A Guide to Asynchronous Communication: What it is, How it Works and Why it’s Key for Remote Work Success

Async communication for Remote WorkThe pandemic forced the world of work to change forever. Companies and workforce switched to part-time and full-time remote work.

Working remotely is becoming the new norm, thus giving rise to asynchronous communication—the ability to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate projects across countries from different time zones through email, team communication tools, Google Docs, and others.

However, the shift to remote work carries an inherent risk: effective communication. Communicating remotely in a way that’s considerate of time zones is a challenge for small and large organizations.

The good news is, according to research published in Harvard Business Review, companies witnessed a 3% increase in productivity with the use of online based tools for asynchronous communication. This guide will give you a better understanding of how asynchronous  communication works and why it’s important for remote work success.

1. Asynchronous communication VS synchronous communication

Asynchronous and synchronous communication are useful ways to share knowledge and master the art of remote working.

You’ve probably experienced them both at your company or in your remote working career. You might have also noticed why they’re effective for collaborative work and how or where each one of these types of communication falls short.

Ayetkin Tank, founder at Jotform, says that asynchronous communication tools are the main reasons why his company can collaborate at a distance with ease:

“More and more, I’m finding that mastering asynchronous communication is key to managing a remote team. And to be effective, it’s crucial to settle on communication tools to be utilized by your entire team”.

Let’s look at the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication:

1.1. What is synchronous communication?

Synchronous means a real-time conversation that happens on the phone, using video conferencing tools (like Zoom or Google Meet), or an in-person meeting or discussion. Responses happen on the spot. Synchronous is just a fancy way of defining normal and real-time communication.

Here are the pros and cons of sync communication:

Pros

  • Immediacy: It is great for answering questions or issues that need immediate attention and clarification. It is faster and more dynamic than asynchronous communication. The back-and-forth discussions help speed up the exchange of ideas and ease the decision-making process.
  • Building rapport: We are social by nature and we love seeing and spending time with each other. Depending on the medium, Synchronous is arguably better for building relationships and in-person rapport.
  • Critical feedback: Sensitive issues that need a team’s immediate attention are better interpreted through clear communication and instantaneous feedback. This is great for active participation and interactive discussions. A written form of communication is not the best way to go here. Waiting for people from different time zones to weigh in will slow things down.

Cons

  • Time zone differences: People from different time zones will struggle to be at the same place as everyone else. Scheduling a good time for everyone to attend virtual meetings is time-consuming and will probably create delays.
  • Inflexible: Before responding and participating in meetings, you are forced to drop everything you’re doing at the moment. As a result, pressure increases and productivity decreases.
  • Unreliable technology: we’ve all experienced computer crashes, slow internet connection, problems joining online meetings, and others. With technology, it’s hard to anticipate what’s going to happen next. When it fails, the meeting gets rescheduled or everyone needs to wait for the problems to be fixed.
  • Stressful: Responding to every form of synchronous communication will add stress on top of work priorities. Frequent interruptions and distractions will get in the way of deep work.

Examples

  • Using phone calls, video calls, or virtual meetings to discuss complex issues.
  • WhatsApp conversations.
  • Instant messaging.
  • Live chats and streamed videos.
  • Virtual announcements for newcomers to a team.
  • Remote retreats. The team at Buffer planned over ten company retreats to create a healthy work atmosphere and culture.

1.2. What is asynchronous communication?

It is every form of communication that happens over a long period of time. The sender and receiver exchange information with a time lag between them. In other words, both parties communicate without having to respond immediately and without scheduling any virtual meetings. Being physically present in a specific location is unnecessary; rather, asynchronous communication leverages the unique advantages of the online environment.

Why is Asynchronous communication so critical in a remote work context?

Asynchronous communication is making remote work more productive. People can save time, be ahead of their work schedule, and do more when they can avoid distractions of the office.

Since remote work is gaining momentum in the workplace in these times, more and more businesses and leaders are realizing how communicating asynchronously contributes immensely to better work results. What’s more, it helps everyone feel more at ease, more fulfilled, live freer, and have better control over their work life.

When you respond to messages or emails several hours after they were sent, it allows for a better process and understanding of information.

Mike Walsh, CEO of Tomorrow, writes for Harvard Business Review:

“Centralized offices have one big advantage: you can get everyone in a room until they solve a problem. But when you work virtually, you have to plan every part of the decision-making process, especially when it is asynchronous.”

