Today, more than ever, communication doesn’t happen in real time. Think of that Google Doc you share with a colleague asking for feedback instead of in-person. Or that email you send asking a question instead of walking to someones’ desk and tapping them on the shoulder. In both cases, the teammate you're working with will respond at a future time that suits them.
These are but a few examples of asynchronous communication—a form of communication that we, at Front, rely on almost exclusively. We believe it’s the future of work; a better way of communicating that leads to more focused, productive, inclusive, and happier teams.
But what precisely is asynchronous communication? And how can you successfully help move your team towards it? Let’s have a look.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous communication: what’s the difference?
Asynchronous communication is just a fancy word for communication that doesn’t happen in real time. Email or Google Docs are examples.
There’s a delay between when information is sent, received, and acted upon. Two or more individuals don’t need to be present simultaneously to interact. Each person can manage communication on their own time—whether replying to that email or offering feedback on that Google Doc.
Synchronous communication happens in real time. Phone calls or instant messages are examples.
All parties are present simultaneously (virtual or in-person) to communicate. There’s no time lag or delay between the recipient receiving the information and responding. They’re in sync.
The differences between these two forms of communication are shown below:
Examples of asynchronous communication
We’ve already shared a few examples of asynchronous communication: email and collaboration via Google Docs. A couple of others include:
Collaboration via project management tools like Trello or Asana. Each person on a project team can log in at different times of the day to view work, move projects along, comment, add documents, and so on. For example, a content manager can assign a brief to a writer on Asana and include a due date. The writer can then look, leave comments and provide feedback on their own time before writing and submitting their work via the platform.
Communication via instant messaging apps like Slack. Technically communication via these apps can be synchronous and asynchronous. It depends entirely on how people choose to use these platforms for communication: instant communication or communication at a later stage. For this example, let’s assume people use it to communicate with no expectation of an immediate response.
Communication via the customer communication hub, Front. People can collaborate on emails, leave comments for attention later, and easily assign and reply to emails received through group email addresses like info@ and support@.
Collaboration via an asynchronous video tool like Loom or Soapbox for teams working remotely in different time zones. These platforms let you record and send videos to your colleagues who can listen on their own time.
Examples of synchronous communication
Here are a few examples of synchronous communication:
In-person meetings to get work done, communicate, and move projects forward.
Phone calls, requiring both parties to be present to communicate.
Video conference calls to interact and share ideas.
Communication via instant messaging apps like Slack. As mentioned, communication can be synchronous and asynchronous, depending on how people choose to communicate on the platform. If a company uses it for daily communication in real time, it’s synchronous communication.
When to use each kind of communication
Synchronous communication works well when you want to brainstorm, make decisions quickly (maybe you’re working on an important project with tight deadlines), or get an answer immediately.
Asynchronous communication makes sense when you don’t need an answer immediately, you’re communicating with people in different time zones who work different hours, or you’re communicating with an entire team who cannot be in the same place or attend a meeting at the same time.
With more and more companies moving toward remote working or a hybrid approach that balances working from the office and working from home, asynchronous communication is fast becoming the preferred means of communication.
This change, driven largely by the remote work revolution, is also unsurprising when you start to look at the pitfalls of synchronous communication and, in contrast, the benefits of asynchronous communication.
Synchronous communication: the pitfalls
Ping, ping, ping…the stress builds. There are a few problems with synchronous communication:
1. Reduced focus and lower productivity due to constant interruptions.
Synchronous communication relies on real-time communication. Although providing or receiving an instant response from a colleague, say through Slack, may feel like it moves projects along faster and boosts productivity, it can actually do the opposite.
Real-time communication like this often leads to constant work interruptions, making it harder for employees to focus and get work done. It’s particularly damaging for activities requiring extended periods of deep focus like coding, writing, or strategizing.
2. Poor work-life balance.
With everyone having to be present simultaneously to communicate, some people will inevitably have to do this at a time that isn’t suitable (e.g., over family time), reducing their control over and negatively affecting their overall work-life balance.
3. Quality of communication and ideas erodes.
Developing good ideas and writing proper responses in the moment isn’t easy. It often requires more time than synchronous communication allows.
Immediate responses aren’t always the most thoughtful or even the best. They can also often be based on emotion, with the loudest person getting heard instead of someone who may have a better idea.
4. Synchronous communication is more demanding.
More planning is needed to ensure everyone can attend a meeting simultaneously. Unless the meeting is urgent or it’s an important brainstorming session, chances are, you can achieve the same—if not better—results by communicating asynchronously.
How asynchronous communication benefits teams
Take a deep breath and relax. Asynchronous communication solves the many pitfalls of synchronous communication and offers many other benefits:
1. A more focused and productive workplace.
According to Sunny Zeimer, remote work expert and COO of Distribute Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in workplace mobility, many of their clients are surprised by how immediate the benefits of asynchronous work are.
“One of the first things they notice is an increase in overall productivity,” explains Sunny. “We hear that all the time.”
This is unsurprising when you think about it. Employees can focus better and be more productive because they aren’t constantly interrupted. They can block off enough time for deep work and have complete control over task batching. For example, responding to messages for an hour in the afternoon or only concentrating on deep work during the mornings when they’re most productive.
2. Flexibility for your organization and employees.
It’s a win-win: employees can manage communication on their own time, allowing them to control their own work schedules.
