A look at Async Communication Tools

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In a remote team, day-to-day communication happens asynchronously. While startups try to conquer the synchronous space, there is far less work happening on the other side. Let's take a look.

The classic: Slack

The traditional remote work stack is Slack + Zoom, and that's fair! The two tools perfectly complement each other and connect synchronous and asynchronous communication perfectly.

While Zoom is slowly becoming the undisputed champion in synchronous communication, Slack might need to make way for a different tool at some point. Not because Slack is a bad product, but because it's not truly asynchronous.

Our very own glossary classifies asynchronous communication as follows:

Asynchronous Communication (often referred to as "Async") is a form of communication that doesn't happen instantly. Contrary to synchronous communication – for example phone calls or a face-to-face talk – async communication is usually archived or saved somewhere for future reading. The participants therefore don't need to be present to receive the message.

The first part is definitely true for Slack, but the second part not so much: Slack does work best if used in real-time, when all participants are online. Discussions are sorted in linear channels, without much functionality around organizing discussions in an async manner, leading to offline participants feeling left out.

Slack is also known to be quite aggressive with its notification settings, "do not disturb" functionalities and online indicators, pushing it towards a more real-time, instant messaging tool.

If used right, Slack is the logical choice for remote teams. However, there is no support or guidance within Slack itself, so that it is going to be used right from the start, and it takes a lot of work to get there.

Making it's comeback: E-Mail

With the need of an async communication medium, many organizations are starting to depend more on the traditional e-mail again. That has a good reason, and multinational companies have communicated through e-mail for decades!

  • E-Mails are usually longform and carefully written
  • E-Mail threads are always about a certain topic and usually end when that discussion ends
  • E-Mail threads usually only include the participants of that discussion
  • Today's emails allow rich content, attachments, direct integrations to calendars and meetings
  • E-Mails are meant to be async, just like physical mail

While e-mail itself are mostly staying the same, the clients aren't. Superhuman may be the most notable release of the last few years, but many companies – including Microsoft with MS Teams – is pushing towards a new kind of e-mail experience. E-Mail is getting a second life.

The home-made: Twist & Threads

Quite probably, the best solution for this will come out of a remote team who struggles with this every day.

Both Slack and E-Mail are probably not the end solution for a remote team: They don't offer the right balance between flexibility and thoughtfulness.

In the past few years, a few designated remote communication tools, built and designed by remote teams themselves. One of them is Twist, another one is Threads, and there are countless others.

There are a few things that these products have in common, and what makes them great:

  • Thread-like build structure like e-mails
  • Whole team onboarded on a slack-like space
  • Combination of casual instant messaging and space for thoughtful discussions

This space is one to watch. Who is going to become the Slack of Async Communication?

New Generation: YAC

If you forgot about Slack, and re-imagined remote communication from the ground up, how would that look like?

New generation communication tools mainly like to make use of other mediums of communication than text-only, and that has a good reason.

  • Writing takes a lot more time than speaking
  • Emotions can get lost
  • Reading between lines can lead to conflict
  • Often discourages casual discourse

There's a growing response to that from remote work tools. Video-based standups are a thing, and startups like YAC ("Yelling Across Cubicles") are exploring the audioverse.

YAC is interesting because it took a concept which is – at least amongst the younger generation – very widespread (casual voicenotes), and reused it in a business context. Bundled with great UX and good values, it produced a tool which is helping hundreds of remote teams claim back natural discourse.

While this may not be the most productive way of communicating and organizing information just yet, it's definitely something too look out for as new tools pop up.

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