Remote work has taken the workplace by storm because of the advancements in real-time communications technology and the challenges posed by the pandemic. What makes remote work so enticing is the freedom employees experience: they can set their own work pace and self-manage their workload, more so when asynchronous communication is employed.
As the head of a content writing company, I have experienced first-hand the efficiency of having a primarily asynchronous communication method when it comes to distributing tasks and information dissemination. Asynchronous communication is indeed becoming popular not only because of circumstances the health crisis forced upon us, but because it brings in opportunities for more in-depth work, engaged collaboration, and genuinely productive employees in an increasingly distracting workplace.
Is asynchronous communication the future of work? In a world facing decreased productivity despite technological connectivity, asynchronous communication is the solution to improve workflow. Asynchronous communication lets employees control their time, which produces higher-quality output.
In this article, we will be exploring the value of asynchronous communication and why organizations must avoid the trap of excessive connectivity within their teams. We'll compare the two forms of communication, as well as their respective advantages and disadvantages. Finally, we'll also discuss the future optimization of your organization through the use of asynchronous communication.
As the word suggests, synchronous communication means communication that is "occurring or operating at the same time." What this means is when someone messages you, you respond immediately. Various forms of real-time communication, such as conversations, meetings, and video calls, are synchronous. Even instant messaging could be considered synchronous due to its real-time nature and the fact that you're pressured to reply immediately.
Synchronous communication is anything that is almost real-time, even if it isn't face-to-face. It can be in the form of:
• In-person dialogue with your coworker
• Weekly team conferences
• Project brainstorming
• Zoom video call meetings
• Audio phone calls with your boss
• Instant messages on Slack
• Facebook group chats
• Email (when an immediate response is expected)
According to a Harvard Business Review study, synchronous communication accounts for up to 80% of time spent in the workplace. That is an awful lot of time spent replying to emails and attending meetings instead of concentrating on deep work.
If synchronous communication refers to the simultaneous and real-time, asynchronous communication is the opposite side of the same coin: communication but without the pressure and expectation of an immediate response. What this means is when someone messages you, you can respond later.
Asynchronous communication has been around for a long time, albeit we didn't notice it’s coming. We've always been mesmerized by synchronous communication, from merely talking to your coworker, to speaking on the phone with your boss. We tend to value real-time exchanges as it bounces information instantly. However, emails, the internet, and the shift towards remote work have shed light on the flexibility asynchronous communication provides. Some common, everyday examples are:
• Uploading files to a Google Drive
• Collaboration in platforms such as Trello
• Announcements in a Slack channel
• Print media (i.e., books, newspapers)
• Editing a Google Document at your own pace
• Email (i.e., when you're replying in your free time)
The common theme in these methods is that they don't pressure you to immediately reply, give you time to digest information, and don't disrupt your work momentum. You'll also notice that some platforms such as Slack or email could become both synchronous or asynchronous depending on your approach. If you check them every five minutes and reply to every instant message immediately, you're pretty much connected the whole day. But if you set boundaries and let coworkers know when to expect a reply, you have shifted the platform into a useful asynchronous tool.
With ever-decreasing response times and more ways to communicate synchronously, we feel more connected with each other than ever before. Even during the pandemic, the virtual workplace allows for video call meetings and audio conferences, regardless of physical distance. That sounds like a good thing, but only up to an extent.
The modern world cultivates a culture of excessive connectivity and prizes menial tasks, but this comes at the expense of employees performing meaningful work. The misconception that "synchronous communication gets more work done because it is real-time" contributes to the superficial busy facade we see at offices today.
Answering unnecessary emails, arduously long meetings, and constant status updates can get in the way of accomplishing the organization's real objectives, which demand high cognitive efforts and long bouts of focus. Unfortunately, more people who appear busy are burning out while simultaneously getting less critical work done. We have written a detailed article called, "Workplace Flexibility and Productivity (How Flexibility Can Increase Productivity in an Organization)," which talks about the positive effect flexibility brings for your company.
