Asynchronous communication: the secret ingredient to team productivity
Last updated on
November 19, 2019
While there is no single productivity hack that can turn team performance around, asynchronous communication is as close as it gets. It’s the driving force behind successful remote teams, helping people focus on important work and collaborate more thoughtfully. At its simplest, asynchronous communication is about letting people work on their own terms – which supports their wellbeing and produces their best results. Here’s how it works and why it’s the secret ingredient to team productivity.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication exists in direct opposition to synchronous communication – which is any type of interaction that happens in real-time. Synchronous communication is immediate: people respond to information at the same time that it is shared with them. So in-person meetings, phone calls, video conferences and instant messenger chat are all synchronous.
Asynchronous communication occurs whenever you don’t respond to information as soon as it is received. We’ve actually being using it for millennia – relaying messages and sending letters across the world. But applying it to work is still quite new. Many modern tools are built around asynchronous communication, like email, WhatsApp, texting, Slack, Jira and Basecamp. They help us get on with our work by gathering communications together in an ordered space for later review (whether that's a comment, request, update or new task).
While on the surface this type of interaction may seem inferior to face-to-face contact or phone calls, research actually suggests otherwise...
The benefits of asynchronous communication
Time and again, studies reveal that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts – and the main reason for this lies with asynchronous communication. With full control over how and when they communicate, remote workers enjoy fewer distractions and more autonomy, producing quality work more efficiently. Here’s just a snapshot of the main benefits of asynchronous communication:
1. Better focus
Synchronous communication is often rigid or intrusive, being scheduled at inopportune times or occurring without any warning. The phone rings, a meeting reminder pops up, or a colleague wanders over to your desk to discuss something completely unrelated to the task you're working on. Without being able to plan for them, these types of communication can immediately destroy your flow and make it virtually impossible to do productive "deep work".
With asynchronous communication, you regain control over your focus. You decide when to check your email, unmute app notifications or trigger "Do Not Disturb". Your colleague’s request can still be handled, but at a time that actually suits your schedule. Besides protecting your focus, this also allows you to give communications your full attention.
2. Happier, healthier employees
We live in culture of "always on" communications. For many of us, our phones are the first and last things we check each day, and there's a constant pressure to be immediately available. In an effort to counteract the time we spend each day replying to emails, comments and notifications, many of us just try to work faster – but this can cause stress, anxiety and burnout.
While asynchronous communication can arguably still cause stress, it allows you to work and respond to people in your own time. You don't have to drop everything to reply immediately. Many asynchronous workers actually set contact hours so colleagues know when they will be available to help. With clearer boundaries and expectations, communication can fit around the ways you like to work while becoming more manageable.
3. Better responses
The expectation of instant response doesn’t just harm our wellbeing – it harms the quality of our work. Meetings and real-time Slack exchanges pressure people to throw ideas out on instinct, to provide snappy answers to quick-fire questions. But thinking about issues and mulling things over is almost always better than simply going along with your first knee-jerk response.
When you remove the pressure to provide immediate answers, you can cultivate a thoughtful, rational response. Impulsive or emotional outbursts will be curbed, and responses will be more honest, too; if you hate being put on the spot, you might just say what the other person wants to hear, and not what you truly feel. When you’re given time to provide a response, you’ll feel confident it was the best answer you could give.
4. Improved documentation and transparency
Crossing wires at work happens unreasonably often, but async communication actually massively reduces its frequency. Firstly, it produces a written record of communication, which is easy to search, share, reference, recall and absorb at your own pace. With synchronous communication, most of us instead rely on our memory to recall instructions, which is extremely unreliable, or take notes, which divides our attention from what’s happening.
There’s also something to be said about the structure of asynchronous communications. To work, it needs to be clear – laying out progress, expectations and any required actions for everyone involved. It can seem a little transactional, but asynchronous communication often offers superior visibility over what you’re doing and helps to keep team communication intentional.
To work properly, asynchronous communication requires a little discipline and company-wide endorsement. Our biggest asynchronous tools can quickly slip into “synchronous” monsters in the wrong culture. If you feel you have to instantly respond to a new Slack message, or routinely check your inbox throughout the day to ensure nothing’s landed, it won’t work.
Of course, teams can’t work by asynchronous communication alone – it needs to be balanced. Used exclusively, it can limit culture, camaraderie and co-operation. We’re human beings after all, and in-person interaction remains enormously important. We want to feel part of something and connected, which is hard to achieve when you can’t hear someone’s voice or see their face. The reason asynchronous communication works isn’t because it shuts people off; it’s because it allows them to work on their own terms.