If you’re a big fan of the Summer Olympics, you’ve probably watched the synchronized swimming event. Each team competing in this event goes through a series of dramatic dance movements together, set to music, in the Olympic swimming pool.
The team members wear matching swimsuits, swim caps, and goggles, making the event even more striking. The amount of coordination and teamwork involved is truly amazing.
Before the pandemic, our everyday work world was highly synchronized. A company’s employees typically kept the same working hours in the same building and attended the same types of meetings for their departments.
Post-COVID-19, the everyday work world looks much different for many companies. Many of their employees are scattered around the city, the country, or the globe. They don’t report to the same office, work the same hours, or attend the same virtual meetings as their teammates.
We’re now looking at asynchronous communication in the workplace, or async work. Is this trend here to stay, and how can companies make it work?
Let’s take a look.
What is asynchronous communication?
If synchronous swimming is a team of swimmers doing the same movements in a tight formation, asynchronous swimming could be said to be “freestyle,” where all team members are moving around the pool however they want to. If you’ve ever been to a community pool filled with kids on a hot summer day, you get the picture.
In a workplace, asynchronous communication is characterized by employees doing their work and interacting with team members when it works best for them. Let’s use Gina as an example.
Gina works for a large Chicago-based company whose project managers work 95% remotely full-time. They have complete autonomy to do their work at the time and location of their choice.
Other than regularly scheduled meetings with clients concerning a particular project, Gina and her teammates communicate with each other asynchronously.
Gina often awakes in the morning to find emails from her coworkers in England, India, and Australia, which were sent while she was fast asleep in the Central Time Zone in America. She, in turn, will respond to their messages while they’re asleep across the ocean.
Not only does Gina communicate asynchronously, but it could be said that she is also working asynchronously. Her employer is not at all concerned about which hours of the day she works or where that work is performed as long as her internal and external clients receive excellent service and her projects come in on time and under budget.
Benefits of asynchronous communication for work
Based on dozens of published studies, most workers in America prefer asynchronous communication in a workplace setting. And it does have its benefits:
Erases time zone concerns
Instead of trying to find meeting times that work for everyone, async communication enables people to communicate when they can. For example, communicating asynchronously, Gina, mentioned above, no longer has to have meetings at 10 pm Central Time to accommodate the client with a seven-hour time difference in Italy.
Allows for varying schedules
With async communication, everyone can send and respond to messages during their personal working hours.
The majority of communications don’t need to happen in real time. In-person meetings include a lot of downtime and can become more of a social occasion than a business meeting. While some things are best dealt with face-to-face, most communications can be handled asynchronously.
Async communication is a godsend for introverts. Some people need time to collect their thoughts before speaking or presenting. Async communication takes the pressure off. Since most of it is written, introverts can avoid the spotlight and still be heard.
Many employers and employees are making good use of async communication through a variety of methods, including:
- Instant messages
- Marked-up screenshots
- Async video tools, like Loom
Even for companies who have returned to in-person work, the benefits of asynchronous work can still be utilized to streamline projects and increase productivity.
Best practices for asynchronous communication at work
If you’re an employer using async communication, here are a few best practices to incorporate:
Not everyone is comfortable with chatting, texting, or videoconferencing. Don’t assume your team members know how to use them effectively and efficiently. Provide training documents and videos to show them how.
Set ground rules
Everyone needs boundaries with communication, including async. For example, perhaps you want people to respond to new messages by the end of their business day or not use their personal smartphones because of security risks. Make your expectations clear to avoid inefficiency and potential conflicts.
While not everyone likes reaction emojis, they can keep conversations streamlined and minimize scrolling through emails and texts. Instead of cluttering discussion threads with “I agree” or “I understand,” encourage team members to use emojis to get their point across.
[ Related: 6 best practices for diversity, equity & inclusion ]
When not to use asynchronous communication at work
While asynchronous communication is more convenient and enjoyable for many people, there are instances in the workplace where a face-to-face conversation is most appropriate. Here are four of them:
Better hires are often made when an interviewer can see a candidate's body language and other non-verbal cues. It also gives the interviewee a chance to get a good look at the person they’ll be working with.
Would you bristle if you were one of the 3,500 Twitter workers notified by email that they had been fired? Imagine getting an e-mail saying, “Today is your last day.” Firing in person shows respect for the individual and allows them to ask questions.
Delivering sensitive information
Employee reviews, corporate takeovers, and other sensitive situations are best generally handled in person. If that’s not possible, videoconferencing is the next best solution. An e-mail or chat should always be sent as a follow-up to affirm what was discussed.
Making major changes
To prevent rumors from flying, in-person meeting help managers stay ahead of any gossip. Employees can also ask questions, while managers can assuage the fear of change, which is natural.
A final thought
Follow these best practices and encourage team members, remote and in-office, to communicate asynchronously. It will improve efficiency, productivity, and morale when people can communicate in ways that work most effectively for them as individuals.
But don’t neglect in-person meetings occasionally. Otherwise, some of your team can begin to feel neglected and isolated, which hurts productivity for the company. Still, worst of all, it’s detrimental to the team member’s productivity and self-esteem.
Asynchronous communication can still mean “All for one and one for all."
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