The 2020 pandemic forced offices reliant on synchronous communication to adapt to online asynchronous communication overnight. Businesses everywhere were eager to learn more about how to work effectively from remote locations, which led to a gigantic leap in Google searches for “asynchronous communication” compared to previous years.
The term wasn’t a topic for many offices in 2019, but it’s seen a rapid rise, and it should be pretty clear why. That is unless you’ve been living under a rock for the duration of 2020. (Side note: if you have been living under a rock, where is it and what’s the rent?)
Asynchronous communication is used by everyone, but it plays a big role in how remote and distributed teams collaborate effectively. In this post, we’ll explain the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication, discuss the benefits of asynchronous communication, and we’ll provide tips for how to navigate communication as a remote team.
While the name is a little technical, asynchronous communication is a lot more basic than it sounds—and you do it every day.
Asynchronous communication is any communication between two or more people that doesn’t require them to be in the same physical space or communicating at exactly the same time. Email is an example of asynchronous communication. You’re engaging in a dialogue with another person, but it’s not expected that the person will reply at that exact moment. Instead, they’ll reply whenever they’re able to.
Everyone uses a combination of both asynchronous and synchronous communication, and it depends on the needs of the interaction.
In order to have a conversation with someone over the phone, they need to pick up when you call. If the person you’re calling picks up and you’re able to have a conversation, that’s synchronous communication. If they don’t pick up and you leave a message, that’s asynchronous communication.
A meeting held in an office requires everyone involved to be physically present in the space together. Questions are responded to immediately, and there’s real-time discussion. Even though you’re not in the same physical space, a Zoom meeting is also a form of synchronous communication since participants are able to communicate with each other freely in the same moment.
We likely don’t have to tell you it’s challenging to manage interruptions when you work remotely. For your pets, children, spouses, and roommates, it’s tough to understand when you’re ‘at work’ and when you’re not. Responding right away to a quick question or a furry friend who wants to go for a walk can completely throw off your concentration.
Then there are the interruptions that come from your email, text messages, calls, and phone notifications. People who work from home are more likely to have their smartphone nearby, which can cause tiny interruptions throughout the day that prevent deep work.
Working from physically separate locations affects some more than others, but not being able to see your friends at work (and only seeing those you live with) can take an emotional toll.
It’s tough to keep team engagement lively without seeing the friendly faces of coworkers, which can leave remote workers feeling disconnected from the team.
The mindset of when I’m at work, I’m at work, and when I’m at home, I’m at home doesn’t exactly play into the remote work reality. It’s easy for your home life to bleed into your work life and vice versa if careful boundaries are not set. This can have a negative impact on your wellbeing, and in the end, both your work and home life will suffer.
Teams may overdo Zoom meetings to make up for lack of in-person communication. It’s not as if you don’t want to communicate with your coworkers; it’s just that, after a while, Zoom fatigue gets pretty real.
It’s an excellent way for teams to meet and communicate online, but there is such a thing as too much Zoom. Going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting can get tiring, and just like the physical workplace, a day filled with meetings means a day where nothing else gets done.
For all its challenges, remote work provides a number of benefits to both employees and employers. It takes time to get used to and time to figure out your own groove, but once you do, it’s smooth sailing and optimized productivity.
It can be difficult to work productively in an office surrounded by like-minded coworkers. A coworker stopping by your office (or Slack) to chat may seem like no big deal or even a welcome distraction from your work, but interruptions come at a cost.
A study cited by the American Psychology Association found that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.” As much as we may try and fight it, our brains aren’t made for heavy-duty multitasking; we work best when we can focus all of our attention on doing just one thing well.
Asynchronous communication means you decide when you can afford to be interrupted. If you have a major task that requires all of your focus, you can choose to close Slack or your email and devote all of your energy to it without fear of being interrupted. Then, when that critical task is complete, you can check in on Slack to see if your coworkers need anything from you.
