Many companies not familiar with remote work before COVID-19 are suddenly overcompensating with more communication, in the form of copious video calls and the expectation that employees respond to messages as quickly as possible.
This is an understandable impulse, as concerned managers want to make sure workflow is not slowed, while anxious employees want to show they’re “at work” and not taking advantage of the situation or slacking off.
Unfortunately, approaching remote work in this way can quickly turn toxic and lead to burnout, while undermining employee’s ability to get things done. Instead of tethering remote employees to online communication tools, leaders should be doing what remote-first companies have been doing for years: adopting asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous vs. synchronous communication
Synchronous communication occurs when messages can only be exchanged in real-time. It requires the people involved to be present in the same time and space. Examples of synchronous communication are video meetings or phone calls.
Asynchronous communication happens when messages can be exchanged independently of time. It doesn’t require immediate responses or attention, allowing the receiver to respond to the information at their convenience. Examples of asynchronous communication are collaborative documents, emails, online forums, and project management software threads.
Here’s an even simpler explanation:
Synchronous: Respond immediately.
Asynchronous: Respond later.
The hectic pace of real-time communication
Over the past two decades, the time employees spend collaborating has increased by 50%. Researchers have found that it’s not atypical for employees to spend 80% of their days communicating with coworkers. A 2019 Adobe study found that employees spend an average of three hours per week on email, while meetings eat up a whopping six hours per week, though more if you’re a manager.
The trend toward constant real-time communication means that knowledge workers must organize their days so they can actually get work done. That means planning around multiple meetings and always being half-distracted with one eye on team chat and email. Focus is constantly interrupted and mental space is drained, making it hard to make a meaningful impact during the workday.
Here are some reasons synchronous communication downgrades productivity:
- Consistent interruptions detract from focus and deep work. Constant context-switching makes it extremely difficult to complete cognitive tasks such as writing, coding, or problem-solving.
- Being connected ends up being more important than being productive. Always checking instant messages or emails for fear of missing out on rapid-fire discussions means you’re connected, but not actually getting things done.
- Always being “on” leads to stress and burnout. To make up for the time you lost being in meetings, you tend to work faster, which leads to frustration, stress, and burnout.
- Team discussions are overall less thoughtful. When the onus is on responding immediately, you don’t have time to think things through and provide a thoughtful answer.
- Disconnecting from work is harder than ever. Consistently communicating in real-time leads us to check our notifications every waking hour of the day.
Let’s now dive into why asynchronous communication is the wiser choice for remote teams.
The Benefits Of Asynchronous Communication
When companies adopt asynchronous communication, they’ll discover a plethora of benefits on productivity. Let’s look at some that have the highest returns and make the largest impacts across remote teams.
- Communication can be clear and curated. By curated, we mean you can set the standard for how your company handles certain processes. For example, every time your team starts a new project, you might have a checklist of specific steps to follow, for example – setting a deadline, assigning team members to tasks, linking necessary documents, and more. Then, you can decide how follow-up for occur, i.e. Slack messages or comments in Asana. As you set rules for team communication, it will become habitual, and confusion will be minimized and less time will be wasted.
- More flexibility around physical burdens. Asynchronous communication removes the obstacles for sharing information because team members don’t need to be physically present at the same time to receive it. This enables employees in different time zones to participate without feeling behind.
- Greater transparency. Asynchronous communication means recorded information, usually through writing, recording video, comments on mockups, and more. This leads to everything being documented, including decisions, discussions, plans, and requirements. The natural paper trail that occurs will be a boon to productivity because it will keep employees on the right track while providing them workflows and other essential information.
- Focus time. Through asynchronous communication, ample headspace gets freed up as distractions are greatly reduced. Nothing helps move work along like long stretches of uninterrupted time that they can use to make progress on the things that really matter.
- Ability to facilitate trust and consensus. Instead of keeping up with a rapid-fire discussion about an important decision or project, clarification can be nested underneath it. You’re more likely to reach an agreement with everyone if you give all the facts and let it marinate for a bit.
- More flexibility between life and work. Instead of being constantly connected while working remotely, working asynchronous leaves lots of room to create your own schedule. Teams with greater control over how they structure their workdays will be happier and more productive. Using a variety of asynchronous communication tools and tactics can give workers the individual freedom and control to set their own times for working and responding to messages. Results are what should truly matter, not time spent in front of a screen.
- Potential for analytical and thoughtful discussion. It can be difficult to come up with a great idea or make an important decision under pressure. Employees might get anxious about speaking on a video call, have tech hiccups, or feel too shy to ask questions. Asynchronous communication slows down the feedback process to allow reflection before reaction. This tactic discourages “knee-jerk responses” and allows for better insight and more thoughtful responses to come to light.
Asynchronous Communication Is The Future of Work
Since businesses have adopted the remote model quickly in the coronavirus response, an awkward period of adjustment has occurred. Teams are adapting to working from home while also juggling other responsibilities such as childcare and other home tasks.
We’ve written quite a few articles on the new normal of remote work, and you can read them here:
- How To Onboard New Technology To Your Remote Teams
- The 6 Biggest Remote Work Challenges And How to Cope With Them
- 10 Tips To Fully Embrace Working From Home
- 26 Essential Tips For Working From Home
On a final note, we’ll say that creating a strong remote work culture hinges on finding the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous communication. There are benefits to both, so taking the time to figure out a successful remote working environment through experimentation and team feedback will likely lead to higher productivity.