Asynchronous Communication = Boosted Productivity
What’s not entirely clear is why.
Yes, people gain back time (and sanity) by avoiding rush hour commutes. They avoid the distractions of the office. They regain a sense of control over their workdays. They have more time to dedicate to family, friends, and hobbies.
But apart from the commute, all of those benefits aren’t necessarily the result of location independence, but rather the byproduct of asynchronous communication — giving employees control over when they communicate with their teammates.
What is asynchronous communication?
Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. For example, Joe sends an email. Jane opens and respond to the email several hours later.
In contrast, synchronous communication is when you send a message and the recipient processes the information and responds immediately. In-person communication, like meetings, are examples of purely synchronous communication. You say something, I receive the information as you say it, and respond to the information right away. Even real-time chat messaging, can be synchronous too. You send a message, I get a notification and open up Slack to read the message and respond to what you said in near real-time. Even email is treated largely as a synchronous form of communication.
According to the Harvard Business Review article “Collaborative Overload”, the time employees spend on collaboration has increased by 50% over the past two decades. Researchers found it was not uncommon for workers to spend a full 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues in the form of email (on which workers’ spend an average of six hours a day); meetings (which fill up 15 percent of a company’s time, on average); and more recently instant messaging apps (the average Slack user sends an average of 200 messages a day, though 1,000-message power users are “not the exception”).
This trend toward near-constant communication means that the average knowledge worker must organize their workday around multiple meetings, with the time in between spent doing their work half-distractedly with one eye on email and Slack.
To make matters worse, the rise of mobile technology means that workplace communication is no longer limited to the physical workplace or work hours. We can, and do, check email and respond to messages at any time, day or night. As a result, we’re never fully off the clock. As one office worker told New York Magazine, “I used to wake up and turn off the alarm and check Tinder. Now I wake up and check Slack.”
Cons of synchronous communication
This highly synchronous way of working would be understandable if it produced results, but there is more and more evidence that all the real-time communication overhead makes it hard to focus, drains employees’ mental resources, and generally makes it more difficult to make meaningful progress on work.
- Interruptions split people’s attention and make it more difficult to make meaningful progress on work. High-value, cognitively-demanding activities — like coding, writing, designing, strategizing, and problem-solving — require long periods of deep, focused work. Synchronous communication makes creating large, uninterrupted chunks of time during the workday impossible.
- In real-time environments, you’re incentivized to stay connected and available at all times. If you disconnect, discussions will move on before you even had a chance to respond to, or even see, them. To avoid missing out on crucial decisions and discussions, people try to always be online and in as many meetings as possible, hurting both their well being and productivity.
- The expectation to be constantly available means that workers lack control over their schedules. They spend their workdays re-actively responding to requests rather than proactively setting their own agenda. One study found that people compensate for the time lost to workplace interruptions by attempting to work faster, leading to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort”. This type of synchronous culture can quickly lead to burnout.
- When you have to respond immediately, people don’t have time to think through key issues thoroughly and provide thoughtful responses. Your first response to any given situation is often not your best response.
Pros of asynchronous communication
- In an async environment, there are no set work hours. Employees have almost total control over how they structure their workdays to fit their lifestyles, biorhythms, and responsibilities (like childcare!). This leads to happier and more productive employees.
- Async communication is admittedly slower, but it also tends to be of higher quality. People learn to communicate more clearly and thoroughly to avoid unnecessary back-and-forths. They have the time to think through a particular problem or idea and provide more thoughtful responses. Instead of knee-jerk responses, people can reply when they’re ready.
- Better planning leads to less stress. When last-minute, ASAP requests aren’t an option, advanced planning is a must. People learn to plan their workloads and collaborations more carefully to give enough time for coworkers to see and respond to their requests. This leads to less stressful collaborations and ultimately higher quality work.
- Because employees don’t have to stay on top of each message as it comes in, they can block off large chunks of uninterrupted time to do the work that creates the most value for your organization. They can come back to process their messages in batches 1-3 times a day instead of bouncing back and forth between work and messages or meetings.
- Communication between time zones becomes smooth, No one is at an informational disadvantage because of the time zone they work in. That means you’re not limiting your hiring pool to certain time zones. You can build a stellar and truly diverse team from anywhere in the world.
Not all synchronous communication is bad
It would be oversimplification to throw away all real-time communication in workplace. For example, 1-1 meetings, team meetings, code walkthroughs, ad-hoc meetings for some complex issues, brainstorming sessions, crisis resolution for critical issues that require immediate attention are all places where sync communication shines.
Traditional, sync communication should be the exception and not the norm. For most communication needs async communication leads to more productive and happier remote workplace.