Could asynchronous communication be the solution to workplace inefficiency?
Recent global shifts to home offices and hybrid work models beg the question: could all of those meetings have been emails?
And the truth is, yeah, most of them could have been. Real-time communication chews up a lot of hours that’d be better spent on meaningful tasks, but instead, another redundant meeting it is. *eye-roll*
Imagine how much more productive your team would be if they could focus on completing important projects without their Slack channels blowing up. Or if they had time to generate creative ideas instead of being put on the spot in a conference call.
Could asynchronous communication be the solution to inefficient, uninspired workplace problems? Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.
What Is Asynchronous Communication Anyway?
Freelancers, remote teams, and even social media users rely on asynchronous communication daily. And before the internet existed, voicemails, letters, and fax machines did the job. The point is that async communication isn’t new, even if you aren’t familiar with the term.
So what is asynchronous communication, then? Well, it’s a fancy way of referring to communication that doesn’t require an instant response. These days, it almost always involves a screen.
Emails are a classic example but think of discussion boards or project management tools like Notion and Trello too. None of these platforms require all parties to converse in real-time. Sure, you can tag folks, but it’s more of a “respond at your own pace” type of thing. And that’s the defining feature of async communication.
So, What’s Synchronous Communication Then?
Synchronous communication is a conversation that happens in real-time. It’s not always face-to-face, though that’s the best example. Someone speaks, and the other responds right away — you’re not waiting 3-5 business days for a reply. It’s instantaneous.
But it’s not limited to IRL chats. Phone calls, video chats, and instant messaging are also forms of synchronous communication. It’s any conversation where you’re expected to be present the moment it’s occurring, not catching up later.
Synchronous Communication vs. Asynchronous Communication: Where’s the Line?
If only the differences between synchronous and asynchronous work were that straightforward. But in a world that glorifies hustle culture, of course, the lines get blurred. *Sigh.*
See, communication type is about more than just the platform — it’s about how we use it. Traditionally slower-paced tools like email seemingly align with async work, but they can be easily abused.
Does your boss expect you to reply to their message immediately when you hear the *buzz* of a notification — even when you’re off the clock? Then that’s not asynchronous communication: it’s synchronous. Or, on the other hand, do you have a friend who knows you’ll only text back once you have the mental clarity to do so? Well, that’s async!
Understanding the Expectations
Synchronous communication can quickly and sneakily take over your life. (I see you checking Slack before saying “Good morning” to your partner.) You may not realize how much you prioritize immediacy until you examine what others expect from you — and what you expect from them.
Here’s a temperature check: if you see that someone opened your message three hours ago but hasn’t replied, how does it make you feel? If you’re hurt, offended, enraged even, chances are you’re expecting synchronous communication from that person.
Whereas if you’re expecting async communication, you likely won’t have an adverse reaction to an opened message. You’d trust that the other person will reply when they can, not when they see it.
How Asynchronous Communication Can Boost Productivity
Studies have shown that async communication benefits entire companies, not just individuals. So if you’re looking to upgrade your team’s efficiency, it’s time to address your communication schedules.
Schedule Work Around Your Productivity Cycle
Nine to fives cater to 50% of people: those whose sleep patterns follow the sun. But what about the other half of the population? Unless you make your own schedule, you’re forced to adapt.
But the thing is, tons of folks reach peak productivity before the work-day begins or after it ends. No amount of coffee will change that. Asynchronous work and communication can help these folks thrive, though.
Allows People to Communicate at Their Own Pace
Some people have their best ideas when put on the spot. Others…not so much. Hey, many of us find greatness in our spontaneous shower thoughts! One of the joys of async communication is how it alleviates that thinking-on-demand pressure. Instead, folks can take time to collect their thoughts, often offering a more genuine or creative response.
More Time Dedicated to Meaningful Work
Most people don’t get into the workforce dreaming of dedicating 80% of their day writing emails or sitting in on meetings. Yet, that’s the reality. Of course, collaboration is incredibly valuable, but spending more time talking about work than actually working doesn’t benefit anyone.
Supports Hybrid Work Models
Asynchronous communication helps level the playing field between office-bound and remote teams by keeping everyone on the same page. Paper trails and streamlined memos mean WFH folks aren’t missing crucial updates around the office.
Got any team members in another time zone? Async supports their working schedules, too, so you can seamlessly collaborate with people worldwide.
Eliminate the Cycle of “Shallow Work”
Picture this: you’ve just settled into the flow of a project when you’re suddenly interrupted by an “urgent” message that isn’t so urgent after all. But after returning to your project, you just can’t get back in the zone. Sound familiar?
Those pesky distractions are called “shallow work:” low priority, surface-level tasks that chew up your time. And they’re more costly than you think. It can take nearly half an hour to return to your pre-interruption productivity. Switching to async communication allows folks to embrace focused time and worry about their inbox later.
