Sustainability over speed: adopting asynchronous communication

With more people working from home, asynchronous communication will become key to being productive while keeping our sanity. What are its benefits? What strategies can you use to embrace asynchronous communication at work?

I have a confession to make. I think Slack is awful. It’s distracting, noisy, and makes it hard to get the information you need when you need it. Overall, it’s a terrible tool for thoughtful and productive communication. As Monica Torres puts it: “Slack is designed to keep your attention within its confines, which sometimes comes at the expense of actually getting any work done.” 

To be fair, it’s nothing against Slack itself. Chat-based platforms in general should be reserved for watercooler-like conversations. For actual work, asynchronous communication is a much better fit.

Asynchronous versus synchronous communication

To put it simply, synchronous conversations happen in real time. In most co-located workplaces, this is how most collaboration happens: people organise a meeting and try to figure things out together, in real time. If someone needs some information from you, they can easily get up and tap on your shoulder.

Remote work has far from killed synchronous communication. Many remote workers keep Slack open in the background and have notifications turned on so they can be alerted if someone needs their input. Conversations inside channels often feel akin to face-to-face meetings. And there are, in fact, many “face-to-face” meetings happening through Zoom calls, Skype, Hangouts, or more antiquated teleconference software. People may not be in the same office, but lots of the communication is still expected to happen in real time.

Synchronous communication can have some benefits, especially when faced with an urgent situation. However, when implemented properly, asynchronous communication can altogether eliminate the need to tackle urgent situations in the first place.

8 benefits of asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication makes for calm, thoughtful, flexible work which focuses on the right outcomes. There are probably more, but here are a few benefits of working asynchronously.

  1. Mindful conversations. It may seem obvious, but not replying in real-time means you have more time to shape your thoughts. “Because nothing is urgent (unless the site is down), comments are made after mindful processing and never in real-time,” explains Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad.
  2. More transparency. Asynchronous companies tend to document everything through an extensive knowledge base. If you can’t contact a colleague straight away, you still need to be able to progress on your work by looking up whatever information you need. GitLab’s handbook is a fantastic example—if printed, this central repository would be over 3,000 pages of text! It also makes it much easier for later hires to understand the context around a decision.
  3. No fear of missing out. Because of the reliance on transparent documentation, asynchronous communication fosters JOMO instead of FOMO. Can’t attend a meeting with a customer? No worries, you can read and contribute to the agenda beforehand, and read the notes and action items afterwards.
  4. Better productivity. It’s easier to get in the flow when you’re not constantly being interrupted by people pinging you for something they deem urgent. With asynchronous communication, you can give your full attention to a specific task for as long as necessary.
  5. More autonomy. Asynchronous communication puts the emphasis on results, not hours. People have more agency and are empowered to work the way they think will have the best impact on their objectives.
  6. More flexibility. When I used to work at Google, people would add meetings to my calendar, assuming I would be available. When nobody expects you to be available, you are free to structure your day in the way that works best for you. It also means you can disappear for a while and everyone will be fine. This is particularly helpful for primary caretakers or new parents.
  7. Timezone agnosticity. Where people are working from doesn’t matter with asynchronous communication. There is no one prevalent timezone—wherever they live, everyone is equal. Need to travel for a conference? Decide to move to another country? Big changes in your life won’t have a big impact on your work.
  8. Lower anxiety. Finally, lots of unnecessary stress can be caused by an artificial sense of urgency. Many people working at remote companies such as Basecamp report feeling calm, focused, and overall happier.

Many people assume asynchronous communication will make their company slower. But several fast growing companies—again, GitLab, Gumroad, Basecamp—are asynchronous first. Many remote teams would benefit from switching to asynchronous communication.

How to work asynchronously

Transitioning to asynchronous work requires some solid processes and for everyone to be on board. A good rule of thumb from the GitLab team is: “How would I deliver this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team (or in my company) were awake?”

  • Document everything. If it’s not documented, it doesn’t exist. Meeting notes, learnings, bug fixes—everything should be added to a single source of truth everyone can consult in an open way.
  • Use the right tools. Many asynchronous teams use Notion, Nuclino, or Confluence to create an internal knowledge base in the form of a team wiki. For tracking, GitLab or GitHub are great to ensure everyone is on the same page and nothing gets lost. Whatever you decide to use, make sure to limit the number of communication channels—people shouldn’t have to check three different places to get the information they need.
  • Create a communication guide. Whether you’re using Basecamp, Workplace from Facebook, Microsoft Teams, Slack or another option, make sure to align in terms of communication standards. Here is a great example from GitLab. Gumroad also has a short guide in Notion.
  • Default to transparency. Work discussions should happen via internal rather than private communication channels. Make your documents accessible to everyone. Don’t make it hard to access content you created.
  • Practice time blocking. Be mindful of your attention—turn off your notifications and block specific times to read through your messages.
  • Make meetings optional. As a meeting organiser, it is your responsibility to ensure everyone, even people who cannot attend, receives the information they need. Create an agenda, take notes, and share action items with full context after the meeting with everyone who was invited. In fact, in their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson advocate for “meetings as a last resort.”

With more people working from home, these strategies will be crucial to keep on doing great work while managing our mental health. If you want to learn more about asynchronous communication and how you can implement it at work, I highly recommend reading this extensive guide created by GitLab. And if you’re interested in working in a calmer, more focused way, ready my mindful productivity guide.

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