Asynchronous communication isn’t what you think it is

Julia Martins 참여자 얼굴 사진Julia Martins2021년 8월 19일10 분 읽기 분량
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Summary

Asynchronous communication means any form of communication where you aren’t expecting a reply in real time. Even though teams typically prioritize synchronous—or real-time—communication, asynchronous communication can increase productivity, help your team make better decisions, and boost cross-functional visibility on key project info. Learn how to use asynchronous communication on your team. 

What if we were to tell you that not only do you use asynchronous communication every day, but that it’s also the key to success in the modern workplace? Too often, we prioritize face-to-face meetings for things that would be better communicated asynchronously in an email. Understanding when to lean into asynchronous communication can help your team get their most important work done. 

You already use asynchronous tools to communicate every day. But you don’t just need the tools—you also need to know how to use them effectively. The true benefit of asynchronous communication comes when you can leverage collaboration to get the most out of your time at work. With the right system, you can get your most important work done and hit your goals—without constant distractions. Here’s how.

What is asynchronous communication? 

Asynchronous communication is any type of communication where two people aren’t expected to be present and available at the exact same time. Basically, this means that when you send an asynchronous message, you don’t expect an immediate response. 

Believe it or not, you already use asynchronous communication (a lot)

You may have only just heard of asynchronous communication, but it’s actually one of the most common types of communication we use during the workday.

How? One word: email. 

Every time you send an email, you’re sharing a message that doesn’t need an instantaneous response. In a way, email is the poster child for asynchronous communication, even though we don’t think about the fact that we’re communicating asynchronously when we send an email. 

Other examples of asynchronous communication: 

  • Shared docs

  • Recorded video messages

  • Project management tools

  • Status reports

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What is synchronous communication? 

Synchronous communication is any communication that happens in real time. Think of a face-to-face conversation, a brainstorming meeting (whether that’s remote or in person), or an online chat conversation via Microsoft Teams or Slack. With this type of communication, the person or people you’re communicating with are able to respond immediately. 

Examples of synchronous communication:

  • In-person meetings

  • Video conferencing meetings through tools like Zoom and Google Meet

  • Instant messaging through tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams

  • Phone calls

Asynchronous vs. synchronous communication: Pros and cons

Asynchronous communication shouldn’t be used in a vacuum. Sometimes, you need an immediate response or a way to problem solve face to face. Real-time, synchronous communication has its advantages—as well as some drawbacks. Take a look at the pros and cons of each type of communication:

Asynchronous: Pros and cons

At Asana, we’re big fans of how asynchronous communication can increase productivity and reduce work about work. But there are some drawbacks to consider as well. 

Benefits:

  • Protects flow state and deep work. Because team members are spending less time in meetings, they have more time to dedicate to true focus and flow. Flow state is the feeling of being so “in the zone” that time seems to fall away and can’t be achieved with constant interruptions. 

  • Especially good for distributed teams across multiple time zones. If your team isn’t located in the same place, synchronous communication can be particularly painful. Async communication ensures everyone is getting the information they need, in a time and medium that works for them.

  • All communication is documented. Whether you’re sharing written communication or a recorded video, one of the key benefits of asynchronous communication is that everything is documented. That way, team members who need to review lessons learned or previous project information can do so easily. 

  • Encourages more in-depth, clearer communication. When team members have a chance to gather their thoughts, they can also edit and refine the message as needed. Some time to review can help them fill in missing gaps and provide a more in-depth, clearly worded update. 

  • Often produces higher-quality solutions. Oftentimes, we schedule an in-person or video meeting and expect to solve the problem during that time. By giving team members a chance to problem-solve on their own time, they can spend more time thinking over the problem and potentially arrive at a better solution.

  • Empower your team to work when they’re most productive. Some team members get their best work done in the mornings, while others might be particularly productive in the late afternoon. Asynchronous work can enable team members to set their own work schedule in order to capitalize on productivity.

Drawbacks:

  • Not immediate. The most obvious drawback of asynchronous communication is that it isn’t happening in real-time. Depending on the type or purpose of your message, this can be an issue.

  • Time consuming. This is especially true for written forms of asynchronous communication. The drawback of having more detailed writing is that it takes longer to create.

  • Silos reduce transparency and visibility. If your communication tools are siloed, asynchronous communication can make it harder for team members to find information and get good work done. To combat that, make sure your asynchronous communication tools are shared sources of information that everyone can access. 

  • Lacks interpersonal connection. Asynchronous communication may be more effective, but it means you aren’t getting a chance to connect with your team in real time. Especially if you run a remote team, make sure to also schedule team meetings and team building activities to improve group dynamics

  • Lack of visual cues and context. Because you aren’t communicating face to face, async communication lacks the visual cues you might expect from conversations. When it comes to important conversations, like conflict resolution or constructive feedback sessions, consider doing it live to reduce misunderstandings. 

