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 remote workforce success, 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.
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 an in-person meeting is synchronous, as well as remote interactions like phone calls, video conferences and instant messenger apps.
Asynchronous communication is simply where you don’t respond to information as soon as you receive it. 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. Email, WhatsApp, Slack, Trello, Basecamp, ClubHouse, Trello – tons of our modern work tools are built around asynchronous communication. They help us get on with our work, letting us know that something requires our attention when we have a spare moment.
While on the surface this type of interaction may seem inferior to face-to-face contact or phone calls, research actually suggests otherwise...
Time and again, studies reveal that remote workers are more productive than people who work in offices – and the true 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:
Say you have an important deadline looming – you haven’t finished your work and you only have until the end of the day to complete it. Then a colleague wanders over to pick your brain about a different project. Even if you tell them you don’t have time, they’ve still broken your flow and this continual interruption is one of the biggest reasons why many of us fail at productive deep work.
With asynchronous communication you could have completely prevented this – closing your email, muting your notifications, or enabling ‘do not disturb’ mode. Your colleague’s request could still be handled, but at a time that suited your schedule. Besides protecting your focus, this would also have allowed you to give their query your full attention once you had the space for it.
We live in a world where communication is expected to be quick and constant. For many of us, our phones are the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we look at at night, and the pressure of being constantly available is very real. Research shows that because people spend so much of their working day replying to emails, comments and notifications, they try to counteract this by just working faster – which can cause stress, anxiety and burnout.
But when you’re communicating asynchronously, you’re able to work and respond to people in your own time. There aren’t set hours or expected times to reply. You have more time to spend with friends and family, more time to dedicate to other interests. You’re able to work in the way that suits you best – both productively and emotionally.
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.
Crossing wires at work happens unreasonably often, but async communication actually massively reduce 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 notoriously 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.
To stay productive, communication needs to fit in with your schedule – you need to be in control and set the best time to respond to messages. Setting up a solid communications structure and keeping track of your async. tool usage are two great ways to keep your communication productive.
Of course, teams can’t work by asynchronous communication alone – it needs to be balanced. Used exclusively, it can erode cultures, 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.