Imagine a typical workday. You wake up and prepare for work. Before you even get to the office, you've already either checked group chat messages on your phone or received calls from your colleagues. Once you get there, most of your brainpower is dedicated to answering the barrage of emails sent in the morning.
As the day goes by, more calls come in, and your coworker approaches your cubicle for a little chit-chat. You also have a scheduled meeting later that day, and it's probably going to take up the bulk of your workday. Did you accomplish anything worthwhile that day? With all the time wasted on communications, probably not. When you get home, you may still be pressured to check emails and reply to messages on your team's communication platform — Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, etc. There isn't much of a chance for employees to unplug.
The reality of over-connectivity haunts the average employee — synchronous communication takes up a substantial amount of our workday without us even realizing it. With more demands for our time, mental energy, and physical presence, there are negative consequences we can expect to happen, such as:
Coined by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport, deep work is the ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks for prolonged periods with no distractions. Practicing deep work is an increasingly scarce resource, even if it's precious to companies — especially in the digital age where distractions are abundant. Unfortunately, the primarily synchronous way we communicate today makes it impossible to block off a dedicated time slot to concentrate on critical, deep work.
The more time we spend connected, the more we think and feel that we're busy working and interacting with people. But, do the long hours of synchronous communication translate to more output? The answer is no. We are mistaking appearing superficially busy with actually getting tasks done. A study from Stanford University found that there's a sweet spot to hit when it comes to working hours. Productivity declines after 50 hours a week, and every extra hour past 55 hours is functionally worthless.
Organizations could be doing everyone a disservice by being so connected all the time, becoming exhausted from the long hours, and yet having not much work done anyway.
When everyone's connected, there's inherent pressure to be connected as well. After all, not doing so will mean missing out on real-time decision-making with our team. Essentially, we're obligated to participate and react in real-time just because everyone else is doing so. With synchronous communication, we end up with less time to work on the tasks we have to do alone. Excessive connection, long work hours, the pressure to react immediately, and little time to do urgent and critical individual tasks are recipes for unnecessary stress and burnout.
Have you been feeling extra pressured at work lately? In our article "How to Handle Pressure at Work (Examples and Tips for Managing)," we compiled practical advice you can apply to relieve stress from work and be at your best performance.
When we're forced to respond to discussions or answer questions immediately, we'll sometimes regret what we said at a later time. After all, our knee-jerk reactions aren't as thoroughly considered as our potential contributions and ideas if we had the time to think things through. In an overly synchronous environment, we have little time to digest information because of the pressure to respond immediately. The need to answer immediately leads to lower quality contributions.
"Half of all meetings are a waste of time," Steven Rogelberg, a University of North Carolina professor, found in his research. Add that to the growing number of video or audio call meetings because of the pandemic, and his conclusions may be an understatement. We've placed too much importance on meetings when, in reality, most of us can still be on the same page without having to speak or meet in person.
With the disadvantages of an excessively-connected workplace, organizations might find boosts in productivity and overall satisfaction by embracing asynchronous communication forms. To illustrate, here are some outstanding benefits going asynchronous can bring:
In one of our articles named, "Why Remote Work Makes Teams Better?", we found that productivity increased as much as 85% for remote workers.
The main reason? Flexibility. Allowing employees to set their own pace, eliminate distractions, and dedicate time to critical work allows high-quality output production with less time. Even on-site, the same boost in productivity can be imitated if the organization has a predominantly asynchronous communication method. If you're working remotely, our article "How to Keep Productivity on Remote Work" may help you get the job done.
Aside from an increase in productivity, an emphasis on asynchronous communication results in higher employee satisfaction levels. After all, less time stuck in meetings or replying to non-urgent emails frees up space not only for deep work but time for other life responsibilities and extracurricular endeavors. The better work-life balance in your organization will surely leave employees happy and less stressed.
Finally, a flexible schedule and an asynchronous communication strategy open up opportunities for more diverse employees because time zones constraints get eliminated. This inclusive approach to building your team may ultimately improve collaboration, creativity, and talent within your organization.
