In an increasingly remote work world, employers, employees, and clients are all receiving and sending messages through various forms of technology — emails, instant messaging, phone and more popularly — via video and teleconferences. That means, the demand for prioritizing and managing workloads, connecting with peers, clients, and managing our health, calls for flexibility.
Today, many of us are operating through asynchronous communication. Workplaceless, a leading remote work training provider, describes this as, ”Information or messages are not received at the same time as when the sender transmits them. There is a delay.” However, most of us aren’t maximizing its potential.
The organization also recognizes that strategically selected synchronous interactions encourages freedom for individual workers and maintains meaningful interpersonal communication. Workplaceless founder and CEO Tammy Bjelland, shares why asynchronous communication is typically preferred over synchronous communication, and its ability to strengthen work relationships, regain personal time, and opportunity for career growth.
Q: How did the concept of async communication develop, and when did it become popular?
Tammy: Async communication has been around as long as we’ve had the written word. A handwritten letter that was delivered via messenger is a perfect example of an original async communication form. I believe the Persian Queen Atossa wrote the first letter around 500 BC, so perhaps we can credit her with the founding of async communication. However, as technology has advanced, so have the various forms of async communication.
So, async as a concept has been around for a long time. Its entrance into day-to-day business lexicon, however, is recent–and I wouldn’t say that we’re yet at a point where the term is universally used and understood. However, we’ve seen significant growth in the demand for understanding async communication as more companies explore remote and hybrid setups. Companies are looking into proven practices of businesses that have had consistent success with these structures. One of the common threads of success for remote and hybrid teams is being intentional and strategic about leveraging asynchronous communication.
Q: How exactly does async communication encourage remote and hybrid teams to stay productive without burning out?
Tammy: Recent studies have shown that spending too much time on live video calls contributes to burnout. Yet, when companies mass migrated to remote working due to the global pandemic during 2020, instead of rethinking their practices, they relied on what was comfortable to get work done—and that meant synchronous meetings for every imaginable work task. Days overloaded with meetings wasn’t a new experience, but it was compounded by longer hours plus uncertainty, which led to increased reports of employee burnout.
Shifting to async communication reduces burnout and elevates productivity in two main ways. First, effectively communicating asynchronously translates to fewer meetings needed to make decisions, get updates, or feel informed. Second, with fewer meetings blocking your day, employees can spend more time in deep focused work—accomplishing tasks or thinking strategically.
Q: Can you please explain the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication, and which situations one may be better suited for over the other?
Tammy: Asynchronous communication is when there is a delay between a message and its response. Examples of async communication include email, instant messaging, collaboration tools like Google Docs, and project management tools like Asana. Sync communication is when messages are exchanged in real time, such as in-person conversations, telephone, or video conferences. Async communication is advantageous in remote and hybrid teams, especially ones that span multiple time zones, or whose team members have flexible or varying schedules. It allows work to continue when team members can not all be in the same place (virtual or physical) at the same time.
At Workplaceless, we’ve developed a Placeless Taxonomy, to help teams understand what types of tasks are more suited to async vs sync communication. For example, informing colleagues and collaborating with teammates can easily be done asynchronously, especially with all the tools and technology now available. These can be great places to start for teams first experimenting with effective async work. Nevertheless, there are times when synchronous communication is more advantageous than asynchronous, such as developing substantial relationships with coworkers or solving complex, new problems.
I want to advise teams to be cognizant of the ways that async communication tools can quickly be warped into sync tools:
- Teams often fall into a trap of sending an email, which should be an async tool, and either expecting an immediate response.
- Or, the recipient may have notifications turned on and stop their work flow to respond right away.
It’s important to recognize the distinction between having the right balance of communication tools and knowing how to use them. Effectively balancing async and sync communication takes practice.
Q: Workplaceless explains that communication overload can be costly. In what ways have you found that businesses overspend to communicate ineffectively, and how should they reallocate their spending to support two-way dialogues, remotely?
Tammy: One of the most obvious ways that businesses overspend to communicate effectively is in meetings. If you have a 60-minute meeting with ten attendees, that equals ten hours of employee time that you are spending on that meeting. If the meeting is absolutely critical, that’s one thing—but if it’s a meeting that could have been an email, you’re wasting those ten hours.