Read: 45 team building games to improve communication and camaraderie

Synchronous communication: Pros and cons

Communicating in real time is a great way to connect with your co-workers and solve immediate problems. But this form of communication also has some significant disadvantages, which can get in the way of your team’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Benefits: 

  • Solves immediate problems. As we mentioned above, synchronous communication has the advantage of solving immediate problems. If you need to address an issue or come up with a solution at this exact moment, synchronous communication is the best way to get that done. 

  • Supports interpersonal communication. If you’re communicating about a difficult topic or sharing constructive criticism, synchronous communication can help you ensure nothing gets lost in translation or is misinterpreted. 

  • Increases connections between people. If you manage a team, make sure you’re meeting 1:1 with your direct reports at least once a week. Synchronous meetings give you a chance to check in on each employee, offer support, and help them grow their careers. 

  • Fosters teamwork. Chatting with your team, hosting team building activities, and getting some facetime is critical for effective teams. Whether your team is remote or in-person, make sure you have time every week to come together as a group. 

  • Build on others’ ideas. There are some situations—like brainstorming meetings or design critique sessions—that benefit from real-time collaboration simply because that’s the best way to share good ideas. If a team’s creative energy is critical to your communication, synchronous communication is more valuable than offline collaboration. 

Drawbacks:

  • Interrupts flow. We’ve all had those swiss cheese meeting days where, right when you’re getting back into work, another meeting interrupts your flow state. Though the meetings themselves might be productive, scattered meetings can ruin your chance for personal productivity on a given day. 

  • Can lack purpose. A lot of teams default to scheduling meetings, when an email or a written status update might do. If you do schedule meetings, make sure they all have a purpose.

  • Action items can fall through the cracks. Sometimes, great meeting brainstorms aren’t captured effectively, and you lose all of the genius ideas you came up with as a team. 

  • Can lead to lower-quality decisions. Some people feel the need to make on-the-spot decisions during meetings, before they have a chance to review and understand the information. 

Read: 5 tips for leading great meetings

10 tips to use asynchronous communication effectively

Asynchronous communication is a powerful way to increase productivity, protect focus time, and empower your team to get their highest-impact work done. But to reap all of the benefits, you need to set yourself and your team up for success. 

You already use asynchronous communication in your day to day through things like email. But if this is the first time you’re establishing rules and guidelines for asynchronous communication, try these ten tips to get started. 

1. Create a communication plan

A communication plan is your one-stop-shop for your team’s communication strategy. With a clear communication plan, team members have clear answers to all of their project communication questions, like:

  • Which communication channel should we use when? 

  • When should we use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication? 

  • How are important details, like project status reports, going to be communicated? How frequently will those be shared? 

For example, at Asana, we use:

  • In-person or video conference meetings with defined meeting agendas for real-time communication.

  • Asana to communicate asynchronously about work, like clarifying task details, updating project status reports, or sharing key project documents.

  • Direct messages in Slack for synchronous communication about day-to-day updates and quick questions.

  • Slack channels for asynchronous, team-wide updates.

  • Email to communicate with external stakeholders.

2. Increase visibility with a shared workspace

A shared workspace is a central source of truth and communication for your entire team. Shared workspaces reduce silos and increase visibility across work. 

This is especially critical for an asynchronous team. Even if your team succeeds in meeting less frequently, you still need a way to access information. By storing all of your project details in a central repository, everyone can clearly see who’s doing what by when. 

Naturally, we think Asana is a pretty good way to do this. All communication in Asana is connected to work, so we always know exactly what team members are talking about. Everyone can find the information they need, without dealing with silos or folders they can’t access. As a result, there’s little to no project work that’s happening where everyone can’t see it. When stakeholders do need to jump in, even asynchronously, they can review all past communication about work in the same place. 

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3. Embed asynchronous collaboration within team culture

Part of enabling effective async communication is cultivating an asynchronous mindset. If everyone on your team thinks meeting-first, they’ll probably schedule a meeting to share a project status update, even if you’ve already shared conventions for how to write a great project status report

When you officially launch—or relaunch—asynchronous communication on your team, set expectations about what should be a meeting and what shouldn’t. Encourage team members to decline meetings if they don’t think they need to be there, or to suggest that a meeting might be better served as an async update. 

At Asana, we did this by publishing our Meeting Manifesto. The Meeting Manifesto—which was shared company-wide—explains when and how to schedule meetings. Within the manifesto, we also go into details about when you shouldn’t have a meeting—things like sharing status updates or other general information, or meetings without an agenda or purpose. 

4. Communicate working hours

Asynchronous communication is particularly effective when team members are in different time zones. Remote workers tend to communicate asynchronously by default, since they aren’t in the same place at the same time. 

