Asynchronous Communication For Remote Teams: Best Practice Guide
Asynchronous communication? Okay, it’s a bit of a mouthful but you’ve always been doing it. It simply means communicating with somebody else, but not at the same time. Like an email, for example.
Good asynchronous communication is at the heart of successful remote teams. It enables remote workers to work without interruption or delay, from any time zone, in any destination. It’s the glue that allows a fully remote workforce to function more efficiently than a typical office. And asynchronous communication can improve productivity for all teams, it’s not just a tool for remote working.
You’ve probably always done it. But how good is your asynchronous communication? How can it be improved? This guide will talk you through different communication styles and how to optimize your remote working day.
What is Asynchronous Communication?
Synchronous means occurring at the same time. So a phone call is synchronous communication, as is having a conversation in real time on Slack or Skype. In a traditional office, a colleague may stop at your desk to ask a question or get your advice. That’s also synchronous communication. And it gets annoying when you’re always interrupted by a colleague as you’re trying to work.
To synchronise, both parties have to be available at the same time. Or both parties have to become available for the communication to take place. For example, if you are not at your desk, your colleague can’t stop by and distract you from your work. Synchronous communication is all about getting an immediate response. So it’s the most common form of communication in business. But do you really need an immediate response?
Asynchronous means the opposite. So replying to a message on Slack or Skype, but not immediately. Or leaving a voice message for a colleague. Or responding within 24 hours, which is great when you’re working on different time zones. Emails are the most typical form of asynchronous communication. When you send an email you don’t expect a reply immediately. Nor does the other party need to be available to receive your message.
Why is Asynchronous Communication So Good for (All) Teams?
You may assume that asynchronous communication is born out of necessity for remote teams. That’s not the case. It’s always been a very efficient way to communicate, but traditional office environments have rarely realised these benefits.
Of course, some synchronous communication is necessary. Sometimes you really do need to have a conversation, to problem solve or strategise or work things out. But it takes up so much time and it’s not always efficient to do everything in real time. That’s why it’s great to make the switch.
Synchronous Communication is Time Consuming
You may think it’s faster to go over a speak to a colleague to solve a problem. And maybe it is, for you. Maybe you could think about the problem for a few minutes and already find the solution. The conversation is likely to interrupt your colleague and take away from their valuable time. This form of communication requires both parties to be available, at the same time. It’s time consuming and what does it really achieve?
Every worker is available at different times, especially when it’s a remote team working from different time zones. Every worker is different and is more productive at a different time of the day – it’s terrible to interrupt somebody when they are in the flow, getting the work done. Asynchronous communication creates the flexibility to work around everybody’s needs and time. So time isn’t wasted, but maximised.
Focus and Productivity
Not only is a real time conversation taking up everybody’s time, it takes everybody’s focus and productivity. Workers don’t have uninterrupted time to focus on their work. Their productivity is severely reduced when there is a continual need to answer messages and talk with colleagues.
Every message is a distraction and how do you get anything done when there are so many of these messages? And how do you stay focused on doing the work, without making any errors, when you’re bombarded with questions all day?
Now imagine asynchronous communication. You do your work and then designate a time in the day to respond to all your messages, or to do calls with colleagues. You stay focused on your job because you can enjoy uninterrupted time to work. And then you communicate.
Synchronous Communication Creates Unnecessary Stress
When everybody is available at the same time, responding to messages, there’s an urgency that’s impossible to ignore. You have to respond as well, to show that you are doing something, to be part of the conversation, to even be part of the work culture. So you send a message, even though it doesn’t add anything new to the communication, even though it takes up your time and interrupts what you were actually doing.
Team members may feel unnecessarily stressed because of this need to respond. This further reduces focus and productivity, especially when team members don’t want to look like they missed a message or took way too long to reply. One common criticism of an office environment is the need to constantly have impromptu meetings to discuss things. These in-person meetings are classic synchronous communication, creating stress and distractions, because team members feel they need to be involved.
Communication is Clearer
Reduce the time you spend communicating and your messages need to be clearer. With asynchronous communication you naturally think more about valuing your colleagues’ time. There’s no wasting time with chitchat. Or filling time before a meeting starts. Instead you get straight to the point.
Asynchronous communication is also clearer because people have time to think about their response. You don’t always have the best answer to a question that is posed. But in real time you have to provide an answer. Your answer to the same question will probably be clearer if you had the time and space to think about it first.
