Most teams are swimming in asynchronous communication, also known as async communication. In fact, you’re doing it right now by reading this article I wrote weeks ago. But constant unaligned communication can sometimes make us feel like ships passing in the night, making productivity wane and tensions rise.
But when used correctly, async communication can strengthen remote teams, help mitigate burnout, and protect more of the time you need for deep work. This article dives into tangible ways to turn asynchronous communication into a powerful tool. You’ll find not only where async communication already lives in your day-to-day but how it fits in with real-time communication to make your workday better.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication is any dialogue that doesn’t take place face-to-face, or screen-to-screen, requiring an immediate response. Types of asynchronous communication include:
- Text messages instead of phone calls
- An email instead of an agenda item at a meeting
- A Slack thread instead of a sidebar held in passing in the elevator
One of the main purposes of async communication is to disseminate information while giving people more options in when to respond. Recipients can use this time to think deeply on an issue to provide better feedback or simply to work within their time zones. Tools like calendar apps that offer detailed agendas, shared Google Docs in Google Drive, messaging apps like Slack, and even email offer ways to communicate asynchronously with your team and other stakeholders.
Synchronous versus asynchronous communication
You can think about the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication through the lens of a sitcom recorded in front of a live audience.
The jokes and one-liners are delivered to an audience – in a studio – and their reactions – laughs and applause – are delivered back to the actors on the set.
Later on, after a process of editing and scheduling, the sitcom airs – or goes live on a streaming service – before new audiences enjoy and react to the same jokes.
The live audience enjoys synchronous communication while viewers at home experience asynchronous communication. They may see many of the same actions the in-studio audience enjoyed, but their reactions come across long after striking the set. Their responses may even take the form of blog posts and Reddit threads – both reactions that require not only the immediate absorption of information but a reflective period to mount a response.
In-office teams communicate synchronously in face-to-face meetings, spontaneous chats in hallways, or even quick calls to co-workers in other parts of the office. Remote teams rely on Zoom for synchronous communication, but can also find it in active Slack threads with team members tagged individually – or as a group.
Asynchronous communication tools
The first ‘tool’ is really the understanding that asynchronous team communication has a time and place that it shines best.
Let's look at how async communication can improve the lifecycle of a project: brainstorming, project building, project management, progress checks.
Brainstorming: When a project is still in the problem-definition phase, you can use async tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to gather information from stakeholders from different teams. You can also use these tools after project delivery to determine how outside stakeholders received it as well as how team members define the project’s success and failures. Team members can use surveys to brainstorm ideas for projects and improvements for future collaborations.
Project Building: With information from surveys and even in-person planning meetings, your team can collaborate within collaboration tools like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper. This starts with identifying the problem, defining team member roles, and pinpointing milestones.
Project Management: As milestones and objectives appear on a shared document, you can collate information using project management tools like Asana, Trello, or Slab. These tools keep workflows smooth by aligning important dates and providing details on project milestones. All team members can update details based on new information when they get it.
Clockwise can also aid project management by giving a bird’s eye view of the team’s bandwidth to take on projects and show ideal open calendar slots for synchronous communication.
Progress Checks: Throughout a project or even a sprint, your team keeps tabs on progress through daily stand-ups, weekly meetings, or some combination of both. Tools like Slack allow for scheduled check-ins that gather information from team members through channel postings or instant messaging. GeekBot is a Slack extension that can send mini-surveys at designated times to gather answers to typical progress questions: What did you get done yesterday? What’s your main focus today? What’s standing in your way?
Outside of the project planning and execution context, consider async tools like Mailchimp or Emma to disseminate information previously shared exclusively in meetings. Company-wide newsletters can align teams across departments without a town hall-style meeting in-person or on Zoom.
In addition to the above communication tools, video calls provide another way to share information. Converting this tool to operate asynchronously requires a little planning and a helpful platform. When done well, asynchronous videos can bring the information shared in real-time to team members and stakeholders at any time. Think about a scenario where the communications department plans a new approach to external communication channels – social media, email campaigns, etc. The changes impact how a certain team interacts with clients and the status updates are extensive enough to warrant communicating them to the entire organization. With 30 plus schedules to coordinate on the impacted team alone, a real-time meeting feels out of reach.
Instead, your team lead puts together a collaborative document highlighting the important changes and features. Team members collaborate on presentation slides and one team member records a video with the slides and audio presentation of the updates. The video is then shared with all stakeholders and viewed within a certain timeframe ahead of implementation. Feedback flows in a Slack channel thread and answers to questions follow. News of changes reaches across the organization and time is saved from coordinating schedules for a meeting, following up with stakeholders absent from the scheduled meeting, and the team implementing the changes focuses more on better execution. Tools like Zoom and Prezi both allow for recording of presentations.
Loom is also a tool built to record presentations and quickly share them in video format. Outside of more formal presentations, Loom offers an app to record directly in Slack. When you’re going back and forth in a channel thread – or typing your response takes longer than you’d like – record your feedback or share your idea with a video
Benefits of asynchronous communication
While older styles of asynchronous communication like physical mail and hand-typed memos added time to projects, today’s tools enable a high level of efficiency. Tools help teams realize the benefits of async communications: flexibility, deep understanding, more collaboration, and perhaps most beneficially, productivity.
A conservative estimate shows the average employee spends six hours each week in meetings. It’s even worse for executives who spend an estimated 23 hours a week face-to-face or screen-to-screen with colleagues. Each calendar block to gather on video conferencing or in-person requires at least some time to prepare and transition from another work task.
With a better balance of async communication, team members take back more flexibility for their time. There’s more room to build a work day that draws out your best work while leaving the rest.
Async also supports deeper understanding amongst teams. When announcements, project updates, and more reach team members through pre-recorded messages, email, or Slack channel postings, there’s time to digest. Teams can not only absorb the information as they consume, but sit with it and build mental connections. These connections lend themselves to understanding decisions made, pathways forward, and what the information means for them as an individual.
This goes hand-in-hand with better collaboration. While synchronous communication relies on real-time reactions of those present, async means team members have more time to weigh in and take a stake in a decision.
Encompassing the set of gains from async communication is productivity. It supports teams’ ability to segment their time. If you know you can respond to a message outside of the moment you received it, you can save responding for another block of time. This keeps your focus time uninterrupted by communications.
As teams grow in size, productivity can be lost when communications that could be asynchronous still require real-time engagement. Coordinating schedules, blocking out time for more meetings, and ending up with an unintended combination of both sync and async communication can drag on individual and team productivity. Setting expectations for how different types of information should be disseminated allows team members to set their own expectations for their workday. With consistency and realized expectations, team members can make the most of their time for deep focus work, administrative tasks, and more.
The pandemic turned many teams from office workers to remote workers. It also turned up the dial on asynchronous communication when spontaneous chats happened on Slack rather in the hallway. There are ways to harness this type of communication and make asynchronous collaboration a cornerstone of your team. Tools for asynchronous communication range, but offer something for every team at every stage of optimizing their methods of sharing information. Whatever your team chooses, well-defined async communications can help boost remote work by helping productivity, supporting alignment across the team, and saving calendar space for focus work.