In an article published in the HBR, employees’ collaborative effort and focus have increased by 50% in the last two decades. Communicating with colleagues through emails, meetings, and instant messaging apps, which amounts to more than 80% of workers’ time, has become a trend that allows them to adjust their work schedules accordingly.

One office worker told New York Magazine, “I used to wake up and turn off the alarm and check Tinder. Now I wake up and check Slack.”

Slack, a synchronous method of communication, is known for having users spend up to 9 hours per workday. This must make it hard to focus on tasks and can be detrimental to work progress with constant interruptions getting in the way.

Companies reliant on remote work, like JotForm, Buffer, Doist, TechSmith, Basecamp, Automattic, Gitlab, and Zapier, are leveraging an async approach to collaboration.

Here are the pros and cons of async communication:

Pros

  • Increasing freedom: which thus boosts productivity—a win-win for employees and the company.
  • Improving the quality of communication: Despite async being slow, the information tends to be clearer and more elaborate.
  • Deep work becomes the norm: Constant messages and notifications tend to overwhelm inboxes and influence the workflow. With async communication, deep work is smooth and effective when workers don’t feel obligated to respond to every single message. Rather, they have the flexibility to choose when and how to respond to important messages.
  • No pressure: Asynchronous removes the pressure of having to communicate thoughts and address issues on the spot.
  • Processing and preparing to respond: It gives remote workers and teams the freedom to process and gather information before preparing an adequate response.
  • Pace: With asynchronous communication remote workers can go at their own pace, meeting fewer work disruptions.
  • Ideal for teammates in multiple time zones: Works well when participants are in different time zones. Where you are in the world matters little because this type of communication is less about immediacy and more about being productive and staying on task.
  • Documentation: Recording information in a medium (email, voice memo, loom video, etc) can be a great way to communicate value and increase organizational transparency. Sharing information asynchronously is therefore reliable and easier to use.

Cons

  • No immediacy: Urgent or sensitive issues require quick action. Asynchronous doesn’t work well when you need to address important matters at the moment.
  • Isolation: Interacting with colleagues face-to-face after meetings or over lunch breaks is rare. Working independently at flexible hours is great but does come at a price. Building relationships and belonging to a work community requires more effort and consideration.
  • No spontaneity: It’s more challenging to address problems that require patience and the immediate spontaneity of brainstorming ideas. This can slow down decision making. A real-time interaction would be more ideal in this case.

Examples:

  • A pre-recorded video of your boss, colleague, or manager giving explicit goals and instructions about new projects for the company.
  • Company announcing new promotions, hires, or a raise.
  • Using project management tools to display group assignments and keep them organized and visible for everyone to see.
  • Sending audio messages or email to stay updated on work in progress.
  • Creating a video that summarizes an informational meeting.
  • Creating training videos in place of real-time, face-to-face training.
  • Creating screenshots that walk people through what needs to be done to complete their tasks.
  • Creating permanent records of communication that everyone can use for future reference.

2. The do’s and don’ts to master Async communication with your clients and team

Async communication has been proved time and again to be effective for remote work. However, for a business to leverage it and thrive, it can be a challenge to implement and requires time, patience, and a shift in work culture and processes before fully adjusting. So, how do you build an effective asynchronous culture?

Christian Oliveira, Technical SEO consultant says:

“Go async first, make sync the exception, not the rule. Define and communicate the async process clearly: where to communicate, how to organize information, what are the expected times to get a response (hours/days). Everything has to be clear up front. Be transparent about processes, information, goals, etc., so everyone can be on the same page. Don’t micromanage: in order for async to success, people need to be independent, have clear goals and autonomy to achieve them. Use sync when needed, specially in the beginning.” 

Below are steps you can take (and others to avoid), to master the art of async communication inside your team or with your clients:

DO: Establish Protocols and Set expectations

Let your team members and clients know how you will communicate from the start to set the right expectations and agreed on the protocols to follow: what can be expected, where and when through the collaboration process. In which format, at what pace, through which platform you will communicate and in which circumstances they can expect to communicate via video, in which via text, when you’ll collaborate via the chat system and when via the project management one or through emails.