Furthermore, with an asynchronous model, communication only takes place when it’s necessary. Did you really need to ask your colleague that question? Chances are, you would have figured out the answer in a few minutes anyway. Did you just share something important? Or perhaps you just wanted to appear to be busy, and by doing that, you interrupted somebody who actually was busy.
Work Can Continue At Any Time of the Day
Office teams reliant on synchronous communication operate during standard working hours. That’s usually nine to five, or eight to eight, or whatever is demanded of workers in the team. It’s rare that anything gets done outside the hours, because team members are not accustomed to doing things without real time conversation.
But with asynchronous communication the team can continue working at all hours of the day. Workers on different time zones can work uninterrupted, so perhaps the team is active 24 hours a day. Remote teams rely on asynchronous communication. And that’s a good thing. But…what if you have an urgent message that needs a response, or there’s a time-sensitive deadline and you absolutely need to speak with a colleague? Of course there is a way to balance both!
How to Balance Synchronous & Asynchronous Communication
Whether a remote team or an office environment, the easiest way to communicate more efficiently is to adopt an asynchronous-first approach. The expectation is that synchronous communication is required, but not as the first response. Just taking this approach gives workers the time and freedom to focus on their work. And that means a big boost in productivity. Here is how you can implement it with a remote team, or with any team, including in a traditional office environment.
1. Designate Synchronous Communication Times
If asynchronous is the norm, everyone in your team will need to designate when they are available to communicate in real time. One approach is to block out specific hours when you are available to actively communicate. Another is to have access to team members’ calendars, so you can book a call when it is necessary.
If you’re a team manager, try to establish a regular time when you call or directly message with your staff. And if there are no new updates, just send a message out saying that there is no need to check in.
By reducing the time spent actively communicating, team members will became smarter and more efficient about what they share. Synchronous communication times are for time-sensitive work, project updates and strategising.
Don’t feel obliged to block off more time than you need. Being available for four hours a day is not asynchronous communication. Plus, you may create an expectation that your team members should be available as well. Usually one or two hours is enough. And everybody can plan their day according to the schedule.
2. Target Your Messages
Now you’re communicating less, there can be an urge to send off dozens of messages, just to prove your busy or to get feedback on a project. Remember, every message and mention takes up the time of somebody else. It’s better that you spend more time thinking. Then only send targeting messages to those who need them.
The more messages you send the less people will follow them. They may even turn off notifications and miss something important later down the line. Also be cautious about communicating with everybody, such as by using @here or @channel on Slack. You may do better sending a direct message to one person than inundating the entire channel.
3. Over-communicate Your Progress & Updates
Synchronous communication encourages ad-hoc communication. So you update on a project when asked. And when you update you update the two people you speak to, not the other stakeholders in the project. Successful remote teams practice over-communication.
This means remote workers clearly communicate their progress, usually on a daily basis, but sometimes every week or less. They over-communicate what they have done, along with any questions, challenges, or sticking points. This is the opposite of sending a message like “hey, give me a call when you have a chance.” It’s giving a clear overview of the situation and documenting the process.
Over-communicating means adding project overviews, linking to documents and resources, and enabling a colleague to respond without having to give you a call. The more detailed the message, the clearer the response. Everything is recorded so anyone can refer back to your communication when they need to.
Another great option is to record videos. Team members can refer back to the video and can pause and replay when needed. And it doesn’t waste time. Many people find it easier to make a five-minute video than to translate their thoughts into written words.
4. Have a Communication Policy
As your team grows it can be difficult to keep track of all the messages and communication channels. So it does pay to have a communication policy, so everybody is clear about the requirements.
For example, you may expect that everybody responds to messages within 24 hours. This reduces the pressure to respond yet ensures the communication always continues. And 24 hours works whatever the time zone, so there is no pressure on adjusting working hours to fit workers’ physical locations..
Also consider an emergency communication protocol, so if something really does need synchronous communication there is no delay. You can set up a Slack channel specifically for these urgent messages and high-level roadblocks, or have a code word that’s used to alert colleagues of an incredibly pressing moment.
Don’t feel that a communication policy is essential. Many remote teams grow their communication organically. Team members know when other team members are available and slowly.
Communication is Easier With the Best Colleagues
Whether it’s asynchronous or synchronous, communication is easier when you work with great people. When you have great talent in your remote team, it’s a lot easier to make progress.
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