When a rival takes off like a rocketship and grows faster than you, you’re going to search for answers. Did they get more funding or win an elusive account? You could turn over many rocks to find crickets.
The answer is much simpler. They mastered the art and science of asynchronous communication. It helps companies cut wasted time and get more work done faster.
Business communication makes or breaks every company. Too little, and projects stall and get derailed. But too much, and you distract your team from making any real progress.
Giving your team the ability to work without expecting an immediate response unlocks a whole new level of performance.
Startups like GitLab and Asana take on heavyweights using asynchronous communication to work smarter.
Let’s dive deeper into its benefits, limitations, and best practices to improve the way distributed teams work.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication is a method of exchanging information without the expectation of real-time feedback. It reduces various live checkpoints by placing greater emphasis on the initial request.
This form of communication reduces face-to-face status updates without inhibiting output. As a result, it has been a boon for remote workers who carry out deep work at their own pace.
An example of asynchronous communication includes emailing the VP of Sales to update this quarter’s projections or offering feedback on a shared document. There’s no expectation for the recipient to respond instantly. Instead, they can read and reply when it’s ideal for them.
As companies embrace remote work across many time zones, interest in async has increased. Asynchronous communication increases productivity and morale, so it’s no surprise the fastest-growing companies adopt it.
Synchronous communication, also known as real-time communication, involves engaging with a teammate and expecting an immediate response. For example, if you’re in a meeting and ask a team member a question and need an answer now. Synchronous doesn’t only mean face-to-face. It’s found across Slack channels, video calls, and weekly standups.
On the surface, async and sync sound like a simple distinction.
Emails usually don’t need an immediate response, yet in-person conversations do. These expectations aren’t concrete. And with more teams telecommuting, that line is blurrier than ever.
For example, chat and instant messaging can be both real-time and asynchronous. The same for email: ask anyone who’s gotten a late-night message from a manager. It’s irresistible to put off a reply ’til the next workday.
The secret isn't the technology but your company’s culture and expectations.
Unfortunately, too many companies don’t set clear expectations or give guidance. And this is where people get frustrated, signals get crossed, and productivity grinds to a halt.
According to our State of Business Communications survey, more than half of businesses face a crisis every month or more due to communication issues.
But unlike using a new project management tool, company culture is harder to change.
The limits of real-time communication
You’re most likely already practicing asynchronous communication in a few ways. However, the default is to deal with issues and requests as they happen.
The pandemic has dramatically changed the future of work, but not necessarily for the better. Many remote teams cite that they are in endless meetings. The Work Trend Index by Microsoft revealed that 62% of calls and meetings are unscheduled. This stat is aggregated from over 31,000 firms.
Most employees spend 80% of their day in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, according to HBR. But if your team is always available, how can they focus on deep work?
The truth is they can’t.
Relying on synchronous communication steals your team’s focus. It’s also hurting your business in several ways:
- Rewards presence over productivity. When fast response time is the expectation, your team prioritizes being present instead of doing their work. An anonymized study of 50,000 office workers found that most people check their email or chat app every six minutes or less!
- Adds unnecessary stress that drives turnover. Being always available creates anticipatory stress – a constant state of anxiety. High-stress workers are up to three times more likely to quit.
- Silos actionable information. When the context of a decision only exists during a live meeting, it becomes privileged. Instead of knowing where to look for answers, your distributed team asks the same questions and cannot proceed at their own pace.
- Limits your team’s flow. 'Flow' is the state of deep focus that only comes from a long uninterrupted period. In a 10-year study, McKinsey found that workers in flow are five times more productive than those regularly interrupted.
- Alienates people in different time zones. Synchronous communication requires everyone to be present at the same time. If your team works across time zones, this means only some of them can be present. It also limits team members from managing their own time.
Asynchronous communication benefits
On the other hand, asynchronous communication gives your team the freedom to work around their ideal schedule.
A culture of asynchronous communication has several noteworthy advantages:
- Curbs interruptions for higher productivity. Knowledge workers like engineers, designers, and writers need prolonged deep work cycles to perform their best.
- Places results above responsiveness. Rather than assessing your team for response time, measure the outcomes. Even for complex topics, an app like Loom makes it easy to record short screencasts.
- Emphasizes strategic thinking. The pace of async communication gives more space to think deeply about your answer. This means fewer back-and-forth conversations and better output. Responses can be more rational and thought-out versus uninformed and ad hoc.
- Establishes clear expectations. There’s no more sitting around waiting for a response or getting upset when a teammate doesn’t get back to you right away. Instead, everyone knows when to expect a response and can go on with their workday until then.