Organizations, in turn, can build a unique organizational culture around a remote team consisting of talented and diverse individuals without being constrained by the need to communicate in person and in real time.
“We hit the reset button of what the standard of work is,” explains Zeimer. “People are seeing the potential for productivity and overall job satisfaction for employees who work asynchronously.”
3. Reduced stress and happier employees.
Being able to manage communication on their own time also means employees have complete control over how they structure their workdays— when they start work, how long they work, and when they do specific work.
They don’t have to sacrifice family time to fit into another colleague’s or manager’s schedule. There’s also no added pressure to be in a meeting at a particular time or date. More control ultimately leads to more happiness.
4. The quality of collaboration improves.
“They [Distribute Consulting’s clients] also see the quality of collaboration go up, and that’s because there’s a natural pause in being asynchronous,” explains Zeimer. “Without the pressure to deliver in real-time, people have a little extra time to brainstorm and craft thoughtful responses and ideas.”
5. A more inclusive workplace
Asynchronous communication enables people to chime in even if they’re not the loudest in the room, creating a culture that values everyone.
How to help your team move towards more asynchronous communication
With so many organizations (perhaps you’re one of them?) used to working and communicating synchronously, attempting to shift to asynchronous communication will take time.
It will also take many different strategies—not just one—and a significant change to culture, processes, and tools used to work and communicate.
But, the switch is inevitable as the remote evolution takes hold. And so, you need to find ways to make it happen as effortlessly as possible.
5 strategies to help you make the move to asynchronous work
Here are a few strategies to get the wheels of change turning and help your team move towards asynchronous communication. These strategies aren’t the only ones, but they’re a great place to start.
1. Get team buy-in.
Without buy-in from your team, a shift to asynchronous communication will be difficult—and it may not happen at all.
Introduce your team to asynchronous communication: tell them what it is and how it can benefit them. Share resources with them like this guide so they can learn more.
Let your team know you plan to switch the way you communicate and that you’ll require their feedback on concerns and what they like about it. You need to deal with any problems early on.
Consider creating and sending an email explaining the above, with links to additional resources and information, asking for feedback by a particular time. Sending an email ensures people can think about it and respond on their own time.
2. Invest in a few asynchronous communication tools.
Once you’ve spoken to employees, addressed all concerns, and considered all feedback, make gradual changes by investing in a few communication tools.
While employees will definitely have ideas on what tools to use, here are a few ideas:
Dropbox to store all your shared company information in the cloud so everyone can access it as needed. Example documentation includes HR documents, meeting notes, and general company policies.
Front to collaborate on communications, leave comments, and assign and reply to emails asynchronously.
All new tools will involve a slight learning curve. Train employees on how to use the tools to remove any reservations they may be having.
3. Create and communicate clear guidelines for asynchronous communication.
As great as these tools are at facilitating asynchronous communication, they’re pretty pointless without proper guidelines for productive and effective internal communication or a philosophy for asynchronous communication.
Your philosophy could be summed up in one paragraph. For example:
“We at [insert your company name] consist primarily of a remote workforce that values flexibility, work-life balance, employee happiness, and productivity. And so, we embrace asynchronous communication, which means all employees are free to manage communication on their own time.
So, expect a delay in receiving a response to your email or feedback on that Google Doc or input on that line of code. We firmly believe that the future of collaboration is asynchronous because it lets people from different time zones collaborate, improves the quality of feedback, helps maintain work-life balance, and boosts employee happiness.”
Creating these guidelines is the first step in attempting to shape company culture. The second is writing these guidelines into essential documents, e.g., contracts, employee onboarding and welcome packs, and other HR documents.
The third is communicating and making everyone aware of these guidelines, whether over email, shared Google Doc, or during in-person meetings.
The fourth— “following-up”—is so vital that it requires a whole separate section dedicated to it.
4. Follow-up with employees to see how they’re doing.
Significant change doesn’t happen overnight. Follow up to check in with each of your employees to see how they’re experiencing asynchronous communication. Some will adapt to it seamlessly. Others will struggle. It’s your job to listen and see what you can do to help. Speaking of your job…
5. Lead by example.
Finally, you must model the change you want in your organization. It doesn’t help if you say you’re an advocate for asynchronous communication and that everyone needs to shift to communicating that way if you don’t live by it or your behavior says otherwise. This means, for example:
Making a point of scheduling fewer meetings to limit synchronous communication.
Being more thoughtful of employees and their time zones when scheduling those meetings that cannot be avoided.
Sending emails giving employees a few days to respond instead of expecting an immediate response.
Sending emails only during work hours and not late at night. After hours emailing creates an “always-on” culture.
Sure, you will have to plan ahead and be more mindful of everyone’s time, but if you want change to actually happen, you need to be that change.
Asynchronous communication is the future of work
With the remote evolution gathering more steam daily, asynchronous communication continues to take hold. It will only get more popular as more and more leaders realize it’s a better way of communicating that benefits companies and employees.
Employees can manage work on their own time, making them focused, less stressed, and happier. Companies benefit from more productive employees and quality ideas, adding to their bottom line.
Speaking of improving life for employees, learn about preventing workplace burnout with expert Jennifer Moss in her conversation with Front CEO Mathilde Collin.
Written by Nick Darlington
Originally Published: 1 June 2021