The word ‘remote’ — as in remote work — implies freedom from location dependence. But there’s one more implication of remote teams that isn’t captured in its name, and that’s the autonomy to work whenever you want. As the world shifts towards virtual collaboration, another trend has emerged: asynchronous work.
To truly adapt to the future of work, we need to look beyond the constraints of synchronous collaboration. But it’s often hard to set up the right systems and processes for asynchronous work. This article will tell you everything you need to know about what “async” is and why it matters for organizations. And we’ll offer some tangible steps you can take (starting today) to set your team up for success. Plus, we’ll cover a few tools that can supercharge your asynchronous communication.
But first, what is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous describes something, or some things, not occurring at the same time. Put simply, asynchronous is the opposite of real-time.
So, if someone sends you an email at 10 am, and you reply at 11 am, that’s what we’d call asynchronous communication. It’s async because of the interlude between messages. Similarly, if you start a project in Google Docs, and a colleague makes edits the following day, that’s asynchronous collaboration. And both of these examples fall under the broader category of asynchronous work.
Now, compare this with synchronous work, which takes place in real-time or close to real-time. Before the pandemic, synchronous was (for the most part) the default way of doing things at work. Everyone worked in the same place at around the same hours. If you were working in a traditional office setting, you and other team members might’ve met up for a brainstorming session to bounce ideas off of each other in real-time. If you needed to ask a coworker a question, you could stop by their desk and get an answer without delay.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw many organizations carry synchronous collaboration from their physical offices into the virtual environment. The struggle to maintain real-time connectivity manifested itself in back-to-back Zoom meetings and the pressure to give an immediate response to every message that came in. The problem is that working remotely is very different from working alongside peers.
Laurel Farrer, a remote work strategist, sums up the benefits of asynchronous work beautifully in this article for Forbes. “With reduced reliance on synchronous meetings and messaging to get work done, workforces see increased productivity, time for deep work, and thoughtful responses, while enabling a more seamless employee experience regardless of location and time zone. These benefits create a more inclusive and supportive environment allowing for both introverts and extroverts to contribute equally, and allows individuals to optimize their workday for their own personal efficiency preferences, not needing to be as tied to dedicated 9-5 hours.”
The following sections will dive further into the advantages of working asynchronously. We’ll also share specific tools and processes to support your team as you begin to integrate this new style of working.
What are the benefits of asynchronous work?
1. Asynchronous work is more flexible.
Let’s start with the most salient advantage of async: It’s flexible! A flexible work arrangement allows for more wiggle room in the workday. It removes the expectation that an employee needs to be at their desk from 9-5, which in turn, creates space for tending to other priorities. In addition to more leeway in working hours, a flexible work arrangement can also mean that location is flexible.
Asynchronous work is better aligned to the reality that individuals may have children to care for, hobbies to nurture, full lives outside of work. In short, the flexibility that comes with async work allows the all-elusive work-life balance to not be so elusive anymore (which helps to minimize burnout).
Add to that the fact that more and more people are actively seeking out flexible jobs (and are more likely to stay in a job that offers some degree of flexibility), this first key benefit is reason enough to incorporate more asynchronous work into your team’s work environment.
2. Async work creates more opportunities for Focus Time.
When you remove the pressure to keep up with notifications and instead respond to messages in your own time, something amazing happens. You have more Focus Time for deep work! Deep work requires long stretches of uninterrupted time, which is now possible thanks to asynchronous work.
Async means administrative tasks like answering emails and updating spreadsheets take the backseat (and can be done in batched processes). It enables team members to focus on key projects that are important to the bottom line like coding, writing content, and coming up with new, creative ideas.
3. Async work is more inclusive.
Some people may thrive in synchronous work. Their personalities and work styles may be better suited for face-to-face communication, spontaneous meetings, and rapid-fire work. But what works for them may not work for other people, either by their inherent traits (e.g. introverts) or external factors (e.g. sharing a computer with someone else in their household). Asynchronous work ensures that the work environment supports all types of individuals.
What are the right tools for asynchronous collaboration?
For all the reasons outlined above and more, we believe asynchronicity is the future of work. Now, let’s identify specific ways you and your team can begin to make your work more async.
A variety of channels can enable asynchronous work:
- Messaging platforms (eg: Slack and Google Chat)
- Project management (eg: Asana and Basecamp)
- Video communication (eg: Loom or Screenrec)
- Office suites (eg: Google Workspace and Microsoft 365)
- Form builders (eg: SurveyMonkey and Typeform)
- Scheduling tools (eg: Clockwise and Calendly)
- Collaborative graphic design platforms (eg: Figma)
You don’t need to incorporate tools from every category to start working asynchronously. Just decide what makes sense for your workflow, so you can avoid tool overload.
Don’t know where to start? In this section, we'll share four of our favorite tools that make asynchronous collaboration simpler and more enjoyable. These tools are also free (or freemium) and enable most types of knowledge work! Get ready to learn about:
- Google Docs
1. Google Docs
Remember when collaborating on a draft required you and your coworkers to email new versions of the document back-and-forth to each other with file names like “Draft_CR_V3655?” Thanks to cloud-based office suites like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, it’s a whole lot easier for multiple people to contribute to the same document, both in real-time and asynchronously.
