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That Meeting Could Have Been a Voice Note: Understanding Asynchronous Communication

The Benefits of asnychronous communication on remote work

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When COVID pushed the world into remote work, an interesting thing happened: people started to question which meetings were necessary. Between Zoom fatigue and the added pressure of working in a brand new way, employees began to wonder if a meeting really needed to be a whole hour - or if it needed to happen at all. Hour long meetings started receiving far more scrutiny than in the office. 

People started demanding more documentation and communication ahead of time that didn’t require everyone’s immediate response. They wanted time to think through data instead of giving a gut reaction. Or, as it’s technically called: asynchronous communication (“async” for short). 

As companies look to not only survive but thrive and innovate in an all-remote or hybrid future, it’s critical to understand how asynchronous communication plays out in the business world.

In this guide, we’re looking at: 

  • The definition and types of asynchronous communication 
  • The differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication
  • The benefits of asynchronous communication
  • How to embed asynchronous communication easily into current business systems
  • How voice tools play a powerful role in asynchronous communication

Defining asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communications are anything that does not require real-time attention or immediate response. In some circles, this immediate attention and response is simply referred to as “collaboration” and it’s assumed to be the business norm. However, it would be a mistake to assume collaboration and async are opposites or not compatible - quite the opposite. Async is a critical part of true collaboration.

What the COVID pandemic uncovered is that we might have gone too far with real-time collaboration. 

According to Harvard Business Review, the average knowledge worker can spend up to 80% of their day communicating and collaborating. This represents a 50% increase in how often people collaborate when compared to 20 years ago. It may have been Zoom fatigue that got people to realize it, but the truth was lingering around for years that workplaces had too many meetings

When collaboration is only done in real-time, a risk occurs: collaboration increases creativity, but only up to a point. Too much actually reduces creativity because people don’t have time to produce work. 

Asynchronous communication allows employees to continue collaborating in a way that doesn’t take up everyone’s time. It usually takes one of two forms: 

  1. Time-boxed → “Check this before X time please” with a reasonable timeline set for the urgency and scope of the ask.
  2. Convenience-based → “Check this when you can” with the expectation that all employees have time set up in their days / weeks to check information like this.

The differences between synchronous and asynchronous communications

The good part about asynchronous communication is it applies to most existing business processes, the difference being setting expectations.

Here are some common business tasks, and how they can be both synchronous or asynchronous depending on how you set expectations: 

Sending an email

  • Synchronous: Asking for a response ASAP (or implying it via cultural expectations of availability and service agreements). 
  • Asynchronous: Setting a reasonable timeline for response.

Posting in Slack

  • Synchronous: Tagging someone and then following up immediately to get that person’s answer.
  • Asynchronous: Sending a message with context and waiting for the other person to respond when they can (or with a time-boxed timeline)

Planning a meeting

  • Synchronous: Putting a hold in everyone’s calendar and going over the agenda during the meeting. 
  • Asynchronous: Sending issues, problems, or agendas ahead of time, alongside a collaborative document for people to document their ideas and solutions on their own time. 

Brainstorming 

  • Synchronous: Booking a meeting to brainstorm live.
  • Asynchronous: Sending the thought starter question ahead of time and letting people contribute their ideas on their own time (with a reasonable deadline attached).

Benefits of asynchronous 

Working asynchronously presents a lot of benefits for both the employee and the organization as a whole. 

Employee benefits

  • Mental health: There’s an anxiety toll that employees feel when they are forced to be “on” and have immediate answers for everything. Further, there’s a burnout toll from not feeling like you are accomplishing anything since you’re in meetings all day. Async helps to address both these issues. 
  • Deep work: When you don’t have constant meetings pulling you in different directions, you can focus on your tasks at hand for longer periods of time. 
  • Time to think: When there isn’t an expectation of immediate answers, you can digest, think, and do additional research to come up with a better response. 

Organization-wide benefits

  • Automatic documentation: If employees are documenting their thoughts to share asynchronously, they are automatically saved for later reference. 
  • Higher productivity: When employees can sit and get work done for a couple hours at a time, significantly more is accomplished. 
  • Lower costs: Salaried employees are paid no matter what. Async communications means you don’t waste their time in unnecessary meetings.

When to make it real-time

Despite its benefit, there are times when asynchronous communication is not ideal. In general, that’s one of three things: 

  1. Casual hangouts or celebrations.
  2. Urgent issues.
  3. Relationship building.

In general, asynchronous communication is ideal for execution-focused jobs but doesn’t work for human-centered activities. 

Building an asynchronous workplace

The core to building an asynchronous workplace is not to cancel all meetings. Instead, it’s about doing two specific things: 

  1. Awareness: Realizing the business world - particularly startups and other companies focused on innovation - have gone too far with synchronous meetings to reap the full benefits of collaboration. 
  2. Adjustment: Flipping usual expectations. Make the organization asynchronous-first with synchronous elements, instead of synchronous-first (masquerading as “collaboration”). 

As you move ahead, remember to focus on these elements of async communicating: 

Emphasize information availability over people availability

Instead of answering questions for people directly, produce documentation for it. Create a culture where people check documentation and conduct their own research first.  

Help employees learn the fundamental skills of async communications

Employees need to learn: 

Make sure you have the right tools in place

For async to work, you need tools that enable data capture, storage, and retrieval. For communications, that’s tools such as: 

Strengthen async in the business

If you want to strengthen async on your teams, use the double-up strategy, which includes at least two of the following: 

  • Video / screencasts with voice.
  • Voice only.
  • Written. 

The power of voice 

When it comes to asynchronous brainstorming, meetings, and collaboration, no tool is stronger than voice. 

Context: Voice allows you to quickly offer in-depth context. This can be especially helpful as employees learn to be better writers, but sometimes it’s just easier to explain. Voice tools enable you to avoid the trap of writing something, having a misunderstanding, then needing to book a call.

Connection: Human connections become stronger when associated with voice. You hear your colleagues’ tone and can pick up on a few more cues than simply reading their writing, leading to further (and hopefully deeper) understanding of what’s being said.  

Documentation: Voice empowers easier documentation - it can be stored as-is or transcripted - so record keeping is simple with voice. You also have the added benefit with voice where you have a permanent record of someone explaining a concept (instead of a written and edited document), making it easier to store long-term institutional memory.

Ease of use: Voice tools often have a lower barrier to usage than video, both from a technical set up perspective and from a personal perspective. 

When you communicate asynchronously, you aren’t saying that people can respond immediately. Instead, you’re building an organization that consciously respects people’s time and builds an environment that prioritizes accomplishment over time spent. Whether remote, hybrid, or in-office, this kind of environment increases productivity. It also has the fantastic effect that synchronous meetings are no longer arduous and annoying. As a result, people can truly engage in the time they have together because they are able to get their work done and aren’t burnt out from yet-another-meeting. Contrary to how it sounds, leveraging asynchronous communication will help people connect on a deeper, more human level, since that becomes the key focus of time spent together.