Demanding tasks require deep focus, which can be real tough to come by on any given workday. Interruptions and distractions are everywhere, and sometimes, what keeps us from accomplishing deep work is other forms of work. Even though you’re technically working during a meeting or when replying to Slack messages, it’s not quite the right mindset needed to tackle larger, cognitively-demanding tasks. An entire busy workday can go by without you ever reaching a state of deep concentration.
Asynchronous communication creates fewer interruptions, which leaves more opportunities for deep work. When you can communicate with your team based on your own schedule, you’re able to create productive blocks of focused work. This helps people find a groove, and it’s terrific for productivity.
Remote work means the whole world is your talent pool instead of just the small city where your company is located. This means businesses are able to hire the best of the best, creating a well-rounded, diverse team. But synchronous communication is time zone sensitive. It requires two or more people to be available at any given time, which can be a nightmare for teams spread out across the globe or businesses that work with overseas customers.
When you get accustomed to communicating asynchronously, time zones are no longer a barrier. You can communicate at a time that works best for you, and the other person will get back to you at a time that works best for them. In fact, asynchronous communication makes different time zones an asset, not a hindrance. You can ask a question or pass on work at the end of your day and a colleague in a different time zone is able to take it over while you’re sleeping. 😴
Ever had a day with back to back to back meetings, and then all of a sudden it’s the end of the day, and you’re left wondering how and when you’ll ever get your work done?
Meetings are expensive. They may seem harmless, but they can completely eat up company time and employee productivity. Any time spent in a meeting is time not spent working on another task. This means employees have less time to complete their other work, which adds unnecessary stress to their lives and can lead to burnout. Poorly managed, unstructured meetings, or ones without a set purpose, cost employers precious work hours that could otherwise be spent in more productive ways.
Of course, there is a time for meetings, and in some cases, they are exactly what’s needed to boost morale or get to the bottom of a problem. Meetings should always be set with intention. What’s the purpose of the meeting? What do you hope to accomplish?
Asynchronous communication provides opportunities for teams to interact productively outside of a meeting, ensuring effective meetings once one is actually required. It allows people to communicate on their own terms so that entire days aren’t lost to meetings.
Everyone works differently. Morning people get a burst of energy in the morning, while others take hours to fully wake up and find the right work groove. Enabling teams to work the way they work best is better for everyone.
Giving employees the freedom to work how and when they want, and trusting them to do so, improves productivity and boosts morale. To effectively provide employees that freedom, you must practice asynchronous communication in your workplace. It allows each individual to maintain their own work schedule while still ensuring effective communication continues across the whole team.
Of course, we can’t completely rule out synchronous communication. It has its time and place, and it can be extremely useful when used correctly.
The thing about synchronous communication is it requires consent from two people. When you choose to stop by someone’s office, call a coworker, or start a video call out of the blue, you’re interrupting the other person. Synchronous communication is a two-way street, which means you need to be considerate of other people’s time.
Before choosing synchronous communication, make sure the other person is available. If you want to speak on Zoom, coordinate a time that works for both of you. If your message isn’t important, share it in a status update or send an email so you don’t interrupt whatever is going on in someone else’s day. Save surprise phone or video calls for emergencies only.
The most effective workplaces use synchronous and asynchronous communication with intention. They both serve a purpose—the challenge is learning which to use when and getting the whole team on the same page about what’s expected.
Changes you can implement today:
✔️ Managers and team leaders should set best practices around workplace communication. Help your team understand how, when, and where to communicate.
✔️ As an individual, you can prepare your own communication guidelines to help you decide how to communicate with colleagues based on different circumstances.
✔️ Before making an impromptu call to a coworker, always consider if your question or comment is really worth the interruption.
✔️ Keep your Slack status up-to-date to help your team see when you are available and when you are not.
✔️ Set meetings with intention. Only schedule a meeting if synchronous communication is needed or would benefit the cause.
💬 Want to keep learning? Read our Complete Guide to Giving Constructive Feedback.
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