The Value of Asynchronous Communication and How to Embrace It

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David Rice
05/20/2020

Asynchronous

The rise of remote work culture has been fraught with challenges for some organizations, chief among them the changes to the frequency and methods by which we communicate.

Remote work requires a completely different approach. As Gitlab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, noted in a recent interview with the HR Exchange Network, “the principles of remote work are different. The approach to conducting work is different. Just as multi-level office buildings required elevators and phones to be functional as workplaces, teams working remotely should embrace tools that enable asynchronous communication and should reconsider traditional ideas around meetings and informal communication.”

The communication piece is an important aspect of Murph’s advice. This idea of “asynchronous communication” is especially important and a topic of growing interest among professionals. But what does that mean?

Asynchronous vs Synchronous Communication

The easiest way to define asynchronous communication is to look at in comparison to the type of communication we have always known in the workplace, or synchronous.

This is what you have in meetings and phone calls. It involves someone bringing information to the table and responses are immediate in nature. There is no lag time between the information being laid out and an audience response.

But how often is that productive? Certainly it has its merits within the context of something like, say a brainstorm or a regular 1-on-1 meeting. By no means should synchronous communication be abandoned. It can help people build relationships, discuss sensitive topics and align knowledge of multiple parties instantly.

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But in most cases, effective synchronous communication requires a good deal of planning. It doesn’t happen off the cuff, so to speak. Attendees need to clearly understand what the meeting is about when they attend in order to contribute as best they can. They need clear action items when they leave and more often than not, these types of meetings are best when you simply need a human element in your communication.

By definition, asynchronous communication does not happen in a single sitting or in real time. It happens with a lag, but often that lag is accompanied by greater thought and rationale.

Asynchronous is not so much absent from our current workplace, but perhaps underappreciated or utilized. Often it’s those “water cooler moments” that provide an idea, but it tends to be the thought that goes into them after that and rounds of asynchronous discussion that actually get us closer to an innovative solution to a challenge.

“What can be missed with remote work if you’re not careful is those hallway conversations, the water cooler moments that in some ways keep us sane, but they also create a better product,” Jan van der Hoop, President of Fit First Technology says. “Those are often the grease in the production mechanism that allow us to produce really great work. Those opportunities don’t present themselves as naturally in remote work.”

While that is true, it’s not for lack of methods to do so. Emails are an example of asynchronous communication, where one party sends information not knowing when they’ll get a response. A colleague who receives an email can take time to consider its content and craft a response when they have something insightful to say.

While email is often greeted with disdain, there are other platforms that could facilitate asynchronous communication and be just as effective, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. These platforms are less formal in nature and invite creativity and dialogue into any process. Either way, there will be a record of the conversation as well as the documents or files exchanged in the process, allowing the employee to refresh their memory or someone coming into the discussion later to catch up and offer their insight based on an entire conversation, rather than simply weighing on the parts they heard.

However, research shows that these platforms often become constant communication, proving to be more of a distraction than a vehicle for meaningful work to be done. Often times, our communication via these methods occurs in real time and requires clarification. While they can facilitate some water cooler like moments, adopting them is not the key to unlocking asynchronous communication.

A Clear Path Toward Async

In the end, it’s a matter of culture to create those “water cooler” opportunities for remote employees to interact.

This is something that Murph is a champion of, as he emphasizes the value of informal communication because it allows for the creation of bonds around things not related to work and over time, friendships form. Having these relationships at work is valuable as studies have shown. People who feel they have genuine friendships at work are more likely to perform at a high level, enjoy their job and be invested in the success of the company and co-workers.

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This can be done in a variety of ways, be it a social hour, coffee klatch, or just welcoming interruption from pets, children or spouses. In other words, allow people to show their humanity publicly in the work environment. If it were an office, teams would gather for happy hours or even the occasional off site meeting. While that may be impossible in remote environments, finding creative ways for people to bond and remember that they’re part of a group of humans is vital to remote success.

Building Comfort

But in order for employees to feel comfortable enough to let their guard down and socialize, they have to feel comfortable with the remote work scenario to begin with. A step in the direction of doing that is stripping away set hours and trusting employees to get their work done. This allows them to work at times that suit their schedules, lifestyles and biological clock. The more work fits into their life, the more easy it is for them to be dedicated to it when they need to work.

Once you have employees in this comfort zone and have created avenues by which they can communicate informally, their formal communications take on a different look. Because their schedules and timetables are not in sync, employees tend to take longer to respond naturally, avoiding reactionary responses or outbursts in favor of carefully thought out dialogue that takes into account ways to collaborate with someone on a different schedule. In doing this, employees naturally eliminate unnecessary back and forth exchanges and feel freer to block off chunks of the day to dedicate to their most meaningful work.

This is an important aspect of working with global teams. Once you have an asynchronous culture of communication in place, what time zone someone is in really doesn’t matter anymore.

Of course, acceptance of asynchronous communication has value for all teams, be it in a remote environment or a traditional office. But getting there requires a new approach to culture, a certain amount of patience and a desire to understand the human beings you work with.

“You can’t manage a remote team well, long-term, with command and control tactics,” Murph says. “In an all-remote setting where team members are possibly working from a variety of time zones, mastering asynchronous workflows is vital to avoiding dysfunction.”

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