“You’re on mute.”
Now that we’re in 2022 and the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging on, everyone’s heard this phrase, and—sadly—it shows how inefficient we still are at remote communication.
While most employees have stated that they want to continue working from home, 40% of them also said that the biggest challenge with remote work is communication, collaboration, and loneliness that stems from not being able to connect as often with colleagues.
Teams are so used to face-to-face real-time communication that even after two years of being remote-first, some are still struggling to make the most out of remote communication.
The key to effective communication in a remote environment is knowing when to collaborate synchronously and asynchronously.
Synchronous communication is easy—we’ve been doing it for most of our lives. This article will go over asynchronous communication and how encouraging non-real-time collaboration can help remote teams work more smoothly.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication happens when you leave someone a message that they don’t instantly need to respond to, similar to leaving a note in your best friend’s locker.
In a remote environment, employees practice asynchronous communication when sending emails, leaving chat messages, and submitting drafts for editors to leave feedback.
On the other hand, synchronous communication happens when conversations occur in real-time. Examples of synchronous communication are voice and video calls and instant messaging when all parties are online.
The expectation with synchronous communication is an immediate response, whereas the expectation with asynchronous communication is a timely response, usually optimized to when the recipient has all the information needed to provide an answer.
Even though most people are used to synchronous communication, asynchronous communication can be more efficient for remote workers.
The benefits of asynchronous communication
In addition to “you’re on mute,” another phrase that came out during the pandemic is “Zoom fatigue.” Zoom, a popular video conferencing application, became a household name when the world locked down in early 2020.
While many people recognize the benefits of Zoom and synchronous communication, most employees who had shifted to remote work quickly started seeing their calendars filled up with unnecessary calls that hurt productivity more than helped it.
And that causes more stress than you’d think. As Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University, said in his research paper, “Just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to.”
1) Accessible collaboration
In a remote-first company, work doesn’t happen simultaneously across the entire team. Making your collaboration tools accessible across the full team will help everyone find the information and resources they need even when other teams are offline.
Developing a culture of asynchronous collaboration versus an always-on culture will help your employees in Melbourne collaborate with your team in New York efficiently without the need to constantly be on video calls.
2) More efficient record-keeping and transparency
Asynchronous work means more written communication, whether through messaging applications like Slack and Microsoft teams or email.
More written communication means better record-keeping and transparency—you get a database or permanent record of all conversations that happened within your team.
You’re always a quick search away from finding important information like what projects are in the pipeline and who said what.
3) Employees sign off on time
Burnout is on the rise across the world. While remote work provides more flexibility when it comes to active hours, it can also mean team members end up working more and at odder hours.
Encouraging asynchronous communication means that your employees in India, for instance, don’t need to be on a call with your New York team at 9 p.m. their time.
They can sign off at a reasonable time and then check their inboxes the next day for what they missed without the pressure of needing to be online when other team members are.
4) Keeps teams agile and flexible
Having strict schedules is a thing of the past, especially for distributed teams. Asynchronous communication allows your company to continue operating at the optimal times for them, without the need to fill each employee’s calendar with management meetings.
5) Promotes more thoughtful conversations
Synchronous communication often requires participants to think on their feet, offering up the first suggestions, comments, and ideas that come to mind. This can be a disadvantage for employees who need to consider problems deeply before presenting their best ideas.
Asynchronous communication gives all parties time to mull over the conversation and respond with more meaningful and well-thought-out replies.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication—which is better for your company?
While asynchronous communication has a lot of benefits, it isn’t for everyone. Some teams need more face-to-face time than others.
When to implement asynchronous communication
We recommend investing more into developing a culture of asynchronous communication if…
You have a distributed team or deal with clients in different time zones. You can’t expect all of your employees to be up and at it by 8:00 a.m. EST—that’s 5:00 a.m. on the west coast and 8:00 p.m. in parts of Asia. If your team is distributed across different timezones or deals with clients in different timezones, asynchronous communication will make your team more efficient.
You’re willing to invest in tools and processes. If you have the time and resources to invest in detailing asynchronous communication best practices at your company, your team is organized enough not to need real-time communication.
Your team is primarily self-sufficient. Some teams need more love than others. If your team runs itself—your employees have a set of tasks that they get done on time without you needing to check in every day—you can leave them to communicate when it’s most convenient for them.
Your team is a small-to-medium business that regularly sends updates. Documenting updates and keeping your team in the loop is easier with asynchronous communication—whether you send a high-level overview through email, a two-page report through Google Docs, or a summary on Slack.
When to implement hybrid communication practices
We recommend a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication if…
Your team is disorganized. Making asynchronous communication work needs organization and rules. For example, if your team uses Facebook Messenger to communicate asynchronously and keeps losing messages or overlooking questions from colleagues, you’ll have a hard time making asynchronous collaboration work.
