If you’ve ever tried to juggle personal and professional commitments, engage with colleagues across different time zones, or simply find there’s not enough hours in the day to fit in all the team meetings you seemingly need to have, then asynchronous working could be the counterbalance you’re seeking to your current chaos.
But how do you move away from a culture of now and the temptation for “quick check-ins” to discuss every minor kerfuffle that arises during the working day?
In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of asynchronous working, the challenges, and best practices for how to overcome these challenges to optimize async communication at your organization.
- What is asynchronous working?
- Benefits of asynchronous working
- Challenges of async working and how to overcome them
What is asynchronous working?
Asynchronous working refers to a style of communication that happens when two people aren’t engaging live or at the same time. Unlike synchronous communication, which happens face to face, via video calls, or via live audio, asynchronous communication is not real-time.
Examples of asynchronous communication include:
- Pre recorded video messages (like Loom)
- Pre recorded audio messages
- Written correspondence when there isn’t an expectation of an immediate response (this can apply to emails, instant messages, or text messages, depending on how your company uses these tools)
- More formal documentation (e.g., policies, memos, presentations, or articles.)
- Feedback in shared workspaces such as Google Docs or Adobe Xd.
Even when operating in a 100% in person environment, some portion of our work is likely to be asynchronous.
Benefits of asynchronous working
To kick us off, let’s start with the benefits of asynchronous working so you can understand how making the switch to async first could help your organization.
Those of us in the people management community—heck, how about knowledge workers, period—are used to a daily calendar jammed with meetings from 9 or 10 in the morning to 5 or 6 at night.
There may be little pockets of time here or there between Zoom meetings where we try to fit in our actual work while tending to a near constant stream of notifications and pings. But, realistically, that approach doesn’t cut it. The context switching alone is a killer.
Since we don’t have enough meaningful time during the day to accomplish any sort of task that requires focus, we find ourselves putting in extra work hours or multitasking during other meetings to get things done.
Now imagine you’re part of an async work culture:
- Many of the routine status meetings on your calendar turn into progress reports to read at your leisure.
- You no longer default to requesting a meeting or pinging someone when you have a question. Instead, you review existing documentation and, if that fails to yield a response, you compose a thoughtful message that helps you to articulate your ideas and gives the recipient the opportunity to respond thoughtfully in kind.
- Your calendar looks a lot more open. You replace the meeting time with focused work blocks that help drive the completion of analytical or creative tasks.
If you’re no longer restricted by needing to be available at a specific time, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for work-life balance.
When working across time zones, you can decide which hours will be commonly available for synchronous collaboration and commit to only scheduling meetings during those time blocks.
Suddenly, your schedule may contain available time blocks that you can carve out for deep work or use to handle personal obligations, even if it’s during the conventional work day.
An asynchronous work environment gives you the freedom to choose when to work and from what location, as long as you get your work done and remain reasonably available to respond to team member questions.
From an employer perspective, flexible working is a significant driver for hiring and retaining talent.
With flexible work comes inclusivity. Now that you’re no longer mandating specific in-person or “in-office” hours, you can attract a more diverse talent pool. This may include folks that have:
- Dependent care obligations
- A socioeconomic status that would benefit from saving money on a commute, meal expenses, and/or wardrobe costs
- Diverse backgrounds and are more susceptible to microaggressions in an in-person environment.
Additionally, asynchronous working may accommodate more introverted personality types that find synchronous communication challenging.
4 challenges of asynchronous working and how to overcome them
It’s clear that async work isn’t sunshine and rainbows 24/7, otherwise our society would have more broadly adopted remote work, hybrid work, and other flexible work arrangements way before the pandemic.
In this section, we’ll go over some of the key challenges associated with asynchronous working plus some potential solutions for overcoming them.
Many would agree that synchronous working is preferable to asynchronous in some instances—there’s a reason why we tend to reserve important conversations for when we’re face to face or why online vitriol seems much easier to spark.
When you’re communicating in person or even live over video, you can pick up lots of context clues to help you more effectively deliver and receive messages. Body language, inflection, and tone of voice can play a part in how you interpret the substance of these communications.
You lose that knowledge when you communicate async, which can sometimes lead to miscommunication. It may also take more time to deliver a communication asynchronously.
You might wonder why you would bother writing something down when you could simply hop on a Zoom call. You may also worry that you won’t get a response in the time you need it.
How to combat asynchronous communication challenges
Here are some strategies to consider when dealing with asynchronous communication challenges:
- Invest in appropriate communication tools. Make sure that you thoughtfully select your communications tech stack based on your organizational goals. More importantly, make sure you define the protocols for how to use that tech stack so everyone understands the various communication channels and how to use them.
Clear and consistent guidance = less time hunting down information. This way, you’re already starting to see the payoff from going async. Information is out of people’s brains and out into the open.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. Consider what types of conversations would benefit most from real-time communication and restrict meetings to those types of interactions. For example, remote teams may not need a meeting for a project status update, but it would make sense to retain a 1:1 meeting with your direct report to help you cultivate a strong relationship and build trust.