Google’s online word processor, Google Docs, lets you do just that. Use it to create reports, draft content, capture ideas — you name it. The platform is packed with features that center around collaboration, which make it ideal for getting work done as a remote team. Team members can edit a document directly, add comments, and suggest edits (that appear as annotations). You and your peers can work simultaneously, or work on your own time (at your own pace).
Google Docs is available on the Web as a browser application, and it’s also available via iOS and Android mobile apps.
Slack is a messaging app that helps teams of all sizes stay connected — without the need to work out of their inboxes. On the Slack platform, conversations can take place in two ways: via channels and direct messages. You can use Slack channels for predetermined conversation topics like #marketing, #design, or #funnycats (all channels precede with a hashtag). While you and your coworkers can certainly use Slack to communicate in real-time, Slack also supports asynchronous communication. Messages may continue to roll in, but you can catch up in your own time.
Slack is available for MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and on web browsers including Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Microsoft Edge.
When your work involves distributed team members who are working on several projects or tasks at different times, things can quickly become chaotic. That’s why we think a project management tool, such as Trello, is a necessity for async collaboration.
Trello lets you create boards, which you can fill with tasks, assets, basically anything that's relevant for you and your team. Add members, assign tasks, add checklists, and more. A popular way to use Trello is to organize tasks into three lists: upcoming, in progress, and done. Whenever a new task or project comes up, simply create a card for it under the list for upcoming tasks. Then, move it into the following columns as you make progress. It’s a simple way to track progress at a glance and visually see the moving parts in your day-to-day operations.
What makes Trello so great for async work is that it reduces the need for back-and-forth communication. People can update the Trello board as they go, making comments, giving updates, so that you don’t have to constantly conduct check-ins via video call, email, or chat.
Trello is available for MacOS, Windows, iOS, Android, and on web browsers.
For many of us, typing can be slow and tedious. Loom is a video-messaging tool that lets you record your screen, voice, and face (last part is optional) in instantly shareable videos. If you need to convey something that’s too lengthy for an email (like how to use an app) and you don’t want to schedule an entire meeting for it, Loom is the ultimate solution. And besides being an efficient way to communicate, Loom adds a dash of personableness to your online, day-to-day interactions. For remote workers, it’s a welcome change from long text threads.
Loom is available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.
A few additional tips to help streamline your asynchronous processes
We just explored some of our favorite apps that make async work possible, but success hinges on more than simply choosing the right tools. As you and your team learn to collaborate asynchronously, also keep the following tips in mind:
Make sure expectations for asynchronous communication are crystal-clear
How much time, at most, should a team member take to respond to an email or message? When should someone use email versus instant messaging? As Laurel Farrer shares in her piece for Forbes, “One pitfall many teams face is using asynchronous channels in real-time, classic examples are dropping everything to respond to non-urgent messages or emails, creating a vicious cycle of reactive work and unproductivity. The challenge for organizations is both in setting standardized rules and expectations for communication and enforcing them.” In short, lay out (realistic) guidelines to help everyone stay on the same page and avoid unnecessary roadblocks.
There’s a time and place for synchronous work
Don’t say goodbye to Zoom just yet! We find that remote work runs the most smoothly with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. You may find that certain types of work, like interviews and brainstorming sessions, just work better with real-time communication — and that’s okay! With time, you’ll discover the perfect ratio of async to synchronous for you and your team.
Take time to introduce your team to new tools and platforms
Make onboarding team members to various async tools easier with Loom. Create short video tutorials and provide links to useful support articles. Remember that even the most ‘intuitive’ apps can take some getting used to!
Learn how to write effective emails to limit back-and-forth
Email is indeed a form of async communication, but we can all agree that it isn’t always always the most efficient. To minimize the damage our inboxes can do to productivity, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, suggests a technique called process-centric email. This approach is all about writing your emails in such a way that they “close the loop” (to take Newport’s phrasing) and minimize the need to send back-and-forth emails. You can read about his method in this blog post.
Leverage scheduled messages
Many apps, like Slack and Gmail, allow you to schedule messages to send later. This functionality may be useful if you have team members in different time zones or if you have a tendency to work at unusual hours. Compose messages in your own time — without being responsible for midnight notifications. It’s a win-win!
Bonus read: This article by Laura Heisman, “Remote work: Working together when we’re not together,” on The GitHub Blog provides amazing tips for how to navigate asynchronous communication in a way that promotes healthy remote team dynamics. Be sure to bookmark this for later!
Remote work and asynchronous collaboration go hand-in-hand. Implementing an asynchronous workflow can improve communication across all team members, reduce bottlenecks, and make your employees feel more engaged in the project by allowing them to choose how they want to participate.
To start integrating asynchronous elements into your workflow, start with the tools that make sense for your team. Then, streamline your processes with the best practices listed above.