To establish when team members will be online and responding to questions, encourage every team member to share their working hours. You can do this by setting it up in your online calendar, or adding it to your profile in various virtual tools like Asana and Slack.

5. Schedule focus time

In addition to communicating your working hours, you should also communicate when you won’t be responding to messages, even if you are online. Scheduled focus time is one of the best ways to get into deep work. 

To schedule and protect your focus time: 

  • Schedule focus time on your calendar. The best way to protect your focus time is to schedule it in your calendar. Use time blocking to get started. 

  • Mute notifications. During your focus time, mute notifications so you aren’t constantly getting pulled out of flow. Use settings like “do not disturb” to let your colleagues know you are offline but will be back and responding to questions shortly. 

  • Group synchronous meetings. If you can, build more focus time into your calendar by scheduling meetings close together. This isn’t always possible, but it can effectively unlock space for deep work. You can either do this manually, or use a calendar integration like Clockwise to automate the process. 

참고: 업무 흐름 상태를 활용하기 위한 6가지 팁

6. Set meeting agendas for all synchronous communication

There are times where the best way to get things done is to talk about them in real time. Meetings are a valuable tool to align your ideas and communicate with project stakeholders

To make synchronous meetings truly effective, make sure everyone is going into the meeting on the same page. There are three steps to do that: 

  1. Make sure every meeting has a purpose. When you schedule a meeting, ask yourself, “Could this be a message?” If the answer is no, identify what the purpose of the meeting is, and what you hope to accomplish during this live session. 

  2. Share a meeting agenda and relevant pre-reading in advance of the meeting. Meetings fail when team members aren’t on the same page. Create a meeting agenda beforehand, so everyone knows what you’ll be discussing. You can also assign pre-reading if there’s information team members need to know before the meeting begins. If you need to make decisions during the meeting, pre-reading can also give team members a chance to think over the problem and come up with some initial solutions, without the time constraints of the live meeting. 

  3. Stick to your meeting agenda. Meetings can often get side tracked, and it’s up to you as the meeting lead to know whether to allow the tangent, or to get your team back on track. If you need to, use time management strategies like timeboxing to keep your meeting running smoothly. 

7. Try a no meeting day 

Another great way to reduce synchronous meetings is to try a no meeting day. At Asana, we use No Meeting Wednesday as a chance for all team members to have dedicated time for deep work. 

Read: How to take back your productivity with No Meeting Wednesday

8. Create opportunities for synchronous connection

This is especially important for remote workers, who might not get regular face-time with their team during the week. Use synchronous communication to reduce isolation and increase team connection. 

You can do this by setting up a team Slack channel or scheduling a weekly chat for your team to connect and unwind. Though async communication boosts productivity, synchronous connection can boost engagement and belonging. 

9. Share company-wide communication examples

Depending on how your team currently does things, people may schedule meetings by default. If necessary, list and share types of communication that should happen synchronously vs. asynchronously. When in doubt, team members can reference this list to schedule—or cancel—meetings.

Example: 

Async: 

  • Project status reports

  • Communication about work that isn’t urgent

  • Project plans

  • Asking questions about individual projects

  • Flagging dependencies or delays

  • Sharing information

  • Feedback and approvals

Real-time:

10. Keep video meetings under 30 minutes

When you do schedule meetings, do whatever you can to optimize productivity. One great way to do that is to cap your meetings at around 30 minutes, or introduce a break around the 30-minute mark for longer meetings. 

Why? Recent research by Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist from UC Berkeley, suggests that meeting productivity sharply decreases at the 30-minute mark. According to Dr. Yousef: 

“We discovered that after the 30-minute mark of a video call, the brain experiences excess fatigue, making it very difficult to concentrate. If you must schedule longer meetings, or blocks of meetings, make time for a 1-minute break at the 30-minute mark. It’ll really help your brain reset and maintain energy for the next 30 minutes.”

참고: 분산된 업무 환경에서 번아웃 극복하기

How does remote work factor in? 

You’ll often see asynchronous communication connected to remote work—and it’s true that remote workers communicate more asynchronously by default. But whether you’re in the office or over Zoom, everyone can benefit from the increased productivity asynchronous communication offers. 

If the majority of your remote work conversations are happening async, make sure to also make some time for face-to-face interaction so your team members can feel more comfortable and part of the team. When you do need to synchronously communicate, embrace it. 

Read: 5 ways to keep your team motivated when you can't see them in person.

Embracing an asynchronous workflow

Asynchronous communication is one of the best ways to empower your team to get great work done while also increasing visibility and transparency. This type of communication increases productivity, helps your team make better decisions, and boosts cross-functional visibility on key project info. 

To effectively communicate asynchronously, you need a way to store and share that information. To do this, use a shared source of truth, like a work management tool. Asana is a work management tool where you can organize and communicate about work and bring together everything your team needs to get their best work done. 

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