- Cultivates a culture of knowledge sharing. Decisions from meetings become company-wide updates rather than being only available to attendees. This enhancement speeds up the checkpoints across various projects. Templates minimize the guesswork for capturing takeaways from meetings.
- Evens the playing field for remote and in-office staff. You’ll get more comprehensive input from remote workers who are excluded from the perks of an office. It also reduces the odds for unplanned ideas to thrive in the office.
- Forces you to plan out work effectively. When team members are only available at specific times, it forces you to plan more in advance. A few extra minutes upfront saves hours of meetings later.
Making sync and async communication work better
While synchronous communication is invasive, asynchronous gives your team control for when to respond.
Some teams can’t rely on asynchronous communication alone. For instance, when sales or customer support handles inbound calls. Likewise, there are situations where you need to hear many viewpoints and voice a decision to a group.
The best teams understand that both communication styles are essential for peak productivity. And research backs this up as well.
Harvard researchers observed that teams collaborating in ‘bursts’ were more productive, better at coming up with unique and innovative ideas, and spent less time solving complex problems. An example of this collaboration is having short moments of real-time communication followed by extended time apart.
Building a balanced communications strategy
A lasting communications strategy balances time for work and collaboration.
But, unlearning your previous communication habits takes time and dedication. Not only do you need the right tools, but also clear expectations and new workflows. This is crucial for remote employees, though everyone benefits from balanced communication.
Here’s how you can go from a culture of chaos to a healthy blend of sync and async:
1) Take stock of your communication ‘stack’
Businesses use more communication tools than ever, from virtual phone systems to chat and video conferencing. But, unfortunately, spreading communication across dozens of channels leads to confusion.
Transition to asynchronous communication by first taking stock of all your communication tools. This includes:
- SMS/text messaging
- Video meetings
- Project management
- Document collaboration
- File sharing
For each of these channels, write down how your team typically treats them.
Do they use chat mostly for real-time conversations? If not, how long do they wait for a response before following up or getting frustrated?
Get a solid understanding of your team’s current communication practices so you can optimize them.
2) Create a pyramid of responsiveness
Next, map out how you want your team to use each of your communication channels.
For other issues, your runbook outlines when to use each tool, expected response time, and the style for using them. These three styles are:
- Synchronous: These are urgent and must happen in person or using a real-time tool (like chat or video conferencing).
- Asynchronous: These don’t need an immediate response. However, you’ve set clear expectations for response time. Each person answers on their own time.
- Semi-async: There are some situations where you’re best off with a combination of both styles. Before getting everyone on a live meeting, provide the context over email. Invite them to attend the meeting with a specific set of outcomes desired. This way, everyone gets up to speed and can make a meaningful contribution. Afterward, circulate the decisions made in a recap.
|Communication style||Scenario||Tools used||Response time|
|Synchronous||Emergencies (e.g. data breach)||Office phone system or text.||Live|
|Project kickoffs, decision-making, andcomplex problem solving||Video conferencing or in-person||Live|
|Team-building||Video conferencing or in-person||Live|
|Semi-async||Regular meetings and updates||Shared docs and video or in-person||Before the meeting|
|One-on-ones||Shared doc and video or in-person|
|Asynchronous||Questions about a project||Chat or email||4 hours|
|Comments and feedback on work||Shared docs or other collaboration tools||24 hours|
|IT, workflow, or business process questions||Knowledge base or email||48 hours|
Seeing all your company’s communications in one place drives home how few conversations need to happen in real time.
The ones that require a real-time approach, such as emergencies, team-building, or complex decisions, should only make up 10% of your team’s time.
3) Develop a culture of async-first
Now it’s time to bridge the gap from how you engage today to your ideal workflow.
Where can you add clarity to response time or change habits to embrace asynchronous communication?
For example, instead of using chat as a synchronous tool, provide more context to messages so they can respond without your presence.
Requires live discussion
Can be handled asynchronously
|Can you look over this report and let me know what you think?||Can you please look over this report before Wednesday at 1 PM EST and provide me with feedback?
Specifically, can you confirm and update thefollowing metrics:
Average Wait Time, First Call Resolution Rate, Self-Service Usage, Customer Effort Score.
For context, I’m meeting with our new head of customer experience on Thursday morning and want to get her up to speed with where we are now.
Here’s a link to one of our previous reports if it helps!
Rather than use separate tools like Slack, Trello, and Zoom, Nextiva brings everyone together with chat, video meetings in one place.
