Embracing Asynchronous Communication in the Workplace

As convenient as synchronous communication is, it can hurt productivity. Here’s why you should embrace asynchronous communication.

RC Victorino

RC Victorino

Published: Apr 7, 2020

Knowing you can reach out to a colleague and get immediate feedback is incredibly convenient.

But that convenience can come at a cost: productivity.

It takes the average person 25 minutes to return to their original task after being interrupted, according to a University of California, Irvine study.

Now imagine getting back on task amidst dozens of daily interruptions (Slack and inbox notifications, calendar invites, visits to your desk by colleagues).

It’s nearly impossible.

Sure, we can make personal adjustments to limit our distractions. We can check Slack and email twice every day. We can block off time in our calendars. We can wear noise-canceling headphones at our desk, meaning leave us alone.

But these personal adjustments won’t go very far if your company’s culture is built on an expectation of synchronous communication.

If you want to build a more productive workplace, it’s time to embrace asynchronous communication.

The problem with synchronous communication in the workplace

When companies build their culture around synchronous communication, employees value quickness over thoughtfulness. Immediately responding to a Slack message is seen as a quality of a good teammate — even if the response lacks depth or quality.

“Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously.” - Elon Musk

But except for time-sensitive matters and team-building activities, this isn’t the most effective way to communicate in the workplace.

Yet companies embrace synchronous communication because they mistakingly associate constant connectivity with quality collaboration, when, in fact, asynchronous communication often leads to better collaboration, clearer communication, and improved productivity.

Advantages of asynchronous communication

Below we break down the positive impacts an asynchronous culture can have on your team.

Inclusive collaborations

Teams hold real-time meetings (like brainstorming sessions) as a way for colleagues to collaborate. However, these synchronous meetings often lead to production blocking.

Production blocking occurs when one person prevents others in a meeting from contributing ideas (whether intentional or not). It’s a natural consequence of synchronous meetings — one person speaks, others listen.

Asynchronous communication eliminates production blocking by allowing everyone on the team to contribute their ideas without fear of interruption or negative feedback.

Example: Rather than hold a brainstorm session, share a prompt with your team. Then, have each teammate summarize their ideas in a memo that they share with the group (use a collaborative writing app like Dropbox Paper or Slab). Encourage every team member to read and respond to their colleagues’ memos.

“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” — Jeff Bezos

This way, everyone contributes — and there’s a record of these contributions. This is the strategy Jeff Bezos adopted at Amazon. Bezos asks his senior leaders to submit narratively structured memos before any meeting. These memos force his team to carefully think through their ideas, rather than just spit out the first thing that comes to mind. As a result, discussions are more fruitful. Debates offer more value.

Meetings are more productive.

Productive conversations

Some people are naturally gifted at contributing meaningful insights off the cuff. Ask them a question, and they’ll surprise you with the quality of their response.

Most people, however, benefit from time. They need time and space to process the information, formulate their ideas, and construct their ideas in a clear and sensible format.

Asynchronous communication gives your team this gift of time.

For example, Jamie has an idea for an upcoming feature. In a synchronous workplace, he’d feel comfortable walking over to Tina’s desk to get feedback on his idea.

Feeling obligated to respond immediately, Tina shifts her attention to Jamie. But she has her own deadline to stick to. She can’t afford to give Jamie too much of her time. So, rather than contribute a meaningful response, she tells Jamie it’s a great idea, then returns to her work, feeling like she did her due diligence as a good, supportive teammate.

In a workplace that embraces asynchronous communication, however, Jamie would write a memo that outlines his idea. He’d then share it with Tina via email or Slack. Tina, who’s working on a deadline, doesn’t check her inbox until later in the day. When she sees Jamie’s message, she responds that she’ll review his outline and offer some feedback by the end of the next day.

Yes, Jamie now has to wait a full day for feedback. But the feedback he’ll receive will be far more useful to him than any hasty response Tina could offer in real time.

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Greater autonomy

Synchronous communication limits an employee’s ability to choose when and where they work.

Even if you have a flexible work schedule, synchronous communication comes with the expectation that employees should be available when their colleagues are.

But not everyone is as productive at the same time. Robin in HR might like to work early in the morning. Cameron in Engineering might prefer to work late nights.

While there are exceptions, your team should have the freedom to work when it best suits them.

For those times when a colleague must be reached (like to report a bug), a simple phone call or text will suffice.

A good rule of thumb is to have team members add their phone numbers to their Slack profile. Or, create a document in your company wiki with everyone’s pertinent contact details. Another approach is to create an emergency phone tree list. This list identifies who to call, and how to reach them, based on the emergency and time of day.