Finished Work Frees Up the Mind
Paused tasks become prioritized by our brains regardless of their actual importance levels. Say you get halfway through planning an office party when you get pulled into a last-minute conference call. Well, don’t be surprised if you’re more focused on which cake flavor to order than the reports you’re giving.
With asynchronous communication, you can chat between tasks — not in the middle of them. So chances are, you’ll find yourself more concentrated on the conversation at hand when other loose ends are tied up.
Allows People to Be Human First
We are all complex humans who don’t exist in a bubble. We have real-life things going on, and our careers are just one aspect of a much broader picture. Asynchronous communication makes room for people to exist as real humans, not working robots.
Maybe you received bad news before work and can’t bear to small talk at the water cooler today. Or maybe your ADHD has you hyper-focusing on the most inspired work of your life, and a phone call would obliterate your train of thought. Asynchronous work is also a gift to parents who can now pick up their kids from school without getting the boss’s stink-eye.
When Synchronous Communication Meets Always-On Culture
Burnout. It’s a word you’ve heard before, and it’s what happens when our nervous systems are in overdrive. Our bodies aren’t made to be in a state of emergency 24/7. Yet, that’s precisely what urgency culture does to us.
Synchronous communication forces folks to stay on their toes all day long. You never know when an abrupt context switch will make you drop everything and be present elsewhere. Eventually, you learn to anticipate these harsh shifts, and it becomes a struggle to stay in deep-work mode — even if interruptions don’t occur.
Noticing you aren’t working as efficiently as you “should” can be a huge hit to your sense of self. You might start to question your competency, dread going to the office, and feel your productivity drop even more.
But workflow isn’t the only thing compromised by on-demand culture. When everything commands your attention, it’s the things that don’t invade your boundaries that get pushed to the back burner. Relationships, hobbies, self-care — all the things that make you who you are outside of work: those are the first to go.
Overextending yourself at work doesn’t make you an office all-star. It makes you prone to burnout. Not only is that a worst-case scenario for your physical and mental health, but your team will also suffer.
Always-on culture serves no one and harms everyone.
How to Find the Perfect Communication Balance for Your Team
Async communication may have a whole slew of benefits (can you say “mental health preservation?”), but hashing things out in real-time just makes sense sometimes. It’s all about finding a happy medium that combats always-on culture while staying connected.
Examine Your Definition of “Urgency”
You might be waiting longer for a reply when working with remote teams, but it’s a trade-off. Communication delays are inherent to asynchronous work, but it poses the question: how many emails or meetings actually require immediate attention? Probably fewer than you think.
Now consider the productivity delays those comms are causing. Which is genuinely more pressing? Sometimes, sharing an urgent memo does take the cake. And that’s okay! It’s not about banning synchronous communication, just re-examining its necessity.
Have Some Faith in Remote Work
A little trust goes a long way. Shifting from in-office to remote work strikes fear in many supervisors. How do you know your team is doing what they say they are if you can’t monitor them? Well, employee monitoring is hardly helpful and is detrimental to workplace morale. People thrive when given more freedom — and the same is true for asynchronous communication.
Skip the constant check-ins, and let your remote team prove that they can deliver. Schedule real-time meetings out of necessity, not out of fear.
Emphasize Detailed Digital Discussions
Thoughtful communication beats rapid back-and-forth every time — asynchronous or not. Provide your team with necessary details, points, and goals before engaging in group discussions, as Amazon famously began doing years ago. This streamlined approach prevents redundancy and fosters more meaningful responses.
The same can be done with fully async teams too. Ensure all relevant team members can access project descriptions, conversations, and notes in context using tools like Trello. Then, encourage your team to use these resources thoughtfully and thoroughly to minimize needless repetition.
Maintain a Sense of Community
Remote work plus async communication can equal loneliness. Fast. So while that office chatter may distract productivity, it’s also helpful in bursts to maintain job satisfaction. Continue fostering connection through synchronous brainstorms, scheduled check-ins (in moderation), and real-time discussions on sensitive matters.
A hybrid work model can also help squash isolation. Just ensure your expectations for in-office communications are transparent (and reasonable). Remember, a staff member’s presence doesn’t speak to their availability.
Minimize the Messaging
Even if you don’t fully transition to asynchronous communication, your team will still benefit from fewer notifications. This can look like offering more independence with projects, scheduling weekly check-in times, and providing all necessary information in one email to avoid back-and-forth.
Encourage Workplace Boundaries
Don’t expect your team to reply when off the clock? Tell them that! Encourage your staff to stop working when the shift ends. Set up email signatures that include your working hours or try website-blocking platforms like Freedom to dissolve the always-on mentality. And most of all, lead by example. Workplace boundaries should apply to employees of every level, from intern to CEO.