Asynchronous communication is often seen as the holy grail towards creating a scalable and efficient remote teams, but what does that mean, and why is it so crucial?
What is Asynchronous Communication?
"Asynchronous" or short "async" describes all forms of communication where messages aren't transmitted for instant reading. Instead, async communication often runs over a persistent medium and is archived on that medium, in order to be read asynchronously.
A prime example of asynchronous communication is e-mail, or even physical mail: Instead of creating an instant (or synchronous) stream of messages, it saves the messages on a medium (a mail server, or - well - paper) and is only received by the recipient when they decide to read it. Documentation and written-down content is also a great example.
On the other hand, examples for synchronous communication are video calls or instant messaging, where the goal is to always have a continuous and instant stream.
Why is it important?
The best all-remote teams run on asynchronous communication. The reason for that is simple: Flexibility, availability and timezones.
When working remotely, you can never be sure whether a person is available, busy or out of "office". If you're relying on quick instant messages, chances are that you're getting disappointed. With team members in other timezones, it can also feel predatory to send messages through a medium that expects instant replies.
Instant messaging, as well as calls and other synchronious ways of communication can also break the flow of work. Being able to set time aside every hour to go through messaging promotes healthier and more productive work.
How does it work?
Instead of sending quickfire messages that create notifications and distractions, or solving all issues live on a video call, a team should resort to using async communication methods. That might be e-mail, an async tool like Twist, or simply using instant messaging more thoughtful and with less notifications.
More than anything, doing async communication is a mindset, and not a tool issue. Employees coming from a fast-paced environment might need to learn the art of not waiting for replies, or expecting them instantly. The power of async communication is that it should not matter much whether a response is coming in a minute, or 10 hours.
That's a different way to think about things, and that often leads to some problems:
- Things aren't written down and documented, so people have questions and are blocked until they have an answer
- Messages are crafted quickly and have gaps – need clarification which takes more time
- This type of work feels disconnected, and people can start feeling lonely
- Even with async communication – if not done properly – people miss out on things and have issues catching up
How can I and my team make this work?
To make this work out, you need to actively employ async communication methods and train your team on them. There are a lot of resources out there, that you should definitely read:
- GitLab's Handbook on Communication
- Twist's (Doist) Guide for Async Communication
- Doist on Async Communication
- Upwork's Piece on Async Communication
- Toptal on Building Culture
Those are a few heavy reads, so if you want to have the quick, boiled-down version, let's get into it:
- For day-to-day communication, you should choose an async medium like e-mail or tools allowing you to work asynchronously (Slack can count if used right, GitLab uses GitLab!)
- Messages should be longform, explain situations in details to a point where there are no pressing questions open. Encourage people to re-read messages a few times or even use a grammar app. It helps!
- There should be as much written-down information as possible.
- If a discussion takes a few back-and-forths, it's no longer suitable for async. Fork out to a video call or similar.
- All things synchronized should be recorded and archived too for people not available to join.
- Transparency-First. Most discussions should happen publicly or on record
- It's a good idea to assign a person in charge to each discussion, and making sure that it doesn't die or get forgotten
That's really just the basics, and we'd still recommend you to read some of the pieces above!