- Set reasonable company or team-wide expectations for appropriate response times. If people don’t feel like they have to respond to messages immediately, it reduces stress and helps them maintain focus on their priority tasks. It also makes it more likely that they will respond thoughtfully, instead of off the cuff during other meetings.
- Communicate often using multiple channels. This is necessary for sync or async organizations but it’s worth reiterating that, with less time spent together, company updates should be communicated regularly and shared via multiple channels with corresponding archives for review.
Keep in mind also that an asynchronous work model may be easier for some folks, such as the neurodivergent, because it reduces the need to interpret social cues.
In addition to straight-up communication challenges, there is a perception that remote work, or asynchronous work, destroys accountability.
Managers and workers can no longer judge performance based on who's first in and last out of the office, so it becomes tempting to measure how often remote workers are online on IM as a proxy.
No, no, no, no, no.
Adopting remote work surveillance tools is the quickest way to erode trust and decimate your talent acquisition strategy. Besides, it’s not a true measure of productivity.
How to combat accountability challenges
Here are some alternative ways to assess employee accountability and engagement:
- Document, document, document. For your company to succeed in asynchronous working, it’s critical to adopt a culture of transparency across the organization.
Asynchronous workers cannot be expected to learn by observation since they are spending less time collocated. Instead, you’ll need to spell out for them what it means to be successful. This includes defining outputs that they are responsible for producing, not how much time they spend at their desks.
- Align performance expectations for employees with organizational goals. Not only does clarifying roles and responsibilities reduce the potential for duplicate work, but it also increases employee motivation.
Engaged employees see how their daily work ties to what the company is trying to achieve and are therefore less susceptible to burnout. Psst: it also makes them more productive.
- Use project management tools and workflows to track progress against goals. Put the onus on employees to measure their performance by investing in the appropriate asynchronous collaboration tools. Bonus points: everyone at the company knows what’s going on with your projects, so you’ll need fewer recurring status meetings 😎.
Team connectivity challenges
Another common complaint around asynchronous teams is that it becomes more difficult to forge strong relationships with colleagues that you either have not met or infrequently spend time with in person.
Synchronous working forces us to cultivate interpersonal relationships, which builds trust more quickly and improves teamwork.
Also, some leaders argue that we’re losing the creative inspo sparked by casual water-cooler chat.
How to combat team connectivity challenges
Team connectivity challenges are not insurmountable in an async first environment—they simply take some upfront effort to solve. Here are some strategies that worked well for my team:
- Create a top-notch onboarding experience. Onboarding done well is a beautiful thing. It strengthens employee engagement and retention in the critical first months on the job, reduces ramp-up time to realize productivity faster, and offers a good way to facilitate honest feedback on how people leaders can improve.
In an async environment, onboarding is the gift that keeps on giving. Designate one person from each department (ideally on a rotating basis to share the love) to be responsible for keeping onboarding materials up-to-date, relevant, and part of an ongoing feedback loop in coordination with the people team.
Related read: How To Write A 30 60 90 Day Plan For Your Org’s Onboarding + Template
- Invest in growing solid managers. In an async environment, don’t underestimate the power of a recurring 1:1 meeting culture to foster connection, facilitate communication, and maintain employee engagement. Studies have shown that middle managers are key to an organization’s mental health—neglect them at your own peril!
Related read: How To Support New Managers With A People Partner Program
- Foster (optional) opportunities for connection. Find out what employees want to stay connected, and then follow through. Maybe this is a quarterly in-person retreat, a series of fun Slack channels, or optional “office hours” to chit-chat about non-work stuff.
One important caveat: if these events are truly optional, make sure that employees don’t incur hidden penalties for opting out.
Decision-making can also be complicated in an async environment—how do you ensure that the appropriate people weigh in to make quality decisions in a timely manner, especially when you don’t have the option of snagging a conference room to whiteboard the problem?
How to combat decision-making challenges
Contrary to popular belief, asynchronous decision-making may lead to better outcomes than a traditional brainstorming sesh.
Provided you frame the problem correctly and get the appropriate people involved, asynchronous decision-making can actually fuel creativity and combat groupthink.
Think about it: in a synchronous meeting, the loudest (or the most senior) voice in the room often carries the day.
Despite your best efforts to make the meeting as inclusive as possible, other participants may be too intimidated to speak up, or their personality type may require them to spend additional time processing before they feel comfortable offering an opinion.
Establishing a writing culture at your organization streamlines the decision-making process. It encourages people to:
- Succinctly summarize the problem
- Research possible solutions
- Recommend a solution based on empirical evidence and their own experience
- Solicit diverse perspectives to confirm or deny the recommendation.
Join the conversation
As you’ve hopefully realized, there are many benefits to be gained from adopting a more asynchronous working culture.
We’re curious, how has your organization successfully adopted a culture of asynchronous communication?
Leave something in the comments or join us in the People Managing People community, a supportive network of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future.
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