Along with using the right platform, we've rounded up proven ways to communicate asynchronously:
- Delegate as if you were going on vacation. For example, what meetings can be turned into an email or shared doc? Ask your team to do the same and make a list of alternatives for live scenarios. Are there specific paths forward that people can follow in your absence?
- Over-communicate project plans. Avoid vagueness at all costs. Each message should set expectations, give a clear timeline, and share links to resources to reduce back-and-forth conversations. Anticipate knowledge gaps and address them before they hold up a project.
- Ask for a ’round up’ of any decisions made. Make it a practice of documenting and sharing the results of conversations. Store these in a virtual workspace that everyone can access. Assign an owner to each item on your to-do list.
- Set ‘office hours’ for live availability. Time block moments in the day when they need to be available on chat. Otherwise, set a reasonable time to respond to each channel and let them sign off or turn off notifications.
4) Know when it’s best to use synchronous communication
With any culture shift, there’s a chance not everyone will be on board.
Real-time conversations are essential for brainstorming, building rapport, and dealing with sensitive subjects.
While your goal is to minimize the frequency of them, there are four scenarios where real-time, synchronous interaction is preferred:
- One-on-ones: Conversations between managers and their reports help employees stay on track. Instead of an aimless discussion, go into it with a few pointed one-on-one questions.
- Building rapport: Despite the benefits of asynchronous communication, it lacks the influence of verbal and non-verbal cues and celebrating accomplishments.
- Project kickoffs: Walk through a plan when you need to keep everyone on the same page. For example, when you’re educating your sales team before launching a new product.
- When making urgent or high-stake decisions: When responsiveness is vital, you’ll need to avoid miscommunication. Real-time conversations can ensure everyone is on the same page. (But don’t forget to document and share it internally as appropriate.)
An easy rule to follow is that real-time meetings are necessary for topics that depend on an emotional response. Otherwise, build autonomy into your team’s workflow.
5) Bring asynchronous communication to your customers
Asynchronous communication improves your employee experience. But you can also use it to strengthen your customer experience.
The most common customer touchpoints involve phone calls and live chat. These are synchronous and real-time and need you to staff up to customer demand.
Gartner found that only 13% of customers can fully resolve concerns via self-service. The rest? They land on your website and require assisted live contact. This inefficiency is expensive — upwards of $8.01 per live interaction compared to $0.10.
Here are some ways to deliver asynchronous work practices for customers.
- Simplify your navigation and help docs. Many websites have cluttered navigation that makes it hard to get help. Additionally, help documents should be super easy to consume, avoiding jargon and complexities. Listen to your inbound call center conversations to get a feel for the verbiage and skill level.
- Optimize self-service resources for search. Search is the first touchpoint for people, so it’s best to produce extensive documentation that search engines surface to users. Ensure that support documents are accessible, use FAQs, include videos and images. Audit your site performance so pages load in less than two seconds.
- Offer automated customer solutions. Solutions like chatbots and IVRs can help you both deflect live help volume and assist people. Today’s contact center solutions meet today’s rising customer’s needs and conserve your resources.
- Deploy proactive messaging to known call drivers. When you know an issue impacts many customers, push out simple messaging about it. This includes updating your website, adding a message to your phone system, and revising support articles. However, a mass email might startle more customers than help, so choose wisely.
Asynchronous communication starts with you
Not everyone will instantly adopt the new style of business communication until you do.
Instead, focus on progress — not perfection. Find small ways to introduce more async communication to your team’s workflows every day.
Resist the urge for a daily huddle. Instead, scribe your thoughts, data points in a shared document and ask for feedback.
Your actions matter. Studies suggest that company leaders cause significant ripple effects with your team. If you message at all hours, expect instant responses, and don’t respect boundaries, neither will your team.
Mastering team communication requires the right mindset
There are plenty of people out there who would love to tell you that asynchronous communication is the future of work. But, in reality, it’s just another style of work at your disposal. It’s up to you to decide when and how to use it best.
A feature-rich unified communications platform alleviates the uncertainty of synchronous communication. With the advice mentioned above, you can use it to the fullest.
You hired your team to do their job, not to be full-time emailers, chatters, and meeting attendees. Use asynchronous communication to give them the time and space they need to do their best work.
Joe Manna is a content marketing manager for Nextiva who obsesses over the Oxford comma, embraces the em dash, and thrives on authoring content that compels people to take action. He is savvy with networking technology, a staunch privacy advocate, and in tune with today's business needs. His expertise helps companies large and small serve more customers.