Better records

Most asynchronous communication happens in writing, meaning there’s a clear record of conversations and decisions. This clear record creates a more transparent workplace culture. It makes it easy for everyone on your team to get the context they need on their own.

Sure, you can assign someone to take notes during a synchronous meeting. But these notes don’t tell the whole story. They’re snippets recorded by a second-hand source — they lack context, clarity, and perspective.

In an asynchronous workplace, teams create a shared internal document that records the comments and contributions of every teammate — in their own words. These documents can replace your meeting entirely, or be used in addition to your meeting.

Tip: Email chains and Slack channels can also be used in lieu of real-time meetings.

Now, you have a truly representative record of the meeting. Teammates looking for context behind a decision made from this meeting know where to go — that shared document.

More accommodating

Remote workers can feel isolated from the rest of their team, particularly if they’re left out of meaningful conversations.

For example, Jamie and Alex run into each other in the hallway. They start discussing design ideas they each have for an upcoming landing page. By the end of their conversation, they’ve come up with an entirely new mockup that they send to the developer, Theo, who works remotely.

Theo has his own ideas for the landing page, but, at this point, feels two steps behind the group. Is it worth it to share his thoughts and slow down progress? Or should he just go with Jamie and Alex’s idea?

On the other hand, here’s how asynchronous communication democratizes critical information: Jamie and Alex run into each other in the hallway. Jamie proposes a new idea for the landing page. Alex tells Jamie to write these ideas up in a memo so that Theo can contribute his feedback.

Jamie formulates her ideas in a memo, then shares it with Theo and Alex. They, in turn, read through and comment on Jamie’s memo. After a series of asynchronous collaboration, they schedule a conference call to discuss next steps.

In this scenario, Theo is involved from step one — despite missing out on that initial hallway conversation between Jamie and Alex.

Creating an asynchronous workplace

Creating an asynchronous workplace isn’t just about choosing specific tools to communicate. Case in point: Slack and email can be used asynchronously or synchronously. Many teams, unfortunately, use these tools for synchronous communication. For example, Yahoo Labs found that the average response time for most emails is 2 minutes.

Teams need to make a cultural shift in how they communicate if they want to succeed as an asynchronous workplace.

Squash the ASAP mentality

As mentioned earlier, there are scenarios when time is a factor. That should be the exception, not the rule. Your team should avoid phrases like “Can I get feedback ASAP” or “I’d love your input within the next hour.” Asynchronous communication only works if teammates know they have time to process and respond.

Create a clear set of expectations for when teammates should respond to messages. For example: Respond to Slack within one business day and email messages within two business days.

Hold silent meetings

Before your meeting, prepare and share an agenda with a narrow focus. Ask your teammates to review the agenda and draft a well-written memo of their ideas, questions, and comments. Then, set aside time at the start of your meeting for a table read (this table read is the silent meeting portion of your meeting). Attendees read the memos shared by their colleagues and record their ideas and notes on index cards.

Once the table read is complete, engage in a facilitator-led discussion. During this discussion, the team synthesizes the information read, as well as the comments that stemmed from the reading.

Promote strong writing

Strong writing reduces confusion and frustration. A well-written memo, for example, is easy to understand. There is no need for a teammate to follow up for clarity. Strong writing is a core component of asynchronous communication. Of course, not everyone on your team is comfortable writing. Fortunately, there are ways to empower everyone on your team to be better at writing.

Turn off notifications

We all fall victim to notifications. We can’t help check Slack or our inbox the moment we see a new message arrive. It’s Pavlov’s classical conditioning for the 21st century.

That’s why asynchronous workplaces should encourage workers to set aside time blocks during the day to check and respond to messages (email, Slack, etc.). For example, encourage teammates to check Slack first thing in the morning, just after lunch, and at the end of the day.

Need to get in touch with someone immediately? No problem. As we mentioned earlier, have teammates add their phone numbers to their Slack profiles for emergencies only.

Go remote-friendly

If your team can work wherever and whenever they want, they should. No one should feel forced to come to the office — unless their job requires them to. No one should feel obligated to work certain hours — again unless their job requires them to. Studies show remote work can boost productivity.

Be ahead of the curve — embrace asynchronous communication

Eventually, asynchronous communication will be standard practice. Remote work is becoming widely accepted — and asynchronous communication is often the most efficient way to work remotely.

By adopting an asynchronous culture now, you prepare your team for the inevitability that comes from working with remote and distributed employees.

But even if you’re not remote, or have no plans to go remote, embracing an asynchronous culture empowers your team to work more efficiently and communicate more clearly.

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