What Is Asynchronous Communication?

A lot of going remote guides (this site included) talk a lot about something called asynchronous communication: asynchronous communication is bandied about as something that’s vital for any company to master as they transition to a company capable of being remote-first or fully-remote.

But what is asynchronous communication? It’s a technical sounding term that might scare you (indeed, the term is influenced by the concept of asynchronous computing) but at its core it’s extremely simple:

Asynchronous communication is communicating with other team members without having to be present at the same time as them.

That’s it. Nothing fancy about it! It’s basically just business-speak for being diligent about leaving an organized paper trail: many companies who are strict about documentation and record-keeping are probably already doing mostly asynchronous communication without even knowing it.

Here are some examples of asynchronous communication that you’re probably already using:

  • Email
  • Slack / Microsoft Teams
  • Sharepoint

You probably don’t think about these tools as “asynchronous communication”, but they are: since they’re written down, they can be referred to whenever is convenient. A question answered over email, or in a Sharepoint knowledge base article, is a question that can be answered over and over again no matter if the person who answered it is at their desk or on a beach in Aruba.

Similarly, synchronous communication entails things like phone calls or zoom meetings: it requires everybody to be present at the same time to work. That’s it- there’s nothing fancier than that!

So What’s The Big Deal With Asynchronous Communication?

Workers in offices that use more asynchronous communication are consistently more productive, and that’s even more true for remote work / telework scenarios: it’s a key tool that allows employees to unblock each other no matter when or where they are. Think about it: if you’re only getting your information from synchronous communication, then the one person dispensing the knowledge is stuck in hours and hours of meetings or phone calls. If they write an email or Sharepoint article, then that one hour of work can be shared and referenced by dozens of co-workers whenever they want, unblocking them and making sure that work proceeds smoothly.

Moving to asynchronous communication also means your employees are much less likely to get distracted (in fact, a large reason for the higher productivity of remote employees is that they are better able to avoid the near-constant distractions present in an office). Shedding constant meetings and calls allows employees to do their distracting work all at once, and organize the work that needs a lot of focus during the times of the day when they’re most productive- and this is true whether it’s a remote-first office or not.

This isn’t to say that synchronous communication styles don’t have their place- they absolutely do! Meetings and calls are essential when you need to get something done with lots of fast, simultaneous inputs (mind-mapping, brainstorming, and technical / sales discovery are places that meetings and calls obviously shine). The key takeaway here is that you should be more aware that over-using meetings and phone calls has a hidden cost that is degrading your productivity: the more that you write down and store in a permanent place, the better your employees will perform over time and the more bandwidth they’ll have.

Final Thoughts

The term “asynchronous communication” can sound esoteric and abstract, but it’s really not: it’s just a matter of having information be in a place that is accessible by your employees no matter when and where they are. The more information that’s available in written form in your organization, the less they’ll have to call or ask another co-worker and the less they’ll tie up their co-worker’s productivity- so the best step is just making sure everything gets written down somewhere!

This is easier said than done: making sure that you’re leaving a paper trail takes discipline, and it’s often much easier to just call a co-worker and ask them a question than it is to compose an email- and unless you’re superhumanly disciplined, you’re probably not transcribing that call somewhere permanent to share with others. Similarly, some people turn asynchronous communication into synchronous communication: they send emails or slack messages and expect an immediate response, which eliminates a lot of the benefits of these communication mediums.

That’s why it’s important, as a team lead or manager, to lead from the front: if you’re making the initiative to ask them for documentation, and making sure the rest of the team has it available, you’ll be able to bring your productivity and efficiency up no matter where your team is!

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