Instead of employees providing low-quality contributions because of forced interactions and knee-jerk responses, giving employees the time to absorb information and think critically lets them think of creative and inventive ideas and solutions. Of course, synchronous communication can't be removed entirely from the workplace. But when meetings do happen and brainstorming sessions for projects take place, letting thoughts simmer and allowing employees to take their time results in high-quality contributions.
Some organizations have a bias for synchronous communications such as meetings because they believe it ensures everyone is "on the same page." However, asynchronous communication may be more effective when it comes to accessibility and transparency. After all, writing and uploading information digitally, instead of sharing it through speech, instantly documents it for anyone to access or review when needed. With announcements, files, and discussions permanently recorded in various communication channels, employees can refer to them at any time.
Now that you know the advantages asynchronous communication brings, just how exactly could you expect it to manifest at the workplace in the future?
First, we have to accept that synchronous communication will still be relevant in the typical workplace. Even if too much connectivity is unhealthy and unproductive, there are some necessary interactions that asynchronous communication cannot replicate. For one, building rapport with your manager or coworkers requires adequate amounts of interpersonal socialization, daily conversation, and team meetings. Furthermore, gaining vital feedback from superiors might not be well-expressed through written memos alone. Complex projects also need lots of brainstorming and discussions. "Firefighting'' urgent crises will inevitably require real-time communication. Overall, there is always a human element to the workplace that we cannot deny.
Nonetheless, some practices we used to believe should be synchronous could be performed asynchronously. To illustrate, having healthy boundaries in an organization frees up time that would have been wasted on unnecessary replying to messages. A concrete example of this would be employees having a designated time to check and reply to emails. Blocking notifications also allows them to free up mental space and not feel pressured to respond to the rings and dings their gadgets sound.
Re-evaluation of priorities is also key to segregating the urgent tasks with the ones you can put off later. With asynchronous communication, you can effectively employ useful time-management frameworks such as the Eisenhower Matrix because non-urgent tasks stop following you everywhere. Furthermore, replacing common exchanges in the workplace through asynchronous means (such as FAQs, guide manuals, and chatbots) allows employees to stay on track at their own pace, find solutions without taking other people's time, and adapt better with less training.
In the future, we may see even more asynchronous tools as companies leverage technology to allow information to become more transparent and accessible. In an age where everything can be easily stored digitally on the internet, switching to an asynchronous workplace as early as now will provide long-term success for companies. With substantial documentation and analytics, businesses have the opportunity to improve and refine their processes and operational protocols. The usage of asynchronous platforms for every worker ultimately allows for better collaboration because of the accessibility of important information.
Employees still have to learn adequate communication skills to make asynchronous exchanges as meaningful and useful as possible. Knowing that you may only express through written text and you won't be expecting a reply soon, most emails and messages must be as clear and detailed as possible, from setting deadlines, providing links, and including images. Clarity is of utmost importance, especially when the other person doesn't have any chance to ask questions on the spot. Setting realistic time-frames and deadlines are also essential to make asynchronous communication useful while continually emphasizing organizational trust and personal accountability.
The present state of work is remote. The future of work is asynchronous.
How can I apply asynchronous communication to remote work? Excessive connectivity can still creep up to telecommuters despite the physical distance. Setting expectations, maintaining boundaries, and organizing priorities based on urgency allows individuals to maximize the flexibility that asynchronous communication provides. Furthermore, clear and detailed communication is even more essential to effective and productive work. In our article, A Practical Guide To Transitioning To Remote Work, we gave invaluable advice you can apply to ace remote work.
Which form of communication should I implement for my organization? The type of communication strategy you have for the organization largely depends on the nature of your work and the workplace culture you have in your company. Nonetheless, breaking the status quo of synchronous communication may be your best bet. After all, shifting to more asynchronous communication methods will bring countless benefits to your company. All it takes is a proper strategy to make the transition to asynchronous communication work.
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