Study after study after study into remote work has made one thing clear: Remote workers are more productive than their office-bound counterparts. 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.
While I think remote work is the future, asynchronous communication 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.
What is asynchronous communication?
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.
All 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 an asynchronous form of communication. A 2015 study conducted by Yahoo Labs found that the most common email response time was just 2 minutes.
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 an 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”).
The core problems with 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 requires constant context switching and makes creating large, uninterrupted chunks of time during the workday impossible.
|Examples of Shallow Work||Examples of Deep Work|
|Processing the emails in your inbox||Drafting a launch plan for a new feature|
|Responding to colleagues on the team with real-time messaging tools like Slack||Programming|
|Attending status update meetings||Researching information on a specific problem|
|Making phone calls to arrange logistics||Preparing for an upcoming keynote presentation|
- 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 sub-optimal 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
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 leads to 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!).
- 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.
- Time zone equality. Communication between time zones becomes smooth, No one is at an informational disadvantage because of the time zone they work in. That means you’re not limiting your hiring pool to certain time zones. You can build a stellar and truly diverse team from anywhere in the world.
But! You still need synchronous communication too
We need a mix of synchronous communication where it makes sense: for example, in 1-on-1 meetings or team retreats. It’s hard to build rapport and personal relationships with only written communication. In the words of Daft Punk, “we are human after all”.
Here are some of the things we do to build personal connections on the team:
- Everyone has at least one monthly 1-on-1 with their direct supervisor to touch base, discuss roadblocks, set professional development goals, etc.
- Organize monthly casual team video hangouts where people from different teams can get together to chat about non-work things.
In general, use synchronous communication when the following is true:
- You want to build rapport with people (e.g., a 1-on-1 or team meeting).
- You need to provide critical feedback or discuss other sensitive topics.
- You have a lot of unknowns and you want to brainstorm different ideas and solutions.
- There are a lot of moving variables and you want to bring everyone on the same page quickly, e.g., via a project kickoff meeting.
- A crisis happens that requires immediate attention, e.g., a server crashes. We use Telegram with the notifications turned on at all times for emergency communications only.
Synchronous communication should be the exception, not the rule.