Asynchronous Communication First: What, Why, and How
(Cover Image Source: Dribbble)
Remote working has become the new normal. Reaching over from your cube to your colleague next to you for a quick chat is history for a lot of people in today's workforce. Exchanges of information used to happen in real-time and in person, then we had instant chat tools and video conferences, and now even those are not news, as employees might as well still text each other even when they sit in the same space.
This also means communication at work starts to be independent of time and space. In this new normal, asynchronous communication becomes the way to connect with your colleagues day in and day out. When done well and in combination with your synchronous channels, teams can enjoy clearer communication and better efficiency, especially when they are dispersed across locations and timezones.
This blog will share the definition of asynchronous communication, what benefits it brings, and how you can master it to make remote working easier (and if possible, enjoyable).
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication is all about sharing messages, updates, and information without the need for an immediate response. This means the people you are communicating with do not have to be "present" in real-time, and both sides should be able to get as much done and shared in their own time and space.
Asynchronous communication is the basis for remote working, where being present at the same time can be challenging. It allows us to communicate at our own pace, rather than feeling the pressure to reply to everything as soon as it comes in.
Asynchronous communication is not new to human beings. Writing letters on paper and sending them through post mail was in fact asynchronous communication, when there was no technology or transportation to help people be present and gather in the same place easily. We were not challenged by space and time starting yesterday; we built our patience on the exchange of information long ago by waiting for a postman to come.
Even with synchronous channels at the workplace such as audio and video calls, asynchronous ways are still widely used. Sending emails, co-writing a report on a web-based doc, scheduling a text message to be sent in someone's morning time, or receiving project updates and reminders automatically based on deadlines. (By the way, you can actually do all of these in one place and there is no need to jump between different platforms and apps. Learn more about how here.)
Why asynchronous communication first: 5 benefits you should know
Express better: Room for thinking before rushing the response out
We all have times when we knew we could've said it better when looking back, but the message was out already. Because asynchronous communication is independent of time, there is no urge to respond on the spot. This means you are able to take some time to read through everything, make sure you understand the question correctly, and put together a nice little paragraph that addresses all the needs in a clear and concise way.
Even when you hit the return button too quickly sometimes, a lot of tools (including Lark) now allow you to come back and edit your messages or comments, leaving room for improvement in your own asynchronous window.
More inclusive: Let the shyest speak out
When sitting in the same meeting and exchanging ideas in real-time, people behave differently. You have extroverts expressing themselves passionately, while some people may start to get quiet. While meetings are great for real-time conversations, they might harm the diversity of voices and ideas the team can get: not everyone is given enough time and space to react and speak up.
Asynchronous communication relieves the social pressures of speaking up in front of crowds and the worry of not being able to express oneself clearly. Instead, everyone can use asynchronous methods, such as commenting on a doc, sharing feedback in bullets or paragraphs, or sometimes just hitting a thumb-up to show consensus.
Retain context: You won't miss out as all is saved
The fear of missing out forces a lot of people to use instant chat almost like a real-time meeting at work, as they worry they might miss important updates or messages and cause a delay in anything. But the beauty of asynchronous communication actually lies in the ability to retain all the information. Because communication happens independently of time, everything from messages, emails, to documents is saved in order for people to retrieve them in full in their own working hours. Plus, given the right tool, you are able to pin important documents, chats, and sheets on top of your workspace to let the teams know what to read first.
Less waiting: Boost team productivity
We all receive a "Hi" from someone via chat and then never hear more sometimes. The clock is ticking, but there isn't enough information for you to act on. With synchronous communication (or, when you are trying to communicate in real-time using asynchronous channels), there can be some waiting time to collect the context, and sometimes it requires the grunt work of putting piecemeal information in by yourself.
With asynchronous communication, the density of information you share gets higher. In order to get your counterpart to act independently, you will need to provide all the information needed altogether, instead of sending it bit by bit over several days. And the productivity lift actually works both ways - you don't have to wait for your counterpart to come back with more questions since all the information is packaged and shared; you can move to the next task, and optimize your own time management too.
Peace of mind: Less pressure to stay present
Asynchronous communication is the way of collaboration for today's distributed teams, especially when they work across time zones or adapt to different working schedules. What's more, it is also interpreted by many as a signal, an attitude, and a mindset. By allowing and encouraging asynchronous communication at work, you also give everyone on the team some peace of mind. Teams across timezones know that they don't have to stand by 24/7 to answer everything the moment they receive it; in addition, they will also have solutions to stay connected when the exchange of information does not happen in real-time, and set up reasonable expectations on when to hear back from whom. Better work-life balance, a happier team, and stronger results.
Now let's take a look at how teams can leverage asynchronous communication to achieve the stress-free, productive teamwork we just envisioned above.
How to leverage async: 5 things to start practicing
Asynchronous communication doesn't come in full shape overnight. It actually requires a good period of practice by the whole team and needs to be implemented step by step. Here are some tips that a team can consider implementing step by step.
