're in a meeting or working outside the home), or when you're "in the zone" (e.g., in one of those deep work blocks). This lets everyone know when you're available for a ready response or when it might be delayed.
Share calendars. Fully remote teams, especially those across multiple time zones, won't be on during the same hours. Asking your team to note both their blocked hours and their available time or typical work hours in their calendar — and then making it shareable — will help when scheduling meetings and other times when synchronous communication is required.
Create a communication protocol. Document processes for how employees can access the information they need, when they need it. Create a hub or knowledge base with all the assets your team members may need to access and include contact information for the person they'll need to reach out to if a request is urgent. Include time zones and regular work hours for each employee.
Adapting to new forms of communication always comes with a learning curve, and you can expect that there will be a few hiccups along the way. But if you're managing a remote team, asynchronous communication isn't something you can ignore. Instead, look for opportunities to use it to increase your employees' productivity, give them greater flexibility and autonomy, and allow them to have the work-from-anywhere lifestyle they've always wanted.
Speaking of, if you're looking for opportunities to work from anywhere and communicate when and how it works best for you, let's talk (maybe even synchronously!). We're hiring, and you might just find you're completely in sync with what we do.