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What is Asynchronous Communication?

Introduction

Anton Cherkasov

Anton Cherkasov

Anton is a founder of Focus, which is a team management platform. He is also a writer in HackerNoon, The Startup, Good Audience, and other media. Previously Anton has worked in Wildberries (#1 eCommerce store in Russia). He is falling in love with growth hacking, product management, and football.


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Asynchronous Communication

What is Asynchronous Communication?

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What is asynchronous communication

Asynchronous Communication is a key element for team productivity even if your team is not remote. Maybe you’ll be surprised – asynchronous communication is not only more effective but also helps people to complete the most important work and feel fulfillment. Let’s check how it works and how to build effective asynchronous communication.

Different studies show that productivity is not deterred by the shift to remote work. Why?

Let me tell you a short story. Meet John, who is a software developer in a tech company. He is a very nice guy who likes to help people. 

John picture

Right now, John tries to understand why Sylvia can’t export reports from their CRM. He is close to solving this issue…

At that moment, Ann is calling him.

Ann picture

John is a nice guy and loves to help other people. He postpones his job and answers the call: “Hey John, could you please help me change the button on the website…” Of course, he can. It doesn’t take a lot of time. A few minutes later, John solved this thing. Ann is happy. 

John is trying to remember what he worked on before the call. “Why we can’t export reports? Okay, let’s start from the beginning to find the reason for this problem.” 

Meanwhile, the team lead has created the new tasks for John recently. The to-do list is growing. John begins to feel nervous: “Why can’t I finish everything in a time-bound manner?” His anxiety becomes stronger. However, he is still a nice guy who likes to help other people. 

Suddenly Slack channel burst with dozens of messages. Users complain because they can’t log in to the system. Something wrong with their authentication. John is watching logs now to find out what happened and fix this problem. 

An hour later, everything is fixed. He is glad and wants to take a small break. But Monica is calling him at that moment. 

“Hi John, my client is tortured me. He wants to get more time for trying our product. Can you extend him a free plan for few days?” John is tired and without thinking accepted this request. He spends some time doing it. Also, he remembers that their tech side in pricing is not good and he should find the time to improve it. 

John gets back to the task manager and sees that he has 3 new tasks. And he still hasn’t solved the problem with reports export.

This is how it goes day after day. John often has to answer the same questions. And he still doesn’t have enough time to complete everything in a time-bound manner. 

He even read the book about time management to be more effective. However, the result is the same. He still doesn’t have enough time for effective time management. 

The end of the story. Sounds similar?

The real problem

This story is not about time management. It’s about effective communication. Communication might be 2 types:

  • Asynchronous communication – when you send the message and don’t expect to get an immediate answer. Think about email. 
  • Synchronous communication – real-time communication when you expect to get an answer at the same exact moment in time. 

Asynchronous communication examples

  • Email
  • Ticket in help desk system
  • Project management tools: Basecamp, Asana, Trello, etc
  • Messengers: Slack, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Telegram, WhatsApp, etc (the worst example for async communication because people still is waiting for a fast answer in the messenger)
  • Focus (for status updates, stands, 1:1 meetings, etc)

Synchronous communication examples

  • Live meetings
  • Phone call
  • Zoom, Skype, etc
  • Messengers when you reply in real-time

Synchronous communications have several big downsides:

  • Continuous distraction. Any brainwork requires high concentration and focus. There were a lot of researches on this topic – how much time do we need to get back to work after distraction. Numbers are different, but the result is the same. It takes a lot of time and our energy to get back to work and repair the previous level of productivity. 
  • As the result, it increases stress. The person achieves less when teammates distract him/her during the workday. We spend more energy to make up for a lost time. Usually, it increases the level of stress. And it leads us to burnout.
  • Priority on communication instead of focus on what matters the most. I often heard from people: “How can I turn off my phone, so people will not able to reach me?” However, if someone turns off a phone, people who REALLY want to reach the person will find the way how to do it. 
  • Reducing the quality of conversations and answers. During a call or a meeting, sometimes you don’t have enough time to think deeply about the best answer. As there result, you make not the best solutions.