Note that synchronous communication is still necessary for a lot of situations. To learn more about how to choose between sync and async, read more here.
1. Encourage async first at work
In order to get a team started on asynchronous communication and eventually make it part of the work rhythm, there is no better way to lead by example. This helps reduce a lot of hesitance and the mind reading of "how my manager will see me if I don't reply immediately", as the managers start to promote and practice asynchronous communication by themselves.
Here are a few actions managers can try at the beginning of implementation.
PSA: Announce the efforts to leverage asynchronous communication, including what it means to the team, the benefits of adopting it, and examples of when and how to use asynchronous communication. It's good practice to give examples and frameworks to help employees make the best judgments.
Promote good writing: in asynchronous communication, being able to explain things in an organized, expressive way in writing becomes more important in order for the team to understand what you mean when you are not online to explain further. This can start with simple tricks, such as writing in complete sentences, using plain words instead of jargon, and leveraging things such as bullets, bolds, and more on the messages you send to highlight things the team should notice.
Set examples, gradually: begin scanning situations where video conferences, calls, and other synchronous communication are used, and start replacing them with an asynchronous format gradually. You don't have to replace a presentation-style review meeting with 100% doc reading and commenting for everyone overnight. Instead, this meeting could go hybrid. Those who are available can join, then read and comment on the doc at their own pace, with the authors replying to comments at their own speed too. The team can use 10 minutes to discuss feedback that is worth addressing, and team members who can not join the live session can choose to comment on the doc proactively and catch up on the meeting recording.
2. Communicate expressively
In real-time communication, you are usually able to leverage tools such as screen sharing, whiteboard, and more to make your points and can pick up your team's feedback verbally and non-verbally. When switching to async, communication needs to be more expressive with visuals, formats, and reactions clearly spelled out. A few more minutes of thinking and writing will save you and the team many more back-and-forths later on.
Everything in one message: Instead of sending your messages bit by bit, you can put them into a complete paragraph with all the information, such as context, questions, and deadlines, in one message. For complicated items, you can further explain visually using annotated screenshots, screen recordings, mind maps, etc. (See how you can do this on Lark here)
Reaction matters: It's almost impossible to pick up social cues when communicating asynchronously; we all have that time when we might wonder why someone uses a period instead of an exclamation at the end of a "good job". There are many ways to make the reaction and feedback more tangible and public, and it doesn't have to be typed out. Sometimes, a simple emoji can do the job!
3. Plan out time for asynchronous communication
At this point, the team is more accustomed to asynchronous communication. With meetings reduced and real-time communication pressure lightened, you can consider using your calendar in a different way. A calendar at work at this point is less of a place to schedule and drag around meeting invites and more of a time planner for yourself and a place for your team to inquire about.
Plan out time to focus: You can consider starting your day by reviewing work and deadlines from asynchronous conversations and start blocking out time on the calendar for these tasks. This way, your team can also have a better idea of your bandwidth simply by looking at the calendar.
Set clear timelines so that others to plan, too: instead of saying "let's get this done ASAP", you can be more explicit on the timeline the team needs to hit. For example, "We need to submit the materials by January 14, and this team has three days from now to revise the materials based on comments left." This gives the team room to plan out work on their own parts, during their own working hours.
Utilize the in-between times: despite all the planning and coordinating in asynchronous communication, there will be some in-between times when you need to wait for the response in order to move further. These in-between times are great for miscellaneous work, quick planning for the next tasks, or just a short break (we can all use some of that to refresh).
4. Use mute and rejection generously
With the above practice, the teams you are in or work with should be able to start making asynchronous communication a routine and sharing the mindset of async first. With an aligned mindset and habit, it's time to further relieve the pressure of staying present and responsive.
You can start to say no to the "quick calls" that usually turn out to run over an hour and share your comments in 5 minutes on the doc. You can also mute chat groups and notifications that are not of priority and check back only when you need to (and can always unmute when it gets more important later on).
5. Pick the right tool, as always
All the great ideas and tips here need the right tool that helps you practice correctly. When choosing the digital workspace where you and your team start this relay race of collaboration, make sure you look for these values in the platform you use:
Help teams show and tell efficiently: Rich format text and docs and the ability to add annotations easily, so that you can share context and tasks with colleagues with clarity and detail. Plus, the ability to schedule messages and reminders to be sent at the right time to keep the conversation going, without disturbing each other's off-work time.
Make meetings more productive: Meeting solutions with assistance such as auto-transcripts, real-time translations, and the ability to comment on transcripts in a meeting recording for extended discussion, to help teams catch up on meetings in their own time, but know what to do as if they participate in them in real-time.
Make action items manageable and accountable: A task planning and management tool to share reminders and assignments down to individual levels, keeping the team on track and delivering projects on time without messaging back and forth.
While there are independent platforms for each of the tips we provide, Lark is here to save both time and cost caused by toggling between different tools and help teams practice asynchronous communication at work from within one app.
Get in touch with our team today to learn more about how Lark can help your time champion asynchronous communication and run a successful relay race.