You don’t have the resources to invest in tools. Back to the earlier example, if you’re using Facebook Messenger to communicate with your team, you probably can’t do too much asynchronous communication—too many conversations will slip through the cracks. You need to invest in a digital workspace tool to make asynchronous communication a viable solution for efficient communication.
Your team needs a lot of supervision. If you’re dealing with a new team that asks many questions and needs more support (e.g., during onboarding), you might want to forgo asynchronous communication.
The biggest roadblock to leadership teams investing in asynchronous communication infrastructure is that it’s hard to build a culture where asynchronous communication is more effective than the alternative.
Luckily, if you start with good practices—like having a knowledge base for asynchronous information sharing—then asynchronous collaboration can scale with your company.
Develop a culture of asynchronous communication with these 3 tips
Asynchronous communication can work for you if your entire team is on board. Done right, it reduces collaboration overload, frees up your employees’ time for deep work, and keeps their calendars mostly open—all without sacrificing team efficiency and necessary collaboration.
1) Communicate expectations and best practices with your team
Over-communicating is always better than under-communicating—but communicating unclearly and unnecessarily is a problem that can occur with asynchronous communication.
Make sure to set clear guidelines with your team on how they should communicate in public and private channels. Some examples of expectations to set are:
- Don’t tag everyone in a message unless you need to
- Use email for high-level updates and our instant messaging application (e.g., Slack) for day-to-day communication
- If you have questions, check out our knowledge base first—you might find the answers
- Always have a one-sentence summary at the top of long messages
- Use threads for longer conversations (make sure to tag the people involved)
- Make sure to turn off notifications when you’re offline
- Message the team any time, but don’t expect an immediate response—we’ll get to it when we get to it
As your team evolves, you’ll learn how to communicate more efficiently. Document those best practices and add them to your communication guidelines.
2) Invest in reliable digital tools for communication
When digital communication first started, we had Skype and email. But for a fully remote team, both of those are inefficient and ineffective. It would be best to have communication tools that increase visibility across the entire team and allow for instant messaging.
Some tools you need to invest in are:
1. Digital workspace tools
Digital workspace tools go beyond instant messaging. They allow companies to create an online workspace for the entire team with specific, smaller channels for the marketing team, PR team, etc.
Investing in a digital workspace is crucial because it becomes your “office” where communication and collaboration occur spontaneously. Make sure your tool has:
- A space for employee profiles, with a status bar
- Shared and private channels
- A document or message pinning feature to increase visibility
- A search bar with advanced search
- A way for employees to schedule notifications
- Third-party Integrations
Popular technologies that allow for instant worldwide communication include Slack and Microsoft Teams. Meta (formerly Facebook) has also come out with its digital workspace called Workplace. If you’re looking for an open-source option, RocketChat is another reputable option.
2. Online Knowledge bases
When your team members have urgent questions, they need to have a way to get answers without messaging someone else (who might be offline). The best way to do that is with a knowledge base. Knowledge bases are collections of documents that detail your company’s processes, beliefs, and best practices.
Your knowledge base should contain information like role responsibilities, organizational hierarchy, and answers to questions like, “How do I file for a reimbursement?” When choosing a knowledge base, here are some features to look out for:
- Straightforward, no-code content creation process
- Searchable database with advanced search features
- Announcement feature for new content
- Document templates
- Integrations with essential tools (like your digital workspace)
3. Video creation and sharing software
Efficient asynchronous communication doesn’t need to mean no face-to-face time. Adding short videos to your knowledge base content and workspace messages can be more engaging and precise—especially when you need to share your screen.
Some things to look for in video creation software are:
- Video embedding features
- Video editing capabilities
- Audio capture capabilities
- Screensharing function
- Call-to-action banners
If you’re willing to invest in video communication tools, check out Vidyard, Loom, and Soapbox by Wistia. If you want an easy alternative, you can also record videos on Zoom by starting a personal meeting and hitting the record button—though you won’t get any of the nifty features that video-first tools have.
4. Project management tools
You need to have a project management tool for more significant projects that require precise planning and constant updates. Project management tools lay out the different parts of your project in an easily-digestible board that all relevant members of your team can access and edit.
Project management tools that encourage collaboration have:
- Task lists with tasks that can be assigned to specific team members
- A comment section where project managers can leave feedback
- Different views
- Tags that indicate topic, relevance, or progress
- Customizable fields
3) Document everything
Asynchronous communication works so long as you can keep track of all the meaningful conversations going on at your company—whether you’re a team of five or 50.
Create and outline a documentation process for important conversations that happen in public and private channels. Ensure it’s included in your knowledgebase and part of your onboarding training.
For example, create a live document for specific projects to have an accessible record that documents all decisions made. Or, if you have multiple clients or customers, have a “Client Notes” document that you update every time you talk to your customer.
Wrapping up — You don’t need live conversations—but you do need efficient communication practices
As long as you streamline communication, you don’t need everyone to be online for essential conversations to happen.
Build a culture that encourages asynchronous communication by setting clear expectations with your team, investing in the proper digital infrastructure, and documenting all important conversations.