Article reposted from HERE Asynchronous Communication: The Real Reason Remote Workers Are More Productive. Async isn’t just for remote teams.
What’s not entirely clear is why.
Yes, people gain back time (and sanity) by avoiding rush hour commutes. They avoid the distractions of the office. They regain a sense of control over their workdays. They have more time to dedicate to family, friends, and hobbies.
But apart from the commute, all of those benefits aren’t necessarily the result of location independence, but rather the byproduct of asynchronous communication — giving employees control over when they communicate with their teammates.
While I think remote work is the future, I believe that asynchronous communication is an even more important factor in team productivity, whether your team is remote or not.
Many company leaders are asking themselves if they should embrace remote work. Very few are asking themselves if they should embrace a more asynchronous workstyle. While I think remote work is the future, I believe that asynchronous communication (or async, for short) is an even more important factor in team productivity, whether your team is remote or not. Not only does async produce the best work results, but it also lets people do more meaningful work and live freer, more fulfilled lives.
Drawing on the experience of my own remote and largely async company, Doist, this article will explain what asynchronous communication is, how it drives team productivity, and the concrete steps you can take to start building a more asynchronous workplace.
What is asynchronous communication?
Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. For example, you send an email. I open and respond to the email several hours later.
In contrast, synchronous communication is when you send a message and the recipient processes the information and responds immediately. In-person communication, like meetings, are examples of purely synchronous communication. You say something, I receive the information as you say it, and respond to the information right away.
But digital forms of communication, like real-time chat messaging, can be synchronous too. You send a message, I get a notification and open up Slack to read the message and respond to what you said in near real-time. Even email is treated largely as a synchronous form of communication. A 2015 study conducted by Yahoo Labs found that the most common email response time was just 2 minutes.
Before we dig into the benefits of a more async approach to teamwork, let’s take a look at why we should question our current, largely synchronous ways of working and communicating.
The problems with real-time-all-the-time communication
If employees are consistently more productive when working away from the office, there’s something broken about the modern workplace.
According to the Harvard Business Review article “Collaborative Overload”, the time employees spend on collaboration has increased by 50% over the past two decades. Researchers found it was not uncommon for workers to spend a full 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues in the form of email (on which workers’ spend an average of six hours a day); meetings (which fill up 15 percent of a company’s time, on average); and more recently instant messaging apps (the average Slack user sends an average of 200 messages a day, though 1,000-message power users are “not the exception”).
As one office worker told New York Magazine, “I used to wake up and turn off the alarm and check Tinder. Now I wake up and check Slack.”
This trend toward near-constant communication means that the average knowledge worker must organize their workday around multiple meetings, with the time in between spent doing their work half-distractedly with one eye on email and Slack.
To make matters worse, the rise of mobile technology means that workplace communication is no longer limited to the physical workplace or work hours. We can, and do, check email and respond to messages at any time, day or night. As a result, we’re never fully off the clock. As one office worker told New York Magazine, “I used to wake up and turn off the alarm and check Tinder. Now I wake up and check Slack.”
This highly synchronous way of working would be understandable if it produced results, but there is more and more evidence that all the real-time communication overhead makes it hard to focus, drains employees’ mental resources, and generally makes it more difficult to make meaningful progress on work.
I’ve written before about why we’re betting against real-time team messaging apps, but it’s worth summarizing the core problems and generalizing it to most forms of synchronous communication:
🛎It leads to constant interruptions. Interruptions split people’s attention and make it more difficult to make meaningful progress on work. High-value, cognitively-demanding activities — like coding, writing, designing, strategizing, and problem-solving — require long periods of deep, focused work. Synchronous communication makes creating large, uninterrupted chunks of time during the workday impossible.
🗣It prioritizes being connected over being productive. In real-time environments, you’re incentivized to stay connected and available at all times. If you disconnect, discussions will move on before you even had a chance to respond to, or even see, them. To avoid missing out on crucial decisions and discussions, people try to always be online and in as many meetings as possible, hurting both their wellbeing and productivity.
😰It creates unnecessary stress. The expectation to be constantly available means that workers lack control over their schedules. They spend their workdays reactively responding to requests rather than proactively setting their own agenda. One study found that people compensate for the time lost to workplace interruptions by attempting to work faster, leading to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort”. This type of synchronous culture can quickly lead to burnout.
😣It leads to lower quality discussions and suboptimal solutions. When you have to respond immediately, people don’t have time to think through key issues thoroughly and provide thoughtful responses. Your first response to any given situation is often not your best response.
The benefits of a more asynchronous workplace
Most people accept distractions and interruptions as just a part of doing business, but some companies — like Doist, Gitlab, Zapier, Automattic, and Buffer — are embracing a more asynchronous approach to collaboration. Here are some of the core benefits of giving employees more control over when they connect to communicate with their team:
⏰Control over the workday = happier and more productive employees. In an async environment, there are no set work hours. Employees have almost total control over how they structure their workdays to fit their lifestyles, biorhythms, and responsibilities (like childcare!). Some Doisters work during the night as it suits them the best. I spend an hour with my son every morning, and no one inside my async organization notices.
🤔High-quality communication versus knee-jerk responses. Async communication is admittedly slower, but it also tends to be of higher quality. People learn to communicate more clearly and thoroughly to avoid unnecessary back-and-forths. They have the time to think through a particular problem or idea and provide more thoughtful responses. Instead of knee-jerk responses, people can reply when they’re ready. (As an added benefit, when people have the time to think through their responses, there tend to be fewer unthinking outbursts. Over the last 8 years, we didn’t have a single serious HR issue.)
💆♀️ Better planning leads to less stress. When last-minute, ASAP requests aren’t an option, advanced planning is a must. People learn to plan their workloads and collaborations more carefully to give enough time for coworkers to see and respond to their requests. This leads to less stressful collaborations and ultimately higher quality work.
🔍Deep work becomes the default. Because employees don’t have to stay on top of each message as it comes in, they can block off large chunks of uninterrupted time to do the work that creates the most value for your organization. They can come back to process their messages in batches 1-3 times a day instead of bouncing back and forth between work and messages or meetings.
📝 Automatic documentation and greater transparency. Because most communication happens in writing, key discussions and important information are documented automatically, particularly if you use a more public tool than email. It’s easier to share and reference those conversations later. For example, at Doist instead of asking for or explaining why a certain decision was made or the status of a particular project, we can search for and/or link to the relevant Twist threads.