Jonathan Berthold, VP Customer Acquisition at PathIQ, says:

“Develop a structure! All projects are managed within Asana. Progress is logged via assigned tasks and requests must be put through the system. We also have dedicated Slack channels for informal updates on clients & campaigns, which allow team members to review at their own pace. Our company is 100% remote + we have contractors in different timezones (writers, developers, designers). Having one system as the source of truth for communication and workflow makes it easier for everyone to contribute and stay updated on everyone’s progress.”

For example, establish response times for the most common scenarios depending on how important and urgent they are, making sure that you always leave enough time to solve each type of issue. For example, for important and urgent matters, the response time can be of under 24 hours and for important but non-urgent it can be of 2-3 days. This will remove pressure and give them time to process their response.

DON’T: Forget to check your document sharing settings

If someone stops their work to request access to a document, this will probably lead to hours of delay.

DO: Be clear and transparent

Your team or clients need to access, stay updated on, and easily interpret important conversations and new information to work efficiently without having to request additional information and clarity.

DON’T: Be concise and brief

You can easily avoid the back-and-forth messaging by adding details and as much information as possible. Being brief and concise will cause frustration and confusion. Make sure to include screenshots, videos, or other visual aids for better transparency.

DO: Document discussions before and after meetings

Not everyone can attend every meeting, especially people from different time zones. This is where recording your discussions before, during, and after meetings, comes into play. For people not to miss out on anything and feel excluded, it’s important to share all relevant information so everyone on your team is on the same page.

DON’T: Turn on notifications

As these can easily distract and take up time from your work. Instead, make sure to allocate a specific time in your day to respond to messages and emails.

DO: Improve writing skills

In an async workplace, writing is the essence of communication. Your team members and yourself should develop this skill to be as concise and specific as possible. It’ll make communication faster and easier.

DON’T: Make assumptions

Never assume people know everything you know. Always take into consideration those that may have missed out on a piece of information. Again, transparency (link to related discussions, add images and screenshots, etc) is critical to supplement your explanations.

DO: Encourage audio or video to explain complex information

Though writing is a big asset, everyone has different communication style preferences, and sometimes is easier to communicate a complex idea with a quick video you can send in your chat or project management system.

3. Five Tools to use for Async Communication in a remote work context

Great communication for remote work wouldn’t be possible without the tools we have today designed to improve the asynchronous experience. Companies like GitLab, Doist, Automattic, and Zapier went further and built their tools to manage their communication.

François Briod, Co-founder & CEO at Monito says: “It’s all about finding the right fit between: Message <> Medium

  • Async One way communication: Simple idea use a Slack message. Complex idea use a Loom Video
  • Async Two way communication: Simple idea use Slack threads. Complex idea use Google Doc or Notion. Creative idea use Miro/Whimsical
  • Sync communication: It’s also important to know when to have a sync conversation to save time: Complex & Urgent use Google Meet / Tandem Chat

Let’s go through 5 of the most popular tools for async communication:

3.1. Threads

Threads is a great tool for keeping all your conversations organized and searchable inside public channels. All you have to do is tag your teammates and you’re good to go. Threads is great for working with people from different time zones. Its interface and ease of use make communication transparent. Threads improves information discovery and collaboration. Plus, it can integrate into other asynchronous tools like Twist and Slack.

The team at Buffer uses Threads to communicate asynchronously:

“Over the past year, Threads has become a staple for us when it comes to effective asynchronous communication and collaboration.  It has a clear purpose — to make it easy to have text-based conversations across the company and clearly mark decisions when they are made.”

3.2. Trello

If you want to see anything related to your project or your team’s progress, Trello is the perfect management software to do that. You can track deadlines and distribute tasks to all your team members. It also allows you to participate in important discussions, share files, and comment on individual tasks.

3.3 Todoist

You can create a project and share any item you want with your team or a specific individual. It works well on devices like Mac, Windows, Apple IOS, and Android. Another great thing about it is its classification tools and ability to work offline.

3.4. Google Docs

The best free tool to share emails, landing pages, blog posts, and any kind of copy is Google Docs.

3.5. Github

For managing code, documenting, and showcasing work. And it’s fast, open-source, and free.

Wrapping Up

The future of remote work lies in the evolution of asynchronous communication. Companies using async tools to communicate with their teams and clients are ahead of the game.

Don’t just rely on synchronous tools to improve communication in a remote work context.  To beat your competition, a step up would be to mix asynchronous with synchronous communication.

I hope this article gave you some ideas about what you can do to improve your remote working experience.

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