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Everything you need to know about asynchronous communication
Illustration by Shiwei Li

5 min read

Everything you need to know about asynchronous communication

The latest buzzword of the workplace—you’re going to hear this term as long as we’re in a remote-first work world. The question is, how much of your communications should be asynchronous?

We’ve talked plenty about how remote work isn’t a fad. It’s looking more and more like it’s here to stay.

A sudden communication switch

The switch to remote work happened quite abruptly at Jostle (as we expect for most companies too). As a company, we were already quite flexible with the way we work, but the forced work-from-home-experiment thanks to the pandemic has tested us collectively and individually. Taking care of our mental health and parent duties like sending the kids to daycare call for communicating at different, and often odd times of the day. Because of that, it’s become impossible to expect everyone to be online at the same time.

Cue asynchronous communication. 

Defining the term

One of the best things about remote work is the flexibility (I mean, who really enjoys the commute?). Without keeping tabs on where people are at every moment, we’ve learnt to harness this challenge of asynchronous communication. Let me first define the term:

The concept is really work that doesn’t have to occur at the same time for everyone. It means that when you send out a message, you don’t expect or need an immediate response.

Examples of asynchronous platforms include email, an intranet like Jostle, and project management software like Basecampas opposed to Zoom conferences, phone calls, instant chat, and obviously in-person meetings.

What are the rewards of asynchronous communication?

There are many pros to streamlining communication to be asynchronous, assuming your team has mastered it correctly.

Autonomy: Employees enjoy control over their own schedules and the freedom to adjust their day according to task and personal priorities. A big win for work-life balance!

Focus: Real-time communication can be extremely energy draining, and detracts from making meaningful progress on work. Without the pressure to keep on top of instant messages and email threads, we remove the constant interruptions that distract us from our state of productivity flow. This allows for deep focus especially for someone like me, who has to manage focused work constantly, with tasks such as writing long-form content at a regular cadence. As we don’t need to juggle the constant “catching up” with multiple channels, our brain gets less tired from the context switching.

Inclusivity: Asynchronous communication has proven to be more inclusive, and it’s easy to explain why. Introverts and quieter voices are less prone to communicating their thoughts in real-time meetings. They tend to need more space to collect their thoughts, preferring to take time to craft their responses. This mode of communication allows just that.

Remove the need to respond instantly, and you’ll see that this provides a level playing field for people of different communication styles. This also eliminates “discrimination” in the form of time zones, where certain remote employees are less informed from skipped meetings, and some more in sync because of accessibility to conversations.

What do we have to look out for when adopting asynchronous communication?

Mastering this craft is not easy, especially on an organizational front. When making the switch to async, you may come across these cons.

Constant monitoring: In the age of the “green dot”, the move towards more freedom can backfire and erode trust. Micromanaging can be hard to escape if we’re expected to be always on, reachable, and productive 24/7.

Misunderstandings happen: One of the biggest problems is easily misunderstood messages. Have you ever thought your manager’s lack of emoji use today is because he’s unhappy or uninterested? Without the correct background knowledge, it can be easy to misinterpret how someone is doing. It’s also common to get lost in the millions of progressing tasks and conversations going on, which is bound to create confusion at times.

More time spent on comms: Sometimes it takes way too long to get on the same page without aligning in real-time. In larger teams, you might find yourself too busy figuring out things alone, or struggle to ask a peer because they’re not online.

Loneliness: The connection we gain through collaborating with different people is simply irreplaceable. There’s a certain richness and interaction that text just can’t provide. The occasional brainstorming session is crucial to talking things out, let ideas run freely, and engage in healthy debates.

Keep these things in mind: Practical tips for you

1. Document everything (with context)

The benefits of writing down details are widespread.

Imagine having to catch up on a thread of scattered messages outlining all the moving pieces of a specific task. It gets frustrating! With asynchronous communication, there’s no time to clarify things on the spot or get instant feedback. Well-documented projects and reference materials help everyone save time and head-scratching while staying aligned.

Tools: Collaborative documents in general are a huge part of how we work at Jostle. Google docs is used heavily across the company for us to provide briefs, review deliverables, and give out comments. Trello is also a helpful tool to help visualize, track, and align on what’s upcoming, in the works, and completed.

Tip: An intuitive file management system helps with transparency and streamlining processes. Jostle’s Library feature acts as a file repository so people know where information lives in a readily accessible manner.

2. Most things aren’t urgent, clarity is  

Make sure that expectations, processes, and intentions are crystal clear. Everything else isn’t that urgent.

Tools: Setting up a checklist is super helpful. Whenever I want to ask for help getting something done, I’ll use Tasks on Jostle and assign someone with a specific project and a clear due date.

Tip: On top of setting agendas, post notes after a meeting to loop back on the action steps required. Not only does this provide accountability, but it also shares what the recipient has interpreted from the key points of the meeting, because misunderstandings (as mentioned) are common.

3. Declare your availability

Gone are the days where we can casually lean over the desk and ask for quick help. It’s important to set up a transparent team calendar, block off focus times, and let others know when exactly you’re available or unavailable.

Tools: I’m so excited to share that Jostle just launched our new User Status tool! All users can now let people know at-a-glance when and why you’re unavailable, and you can have fun while you’re at it with custom emojis.

You can read all about User Status here.

4. The key here is balance

Asynchronous communication certainly doesn’t replace face-to-face time. It’s unrealistic to expect this mode of interaction to foster a sense of belonging in a remote setting.

Getting air time in a synchronous conversation rightfully has its own benefits, such as team bonding, digesting complex situations, and explaining change at a regular interval to uphold that human element in the workplace. I wouldn’t want 1:1s, team meetings, and kickstarting a milestone project to look differently.

At Jostle, we practice flex hours, meaning we’re generally expected to be online during our core hours of 10am-3pm, where most meetings take place. The rest of the time, we enjoy the autonomy to set our own schedules. Upon joining, I realized that our marketing team is a group of early birds, unlike myself. Our communication style alleviates that pressure to cater my working times to other teammates, as well as accommodate those who are in different time zones.

Tip: There are a few scenarios where you’ll almost certainly want to use synchronous communication. These are:

  • Intentional mid-day coffee breaks
  • Communicating urgency, a crisis, or structural change
  • 1:1 meetings where critical feedback is given
  • Project kickoffs with lots of moving parts

Conclusion

The modern workplace is already looking quite diverse and distributed, and we might see a default to asynchronous being the norm. We just need to learn how to leverage this form of communication.

It’s easy to find yourself being lost in an email thread, and on top of that, it’s extremely difficult to build rapport and relationships with purely written text. While we’re all learning to master asynchronous communication, acknowledge that we’re human after all. Mix in some synchronized interactions where it makes the most sense!

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