If businesses eliminate just one unnecessary meeting every week for every employee, you’re saving money on ineffective communication. We offer to run through savings calculations with all of our clients and we’ve seen projected savings ranging from $695,000 for a 65 person team to over $4 million for a 150 person team.
Other ways communication overload costs teams is via time wasted waiting for information or involving more team members than needed because documentation isn’t complete or accessible, and via inefficient workflows due to regular unconstrained interruptions.
Businesses can reallocate some of that spending to supporting team members in developing the skills they need to optimize their time saved, such as learning how to influence across distance, or by investing in tools that can increase efficiency and information access even further.
Q: With more companies offering remote work, that means the talent pool is also widening. How can employers creatively communicate and offer healthy company culture, flexibility, and benefits?
Tammy: It’s not going to be enough to retain top talent to just offer remote work—companies need to invest resources into building a thriving culture that is experienced in the same way by remote and in-office workers alike. For employees to truly be able to access the benefits of schedule and location flexibility, they need leaders that are fully equipped to enable equitable outcomes for all team members regardless of location. Leaders can develop this skill set with training specifically designed for the remote and hybrid workplace, as well as by leading by example by developing their async skills in public. When it comes to communicating these benefits to potential hires, employers should highlight this development support in employer branding materials as in the interview process.
Q: What are some foundational steps employers can take in implementing effective and flexible asynchronous workflows, collaboration, and communication?
Tammy: First, give permission, time, and space to employees to develop their async skills and experiment with new ways of working. Invest in resources like the Placeless Coach that will provide guidance to team members and leaders alike. Without commitment from the top levels of leadership, managers and employees may feel hesitant to try processes to identify what will work for them.
Second, create a Communication Charter. We’ve seen significant success with teams who take the time and energy to create an aligned set of processes and tools that work for them and the ways they communicate. A Communication Charter helps teams define expectations and accelerate access to information. Workplaceless offers a Building a Communication Charter workshop to facilitate this process for teams.
Third, commit to “learning out loud”—test things out, identify what works and what doesn’t, and share your learnings publicly. Start small by eliminating meetings that only focus on updates. Shift those to async sharing platforms. Build from there. Provide continuous, visible evidence to your team members that you are actively working toward a new way of working.
Q: Which key differences have you noticed in organizations that successfully adopt asynchronous communication, and those that struggle to do so? How does that contribute to their longevity in operating in a remote-first environment?
Tammy: Teams that fail to find a balance between async and sync communication will continue to struggle to fully harness the benefits of remote work—for the company as well as individual team members.
Teams that struggle to move the needle in that balance are ones that have a fixed mindset about what work (and all the tasks involved in work) looks like. They believe that you have to be in person to be creative, or that if you’re not in the office, you’re not as serious about your career as those who are.
Teams that have a growth or learning mindset are more likely to succeed in adopting an effective balance of asynchronous and synchronous communication. At Workplaceless, we call this critical baseline a Placeless Mindset—centered on the idea that work isn’t rooted in a singular place. Having a mindset that is open to continuous improvement and growth sets those organizations up for long-term success in operating in a remote-first environment because they adapt to change more quickly and easily.
Q: In Workplaceless’ “Placeless Taxonomy” system, connecting and innovating are rated as two of the most difficult tasks to achieve asynchronously. How can business leaders creatively approach finding tailored solutions for internal and external operations, hiring, employee culture, and communication?
Tammy: Connecting and innovating are two of the more challenging types of tasks to accomplish asynchronously because they are complex, take time, and because the outcomes of those activities are often hard to define or measure.
But just because these types of communication are hard to accomplish asynchronously does not mean that they can only be accomplished synchronously. Business leaders looking to tailor solutions for their businesses can use a blended approach that incorporates both asynchronous and synchronous activities—async to enable accessibility and scalability, and sync to tap into the energy that comes with connecting live with colleagues. This approach will require intentional planning, practicing, testing, and refining, to ensure that they will achieve the outcomes you want while reflecting your business’ values.
Q: Which immediate changes should leaders prioritize today and implement to continue growing throughout the decade?
Tammy: Leaders should learn and embrace effective asynchronous communication now. Work in 2020 experienced a significant turning point. It specifically accelerated employee demands for schedule and location flexibility. These flexible work requirements will continue to grow over the next decade. Async communication empowers that flexibility and is how employers can offer employees healthier work-life balance without sacrificing productivity or business continuity.