Thousands of companies around the world switched to working remotely nearly six months ago. The majority of them were completely new to remote work. Obviously, it took some time to get used to the new normal caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was essential to realize that working from home is different from working on-site, and it makes no sense to try to mimic an office setting.
When you started working remotely, didn’t you feel pressure to reply to all messages, emails, etc., as soon as possible? I think we all did at some point. At first, I felt pressure to reply to every single Slack message immediately so that people wouldn’t think that I was doing something else instead of working.
It took some time before I said to myself, "Relax, there’s no need to reply to all those messages instantly." Sure, some situations require an immediate response, but we all know that most of the time, it won’t hurt if you get back to your colleague in an hour or two or even the next day.
The difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication
Synchronous communication has a lot to do with working on-site in an office. Think of all the daily standups, status updates, one-on-ones, etc. All those meetings require a response from all involved parties at the exact moment they happen.
I’d oversimplify the definition of synchronous communication if I said it only takes place in an office. A lot of what we’ve all been experiencing for the last couple of months of working remotely is synchronous communication, too. Think of all the Zoom calls, Google Hangouts, and other ways we’ve been communicating. Most involve at least two people exchanging information at the same time.
Asynchronous communication happens when you send a message or an email and you don’t expect an immediate response. It also involves company-wide information shared on internal knowledge bases like Confluence or product management software like Jira. As Hailley Griffis from Buffer says, “This concept simply means that work doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone.”
The work that Erik, our copy editor, and our writers put into our articles is another example of asynchronous communication. We write our drafts in Google Docs. Later, we send them to Erik so that he can edit the drafts on his own schedule. He adds his suggestions and comments and sends it back to us. Then, we can correct any mistakes we made in the draft and apply his ideas before publishing.
Asynchronous communication and working from home increase productivity
A 2-year Stanford study conducted by professor Nicholas Bloom revealed a significant productivity boost “equivalent to a full day’s work” among people working remotely.
James Liang, CEO of Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency employing 16,000 people, volunteered to participate in Bloom’s experiment. Like many business owners a few months ago, Liang worried that switching from a traditional office to home offices would hinder his employees' productivity. Costly office space in Shanghai and long commute hours convinced him to give remote work a shot.
Professor Bloom designed a study that involved 500 employees divided into two groups. Half of the people constituted a control group that continued their work on-site while the other half started working remotely.
Apart from the increased productivity I already mentioned, it turned out that employees working from home were less distracted, making it easier for them to concentrate. Employees took shorter breaks and less time off. On top of that, they also took fewer sick days. Remote work also decreased staff attrition by 50%. Not to mention the money Ctrip saved by reducing their office space.
The benefits of asynchronous communication
It’s not like asynchronous communication is far superior to synchronous communication. However, the former seems to be a lot more effective while working remotely.
More deep work
With asynchronous communication, you’ll enable your employees to do more deep work. This means more uninterrupted intervals of activities that require deep focus like coding, writing, strategizing, etc. Like I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, it’s not uncommon to feel pressure to reply to all messages as soon as they come in.
It all depends on the company culture. Slack can be a huge time suck. According to Vox, the average Slack user sends roughly 200 messages a day, with more active users sending up to 1,000 messages. Letting your employees switch their Slack notifications off or setting up dedicated hours when they reply to other people’s messages at their own pace will help your team do more deep work in less time.
People from different time zones working together
Many companies were open to hiring people from around the world even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It isn’t hard to imagine that those companies that employed people from a single time zone before, will now be open to people from all corners of the world. To make that work, asynchronous communication is required. A big advantage here is that you’re able to hire top talents from anywhere in the world without worrying that they won’t be able to work together with the rest of the team.
Asynchronous communication helps you communicate more clearly. You can take the time to write your messages to make it easier for other people to understand a problem.
Sometimes, when you try to fit in all the important details during a meeting or a video conference, things might get lost along the way. People start asking questions and interrupt whatever you’re saying, making it harder to get to the point.
Switching to email or communication platforms like Twist eliminates that problem. You can communicate everything you need without interruptions, and people can refer back to that on their own schedule.
This one’s connected directly to improved communication. Once you communicate with your team in writing, all of the relevant information that could be lost during face-to-face meetings is automatically documented. As you move along with your projects, it’s easy to refer to any stage any time you need to because you have everything you need in one place.
Asynchronous communication isn’t always a bed of roses
Like everything else in life, asynchronous communication has its downsides. It can be problematic when you need to make quick decisions. If you’re not the only person responsible for making the call, asynchronous communication will cause delays that result in frustration and unnecessary stress.
On top of that, it leads to isolation and makes it difficult to build rapport with team members. A healthy mix of asynchronous and synchronous communication is your best bet. You’ll be able to increase your productivity and do more focused work while staying connected to your team at the same time. It takes practice to master both types of communication, but it’s not impossible to get the best of both worlds.