When you picture a group of your employees working collaboratively, you probably imagine them either all in one conference room or logged into a Zoom meeting together.
This is because we’ve been conditioned to work synchronously, meaning we make it a requirement to be in the same place (either physically or virtually) at the same time as our colleagues.
But in the modern workplace, a lot of projects are completed via asynchronous communication — at various points throughout the workday by team members who may be in multiple time zones and locations.
A writer may create copy for a piece of marketing collateral and send it to a graphic designer, who will send an email for the brand director to review it. All of the work is for the same project, but none of it is completed at the same time.
With more organizations implementing flexible work schedules and hybrid workplaces, focusing only on synchronous communication can lead to inefficiencies and delays. Teams need to learn to collaborate better through asynchronous communication.
What is asynchronous communication?
GitLab, a software development company that has asynchronous workflows down to an art form, defines asynchronous communication as “the art of communicating and moving projects forward without the need for additional stakeholders to be available at the same time.”
Asynchronous communication means recipients see information when they’re best able to absorb and act on it, instead of being interrupted by it when they’re in the middle of another task. An asynchronous philosophy also neutralizes any expectation of an immediate response to non-urgent matters.
To adopt an asynchronous mindset, GitLab recommends asking,
“How would I deliver this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team (or in my company) were awake?”
Pros and cons of asynchronous communication
Benefits of asynchronous communication
Over the past year, the boundaries between the end of the workday and the start of an employee’s free time have been more blurred. This has led to employees feeling pressured to reply to emails or join video calls immediately, even when they’re not officially “on the clock”.
With asynchronous communication, both employees and managers understand that unless the matter is business-critical, employees aren’t expected to respond to inquiries, perform work, or be available to discuss work matters outside of their agreed-upon schedule.
Even during the regular workday, employees shouldn’t be expected to drop everything and immediately reply to a message. Asynchronous work creates a culture where employees are encouraged to take the time to process written communication and craft a thoughtful response. This is not only ideal for a fully remote team, but for any organization engaged in any level of remote work. (And after the past year, that includes most companies.)
In an asynchronous workplace, employees also ensure that every team member and project stakeholder has access to the same data and details by prioritizing precise, direct communication and thorough, organized documentation. If an employee joins the team after the start of a project, they can review all of the relevant files and have the same level of understanding as everyone else.
Similarly, if a key contributor leaves, the rest of the team should have access to all essential information to keep the project moving forward.
Disadvantages of asynchronous communication
Though asynchronous communication is well-suited for a hybrid workplace, it’s not necessarily the best approach for every team in your organization. For example, client-facing positions and support representatives have a greater need for synchronous workflows due to the nature of their roles.
Although one of the primary goals of asynchronous communication is to make it easier to collaborate across different time zones, it can still be challenging, especially for growing teams.
Additionally, some interactions are better suited for face-to-face meetings.
If you’re launching a big new product and you want to make sure your sales team understands its key benefits, a video call gives everyone the opportunity to walk through it and ask questions. It also makes it easier for everyone to understand the objectives and their roles.
Face-to-face meetings are also important for fostering personal connections, which is key to building trust within any team.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
While your goal should be to incorporate more asynchronous workflows when possible, it’s important to recognize the value of synchronous communication too. There are some circumstances where your teams may need to pivot from asynchronous communication to synchronous.
For example, if two colleagues have posted several messages on the same issue and can’t agree on the best way to move forward, it may be best to schedule a call. Once the issue has been resolved, they can share the outcome with other stakeholders and shift back to asynchronous communication.
There are also some instances where starting with synchronous communication is best.
Examples of when to start with synchronous communication
Here are five situations where synchronous communication is the preferable starting point:
- Conversations about sensitive or emotionally charged topics, such as job performance issues or personal challenges
- Exploration of initiatives or procedural changes that will affect the whole company
- Discussions regarding high-stakes decisions
- At the start of a project involving employees who have not previously worked together
- Project retrospectives, when live discussion can help stakeholders better understand opportunities for improvement
Your workforce is already practicing asynchronous communication in several ways. Asynchronous communication examples include email correspondence, comments and status updates shared in project management tools, and messages posted to internal forums.
One of the main goals should be to reduce the number of meetings and phone calls by consistently questioning whether a meeting is necessary.
Adopting asynchronous communication and workflows
Shoot for progress, not perfection
With asynchronous communication, sometimes there’s only so much work you can do on a project until you hear back from a team member. But even incremental advancement is better than nothing.
“Do as much as you can with what you have, document everything, transfer ownership of the project to the next person, then start working on something else.”
–Remote, a provider of HR solutions for distributed teams.
Asynchronous communication is difficult without good documentation. Establish a standardized process for recording every important piece of information related to a project and ensuring employees know where to find it.
The “standardized” aspect is crucial. If every team member is documenting project updates and relevant details in a different way, it may create more questions, which defeats the purpose of asynchronous communication.
Encourage the right meeting mentality
Before scheduling any meeting, employees should ask themselves if they can achieve the objective without one. In many cases, the answer is yes, but often employees schedule a meeting anyway.
To avoid this, ask employees to create an agenda and be thoughtful about who they invite. What do they expect each person to contribute to the discussion? Ask them to document any discussions that take place during the meeting and summarize them for the rest of the team. This will help ensure employees only schedule meetings when they are necessary.
Use the right workplace technology
Asynchronous communication isn’t possible without the right technology. Your workforce must be able to connect with each other and share information at any time of day, from any location.
In addition to email, you should invest in a flexible instant messaging tool that integrates with other business software and enables both asynchronous and synchronous communication, such as Slack. You should also implement a community-facing project management solution and a cloud-based file-sharing platform like Google Workspace.
When employees do need to schedule meetings, make it easy for them to check meeting room availability and team calendars with solutions that integrate. Your meeting room booking system should sync to your company’s existing calendar apps so everyone can see availability in real-time. This helps you avoid double bookings or unattended reservations.
Even better, give your employees a workplace app that makes it easy for them to find colleagues, reserve rooms, and request service while they’re in the office.
Because you will likely have at least a few team members who work remotely, good video conferencing solutions are essential.
Asynchronous communication improves the employee experience
Asynchronous communication reduces the pressure employees can feel to be “always on,” which contributes to added stress and burnout. By making it easier for everyone to work at different times and meet when necessary, you can build a more positive employee experience for an increasingly distributed workforce.
Making the transition from relying on synchronous team communication to more asynchronous methods may take some time, but it can lead to substantial improvements in productivity and satisfaction.
To learn more about how to rethink your employee experience for in-person and remote workers, check out the latest Verdantix report.