Asynchronous Communication: The Real Reason Remote Workers Are More Productive

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 WorkExamples of Deep Work
Processing the emails in your inboxDrafting a launch plan for a new feature
Responding to colleagues on the team with real-time messaging tools like SlackProgramming
Attending status update meetingsResearching information on a specific problem
Making phone calls to arrange logisticsPreparing 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.

[Workflow Guide] How to Organize Your Life with GTD

This guide will introduce you to GTD principles and workflows, and what we think is the most intuitive way to implement them. The key to GTD isn’t the specific tools you choose but rather the habits you employ on a daily basis to think about and prioritize your work.

Getting Things Done, or GTD for short is a popular task management system created by productivity consultant David Allen. The methodology is based on a simple truth: The more information bouncing around inside your head, the harder it is to decide what needs attention. As a result, you spend more time thinking about your tasks than actually doing them. When information piles up in your head, it leads to stress, overwhelm, and uncertainty.

Allen observed that our brains are much better at processing information than storing it (“your head’s a crappy office”). His GTD method lays out how to dump all your mental clutter into an external system and then organize it so you can focus on the right things at the right times. When your GTD workflow is set upright, you’ll be able to confidently answer “what should I be working on?” at any given moment without worrying that you might forget something important you need to do later.

Try GTD if you…

  • Feel overwhelmed by the number of things you need to keep track of
  • Worry about forgetting small details
  • Wear lots of hats in your job and life
  • Starts lots of projects but has trouble finishing them
  • Have never GTD’d before (everyone should GTD at least once in their lives)

The GTD method is made up of five simple practices to systematize the clutter in your brain and get things done:

  1. Capture Everything: Capture anything that crosses your mind. Nothing is too big or small! These items go directly into your inboxes.
  2. Clarify Process what you’ve captured into clear and concrete action steps. Decide if an item is a project, next action, or reference.
  3. Organize: Put everything into the right place. Add dates to your calendar, delegate projects to other people, file away reference material and sort your tasks.
  4. Review: Frequently look over, update, and revise your lists.
  5. Engage: Get to work on the important stuff.

While GTD requires an upfront investment in time and energy to set up, it pays off with consistent use. You’ll no longer worry about forgetting a deadline or missing an important task. Instead, you’ll be able to respond to incoming information calmly and prioritize your time confidently.

Some very specific but seemingly mundane behaviors, when applied, produce the capacity to exist in a kind of sophisticated spontaneity, which, in my experience, is a key element to a successful life.— David Allen

Though the basis of GTD is these five simple steps, they’re not always easy to execute. GTD doesn’t require a specific tool, app, or product. Allen doesn’t even make a case for digital over analog systems. Rather the key to any lasting productivity system is to keep it as simple as possible and to use it as often as possible. Your tool should be versatile enough to handle your most complex projects yet simple enough to maintain when you’re low on energy.

Gender bias

Gender bias

Without realizing it, we all use language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’. Society has certain expectations of what men and women are like, and how they differ, and this seeps into the language we use. Think about “bossy” and “feisty”: we almost never use these words to describe men.

This linguistic gender-coding shows up in your position description as well, and research has shown that it puts women off applying for jobs that are advertised with masculine-coded language.

This site is a quick way to check whether a job advert has the kind of subtle linguistic gender-coding that has this discouraging effect.

See Link

The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole

In his 2015 cover story for Toronto Life magazine, Desmond Cole exposed the racist actions of the Toronto police force, detailing the dozens of times he had been stopped and interrogated under the controversial practice of carding. The story quickly came to national prominence, shaking the country to its core and catapulting its author into the public sphere. Cole used his newfound profile to draw insistent, unyielding attention to the injustices faced by Black Canadians on a daily basis. 

His book, The Skin We’re In further expands a month-by-month, comprehensive picture of entrenched, systemic inequality. Urgent, controversial, and unsparingly honest, The Skin We’re In is a vital text for anti-racist and social justice movements and highlights how prevelant racism is outside of the USA.  

A few notable quotes:

  • “it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—white settlers deny Black communities the necessities of life, then blame us for the social dysfunction that follows.” ― Desmond Cole
  • “White supremacy encourages the people it benefits to create their own parallel universe, their own set of facts and explanations about the existence of and prevalence of racism. Even as white people insist that “no one really knows what happened”, they can immediately share an explanation that eases their anxiety and shame.” ― Desmond Cole

The act of being an Ally to BIPOC requires an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating to work to end oppressions in solidarity with BIPOC who are systemically disempowered. Never stop learning. 

Killing Me Softly

Librarian Fobazi M. Ettarh just released a game Killing Me Softly: A game demonstrating how it feels to suffer microaggressions and acculturative stress day after day

Killing Me Softly is a web-based text game that uses the Choose Your Own Adventure format to allow players to navigate through the lives of a character as they experience microaggressions, which are “commonly defined as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.”

Players can choose one of two characters: Alex, a white, able-bodied, gay man with a large social circle; or Leslie, a Black, straight, disabled, woman who has a partner. As you move through Alex’s or Leslie’s days — including interactions with friends, coworkers, and strangers — you make choices that affect subsequent experiences and choices, choices that narrow as the microaggressions mount.

Like many serious games, Killing Me Softly does not have a happy ending — a happy ending isn’t the goal. This game does a fantastic job of showing how microaggressions are experienced and accumulate over the course of days, weeks, and months for many including people of color, LGBT+ folks, and disabled folks.

This makes a great teaching game — a single playthrough takes about 15 minutes, and playing through both characters multiple times effectively demonstrates that, while making choices about each character’s response leads to different outcomes initially, microaggressions are persistent. I highly recommend this game, why not head over to Killing Me Softly and give it a try?