Remote work is now a prevalent reality of the business world, and I don’t believe we can or will ever go fully back to the way things were. Although some organizations are still determining the form that their remote work plans will take and looking at different hybrid options, another important piece of the remote work puzzle is ensuring overall organizational efficiency. Communication and collaboration play a huge role here. Over the years, remote workers have consistently pointed to these two areas as their top areas of difficulty. This holds especially true for those organizations that transitioned to remote work during the pandemic.
Despite the problems remote workers face with communication, over the last few years, people regularly say they’re in more meetings than ever. Zoom fatigue has become the norm. As the discussion about how to best work remotely continues, the conversation often turns to asynchronous work.
Those of us experienced with fully distributed remote work are likely familiar with asynchronous communication. It can take many forms, including written, audio, or video messages, but the crux is that communication between teammates doesn’t happen live, but rather whenever it is convenient for each teammate.
This approach has been a reality for distributed teams for a long time. One of my close colleagues lives in Australia, while I’m on the east coast of the U.S. Since we don’t have a lot of overlapping work periods in our respective time zones, we get work done by sharing documents and leaving comments for each other that don’t rely on the other person’s immediate reply. This method has the added benefit of our not being tied up on Zoom calls for large parts of the day.
More recently, asynchronous communication has piqued the interest of some organizations that are still navigating the best setup for their remote work policies. In Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report, 74 percent of respondents said that their immediate teams were operating in multiple time zones. Asynchronous communication can be a superpower when a team faces this setup. Likewise, for organizations whose employees feel like they’re in too many meetings, asynchronous communication can give teammates greater control over their schedules, which increases overall flexibility and makes workplace communication more inclusive.
What Is Asynchronous Communication?
The Benefits of Asynchronous Communication
Focus and Productivity
Both organizations and employees always want to increase their focus and productivity. Fortunately, asynchronous communication means fewer interruptions and days not peppered with meetings. With a clear calendar, everyone can more easily focus and do deep work.
Transparency and Autonomy
Asynchronous communication often relies on more documentation than other methods do. Gitlab’s handbook is a great example of how a company can empower its members through asynchronous communication. They have thorough documentation for every area of the business, their policies are clear and the handbook clearly states who owns each page of documentation. This level of documentation leads to greater internal transparency and helps employees be more autonomous throughout their workday by creating systems and habits that avoid making people have redundant conversations about company standards and best practices.
Relying on asynchronous communication means you will need fewer regular, recurring meetings. This freedom gives everyone greater control over their schedules and working hours, which is a huge benefit to employees. 32 percent of respondents in Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work cited a flexible schedule as the biggest benefit of remote work. You can’t attain this flexibility, however, when your organization relies primarily on synchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is an all-around more inclusive way of communicating. If your organization works across time zones, this is a great way to include everyone. It’s also helpful for parents who might have kids home from school and be unable to fully participate in meetings. Asynchronous communication is also inclusive of people who either want or need to work different hours. Finally, it’s better for more introverted workers who aren’t the loudest voices in synchronous meetings, but who still have great contributions to make.
Making the workplace a great space for every individual’s mental health is no small thing. All of the benefits listed above can contribute to better mental health for an organization’s members. Plus, spending time in too many video calls makes our brains work harder and adds more stress to our daily lives.
Asynchronous Communication in Practice
Asynchronous communication takes many forms. It’s not just one thing, like a video or written note, but rather differs depending on the organization and sometimes even the team. At Buffer, we primarily use written asynchronous communication through a tool called Threads, which allows us to clearly mark decisions. Each new thread is also linked to a Slack channel. Occasionally, we’ll also use CloudApp or Loom to record videos for each other.
In our internal handbook, we specify when to communicate asynchronously versus synchronously. The difference for us is urgency and complexity. If something is more urgent or complex, we’ll use synchronous communication. Anything that’s routine or straightforward can be handled asynchronously.
Gitlab, a fully remote and distributed software company that makes a DevOps platform, has a culture that prizes clear documentation, which empowers teammates to find what they’re looking for on their own instead of relying primarily on learning new information in meetings.
The company handbook is mostly textual, but it also includes several videos. For example, this page advises employees on embracing asynchronous communication. It also lays out rules for when to prefer a synchronous approach. According to the communication handbook, the company’s policy is, “When we go back and forth three times, we jump on a synchronous video call.”
Doist, another fully remote and distributed software company that specializes in productivity and collaboration tools, is also a great example of asynchronous operations. In fact, I believe the Doist team is further along on the spectrum toward fully asynchronous operations than either Buffer or Gitlab. Doist operates with async-first communication by using Twist. This is the company’s own product, built as a messaging tool meant to be asynchronous. Doist uses this as the primary method of communication for announcements, ideas, feedback, and everyday conversations.
The key to working asynchronously in practice is not to expect all communication to become asynchronous. Some things will always either be more efficiently done synchronously or will just work better that way. You can see on Doist’s chart that they use synchronous communication for emergencies, complex issues, monthly one-on-ones, and team and ad hoc meetings.
Likewise, at Buffer, we believe several things are better handled synchronously. Those include connecting with colleagues and brainstorming, so we do much of that work synchronously or in-person. Asynchronous communication differs by company, as do its best practices. Success with asynchronous communication comes down to implementation and company culture.
Implementing Asynchronous Communication
Rely on Leaders
Your implementation will depend on your organization’s current communications policies. Keep in mind, though, that how company leaders communicate matters a great deal. Leaders have a lot of influence, so if they regularly want to jump on Zoom calls rather than work asynchronously, fully adopting asynchronous-first policies will be difficult.
Of course, asynchronous-first might not be a realistic or the best option for every company. So, you should think of asynchronous and synchronous as a spectrum rather than two specific choices. For implementation, it’s key that leaders be clear on what level of asynchronous communication they expect from everyone.
Ultimately, company leadership and the People or Communications teams must ensure there’s a clear policy on asynchronous and synchronous work. Further, all teammates need to feel empowered to push back on synchronous work when necessary to make the move to asynchronous succesful.
Create a Company Handbook
Successful asynchronous work often means building a culture of documentation. A company handbook is a straightforward way to document processes from every team. Company handbooks shoul be living documents that grow with the company and the policies as they develop.
Gitlab’s handbook has to be one of the best handbooks out there for establishing this type of company culture and can serve as a good model for your own efforts. At Buffer, we built our handbook in Notion, a tool that centralizes information through pages and databases and makes things easily searchable across groups. Notion works well as a tool for company handbooks because it’s easy to navigate visually and has several powerful features for connecting information across pages.
Include in your company handbook when to use asynchronous versus synchronous communication, how to communicate asynchronously, and any other best practices you develop.
Give It Time
Communication habits can be very difficult to break, but when leaders take the initiative and model new behaviors, with time, company cultures can shift to incorporate asynchronous communication. Also, once teammates experience the benefits of asynchronous communication, they’re more likely to adopt new methods because they see the value in them.
Embrace Asynchronous Communication
Ultimately, effective communication should be the highest priority for organizations looking to be successful in remote work. Communication is central to culture, to operations, and to the day-to-day employee experience. Falling into a pattern of holding video meetings constantly is unsustainable. It’s been proven to be harmful to everyone’s wellbeing. Moreover, fully synchronous communication won’t cultivate the same levels of productivity across the organizations as a communication policy that is primarily asynchronous. The future of work will increasingly involve asynchronous communication as one of the best methods for remote, distributed organizations to stay productive, balanced and organized.