The benefits of asynchronous communication

Another way is asynchronous communication. And you get opposite results: 

  • No distraction. Nobody calls you and you can do more focused work. Nobody distracts you during eating another “Pomodoro”. Increase productivity. You better plan the work. Reduce stress.
  • Better answers. You can better formulate thoughts in the written mode. Also, it helps to document processes. John would like it.
  • Communication is saved. You can think more before answer. As the result, you get better answers. And it’s written answers that you can use in FAQ then.
  • Better goals. Asynchronous communication requires thinking twice and better formulate goals or tasks. 
  • You can work from different time zones and it’s not necessary to be in the same place.  

Downsides of asynchronous communication

However, asynchronous communication is not ideal, and here are several downsides:

  • Wait to respond
  • Misunderstanding
  • Not so emotional as real-time communication

It shows that you can’t remove sync communication in your process. However, you can balance these two types of communication to be more effective and reduce the amount of stress. 

How to balance both types of communication?

It’s hard to imagine how you can achieve your goals when everyone can distract you every time.  

Synchronous communication
When you have a lot of synchronous communication

On the other hand, asynchronous communication is respect for your time, plans, and focus. 

The right answer is balancing both types of communication. Avoid meetings and discussions that require much time. It’s important to identify topics that might wait and really urgent questions. For example, Hailley Griffis wrote how they communicate asynchronously at Buffer. And I agree with her:

Most things aren’t urgent. Knowing the difference between urgent and important communication is crucial.

Hailley Griffis

Anne-Laure Le Cunff recommends to document everything. If it’s not documented, it doesn’t exist. 

GitLab wrote Async 3.0, which is a great article about communication in their company. They share examples of asynchronous communication on GitLab teams. 

Asynchronous communication in Gitlab
The list of async communication in GitLab

When to start asynchronous first

Our experience and GitLab shows that it’s crucial to avoid meetings and calls for the following events:

  1. Status updates
  2. FYIs and process documentation
  3. Meeting about meeting

It’s better to use asynchronous communication. For example, you can gather daily check-ins instead of daily calls to align your team. In Focus, it takes only a few minutes to complete the form and see what’s going in your team.  

Completing daily check-in Focus

When to keep synchronous communication

At the same time, it’s clear that you can’t avoid sync communication. It allows building rapport faster and quickly delivers context to a group. Here are the main activities that it’s better to keep in a real-time way.

  1. Sales calls
  2. First-time meetings with external parties
  3. First-time meetings with new team members
  4. Important decisions (when stakes are high)
  5. Supporting your direct reports (e.g. regular 1-on-1 meetings with documenting highlights of the meetings)

Tools for asynchronous communication

These tools we use to not distract each other in the team:

  • Focus: for goal setting, daily check-ins, weekly updates, and 1-on-1s
  • Github: to maintain the software
  • Dropbox: for documents and files
  • Google Docs: for documents and spreadsheets
  • Slack: for urgent communication 
  • Zoom: for video calls

It makes sense to say that we turn off notifications in most cases. Especially, in a messenger. You know, it’s hard to focus when you see the bunch of new messages in Slack.

Conclusion

We believe in the future of work in smart balance in asynchronous and synchronous communications. Use tools that increase transparency and avoid distraction. Set an emergency mechanism for how to connect in the case if you reduce the amount of real-time communication. And join Focus to try async check-ins, updates, and other forms of asynchronous communication. 

P.S. All names and events are fictitious. Any coincidences with characters and facts from real life are pure coincidences.

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Anton Cherkasov

Anton Cherkasov

https://usefocus.co/

Anton is a founder of Focus, which is a team management platform. He is also a writer in HackerNoon, The Startup, Good Audience, and other media. Previously Anton has worked in Wildberries (#1 eCommerce store in Russia). He is falling in love with growth hacking, product management, and football.

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