Asynchronous communication: here’s what we know so far

Asynchronous communication is the future. But it’s also the communication of the past. In fact, it’s been around since the dawn of carrier pigeons, telegrams, and smoke signals — all of which technically count. As do emails, texts, and chat messages. But how are we using it today? And, is it helping teams as effectively as we think it is?

What is asynchronous communication?

To understand asynchronous communication, let’s first look at synchronous communication.

Synchronous communication is any form of contact that’s done in real time. During a phone call, for example, two people deliver and receive communication in real time. They’re synchronized. Getting up from your desk and going to talk to someone is another form, as is a brainstorming session, a video conference, a Skype call, or a one-on-one meeting.

Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, is when there’s a delay between the message sent and the recipient’s response. If someone didn’t pick up a phone call, and the dialer had to leave a voicemail, that would be a type of asynchronous communication. Here are some more examples:

  • Chat apps — such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, or our own Typetalk — where users read and respond to messages in their own time
  • Project management tools — such as Backlog — where users review comments and notifications from other users in their own time
  • Design apps — like in InVision or Cacoo — where users respond to mentions on designs in their own time
  • Email — like Gmail or Outlook — where users reply to emails in their own time

When asynchronous communication is misused

Somewhere along the line, asynchronous tools like email started to be treated more synchronously, with many people feeling obligated to respond to messages and notifications as immediately as if they’d received a phone call. Bosses came to expect it. And employees responded by doing it more and more. After all, what better way to show the boss or client you’re always ‘on’, alert, and available to fix issues right away?

Obviously, if an email is about a timely matter, then a fast reply is great. But always providing an immediate response doesn’t just make you look a little like you a little too much spare time on your hands, it also lowers your focus throughout the day, which puts a damper on your ability to work effectively.

In fact, reports show employees are interrupted around 12 times an hour, and it takes, on average, 25 minutes to recover from a distraction. When you crunch the numbers, the benefits of respecting truly asynchronous communication become obvious: it allows workers to reduce interruptions, stay focused, and ultimately be more productive.

If you’re really worried your boss will think you’re ignoring everyone, just give them a heads-up beforehand, or set up a kind of ‘out of office’ response status email. Here’s a handy template:

Hello!
Due to high workload, I’m currently checking and responding to email at [time] and [time] [plus time zone].

If you require urgent help that really can’t wait, please contact me via phone at [phone number].

Thanks for your understanding.

Sincerely,
[Your name]

The benefits of asynchronous communication

Aside from reducing distractions, asynchronous communication has many benefits to the quality of work and collaboration.

Allocated focus

Let’s use a real-life situation where asynchronous communication is better than its real-time counterpart.

Imagine you’re writing an article for a tight deadline. You have to send it to the editor in three hours. Then a colleague approaches you and wants to discuss a presentation that’s happening next week. Nightmare! Not only are they wasting your precious time discussing a non-urgent topic, but they’ve interrupted your concentration, which will take time to recover. This is synchronous communication at its worst.

If asynchronous communication methods had been used in this situation, the frantic article writer would have been able to delay providing a response by turning off their emails, putting up a ‘do not disturb’ status on their chat app, or muting notifications for a while.

They would then be able to focus on their assignment, hit their deadline (hopefully), and then give their full attention to the upcoming presentation. Both projects receive the best of the writer’s time and effort.

Being able to focus on your work without distractions is one major benefit of asynchronous communication. But it’s not the only one.

Thorough answers

Another BIG benefit is this: it gives people a chance to give their best answers.

Again, somewhere along the way, the ability to think quickly and respond with snappy answers became highly prized in the workplace. Brainstorming sessions became the norm and decisions were made on gut instinct.

This is all in the process of being flipped on its head: while fast thinkers are an important — and vital — part of your team’s culture, people are now beginning to see the value in slow, analytical thinkers. Until recently, slow thinkers were thought to underperform in meetings and group brainstorming sessions, but those types of quick interactions are now coming under heavy criticism for their ineffectiveness.

Asynchronous communication gives people more time to think, without the pressure of having to give an instant answer. The benefits of this are more rational, considered responses that directly result from slow thinking.

Detailed records

Another benefit is having a record of your conversations. Synchronous communication often requires the recipient(s) to either have a great memory or take notes — the latter of which is a drain on concentration.

Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, means you’ll have the message or group chat in text form (which are ideally organized into easily searchable topics) to digest in your own time and refer back to.

More honest responses

Some people are happy to share their opinion when asked. Others hate being put on the spot, usually because they don’t know what they think just yet and need time to gather their thoughts. Asynchronous communication allows everyone to be just a little bit more thoughtful and honest.

Asynchronous best practices

As with all productivity techniques, asynchronous communication requires a little discipline to make sure you get the most from it. Here are some tips to make sure everything runs as smoothly as it should.

1. Set deadlines

So you’ve told your team you don’t expect them to reply immediately to everything. And now you’re worried about emails going unanswered for days. The way around this is to set action deadlines, so your team knows exactly how long they have to postpone their response.

2. Batch your information

Rather than sending information through in bits and pieces, wait until you have the whole picture and send it though as one email or message to minimize interruptions to others.

3. Keep everyone informed

Let your colleagues and clients know when you’re not checking emails and don’t want to be disturbed. People will have far more patience when they know why you’re slow to respond, and when they can expect a response. Plus it shows you’re taking your productivity seriously.

Working with remote teams

One of the biggest effects asynchronous communication has had on the modern workforce has been to diminish the drawbacks of working with remote teams. You’re no longer limited to the talent in your region, opening up access to specialists from anywhere in the world. This brings fresh ideas and new perspectives into your business.

The one small downside is timezones: if you send an email, you may have to wait longer to get a response, solve a problem or host a virtual meeting. So what can you do to make this a little easier?

(Tip: The following tools and techniques are great for remote teams but just as useful for non-remote workers.)

1. Schedule email time

If you’re a manager, it’s up to you to set expectations for emails. Remind your team that they shouldn’t respond to email as quickly as if they were picking up the phone. Instead, have your team check their inboxes at designated times throughout the day. And if you’re an employee, then let your colleagues know when those times are.

When you know your team’s email schedule and time zone, predicting when you’ll likely receive a response gets much easier (and less stressful.)

2. Set your team chat app to ‘do not disturb’ when needed

The good thing about team chat apps (as opposed to email) is that they often allow you to mute notifications either at certain hours of the day or for certain periods of time.

If half of your team is generally working during the hours you’re sleeping, you probably don’t want to hear a little ‘ding’ for every message they tag you in. Instead, set your app to ‘do not distrub’ to turn on automatically when you’re outside normal work hours. You can also use it sporadically during the day when you need an hour or so of real focus.

3. Use project management software

Rather than share progress reports, documents, and spreadsheets over the course of hundreds of emails, users can simply upload the info and track progress via a project management tool. That way information is ready for every employee whenever and wherever they’re ready to read it. This has the added benefit of replacing those dreaded ‘reply all’ emails.

Final thoughts

Asynchronous communication is the future. But we’re not saying you should burn your phones and turn your office into a cubicle farm; there are definitely times when an instant response or face-to-face (or face to Skype screen) chat is necessary. But by embracing a ‘send now, reply later’ culture, you’re essentially allowing your employees to work a little more on their own terms, which does wonders for productivity, focus, and collaboration.

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