Remote Work

Asynchronous Work: What It Is and How to Make It Work for Your Team

March 22, 2023
February 7, 2024
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

While businesses everywhere switched to a permanent hybrid or fully-remote work model as a result of the pandemic, some still overlook the benefits of asynchronous work. Synchronous work (like a brainstorming session or team meeting) is a hallmark of in-person office environments, while asynchronous work is typically associated with remote work.

Even if your company operates remotely, your team might not be leaning into asynchronous work and reaping all the benefits that it offers. Luckily, making the transition to incorporating asynchronous workflows may be easier than you think.

Key Takeaways:

  • Async work allows employees to work at their own pace.
  • Async work can offer greater flexibility and longer periods of uninterrupted work.
  • You don’t have to go 100% asynchronous to reap the benefits.
  • In some situations, synchronous communication is still the most effective.

What is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous work (also shortened to “async”) simply means that employees work on their own time without the expectation of immediately responding to others. Rather than requesting or expecting employees to be online, available, and responsive during set work hours, companies that operate asynchronously allow their employees to complete tasks and answer colleagues when it’s convenient for them and within a reasonable timeframe, like 24 hours, for instance.

Asynchronous work can feel intimidating to people who have always worked in-office or communicated synchronously. And it’s common to have concerns at first: What if I need an immediate response from a colleague? How will we collaborate if we’re not communicating in real time? How will we share status updates without a meeting? These are all natural questions to have, but the truth is that most likely, you’ve already worked asynchronously in some form or another.

Examples of Synchronous Communication

Examples of Async Communication

  • Emails
  • Instant messaging platforms like Slack or Google Chat
  • Project management systems like Trello or Asana
  • Cloud-based document-sharing platforms like Google Workspace

Many tools can be used synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the expectations of the users. If your team uses Google Chat for questions but expects an immediate response unless the person’s status says “in a meeting,” you’re using the tool synchronously. On the other hand, when you send a message with the expectation that your colleague will get back to you at their own pace, you’re utilizing async communication.

Benefits of Asynchronous Work

Async work comes with many benefits, but they can all be distilled down to one: Async helps people collaborating from different locations do better work.

“The top benefit is that async allows people to truly take advantage of remote work,” said McKenna Sweazey, remote and hybrid workplace expert and author of How to Win Friends and Manage Remotely. “If done well, communication can flow effectively throughout an organization regardless of time zones or working hours.”

For example, take freight shipping company Flexport. With offices and warehouses around the world, “they have fewer hours to communicate together live,” said Thomas Kunjappu, CEO and cofounder of Cleary, an employee experience platform that counts Flexport as a client. “The more you go in this direction, the more important it is to have the muscle to communicate and collaborate asynchronously,” he added. If Flexport needed constant real-time communication to run operations, the window of time they’d have to do so would quickly become a bottleneck because of the different time zones. So instead, distributed teams like Flexport find ways to work asynchronously. 

But, even if your team isn’t spread across the globe, asynchronous collaboration could still be helpful for your company. Here are three ways async work can help your organization.

1. It provides more flexibility.

The most lauded benefit of remote or hybrid work is flexibility. But remote employees who are spending their days in back-to-back meetings or glued to Slack fielding colleagues’ requests aren’t actually enjoying a flexible work environment. When remote work becomes async work, employees’ ability to complete tasks no longer depends on their colleagues’ availability. With the flexibility to work on their own schedule and start their workday at any time, asynchronous workers can complete their assignments while also tending to their personal responsibilities, taking their kids to school, and more. 

Async work also allows your company to hire remote workers across different time zones. That means employees have the flexibility to live where they want to while working remotely for your company — and your company can hire the best talent, regardless of their location.

2. It allows for different types of personalities to thrive in the workplace.

Async helps companies “achieve better business outcomes by unleashing diversity of thinking,” Kunjappu said. Not everyone thinks on their feet. Some individuals don’t feel comfortable contributing in big groups or brainstorming in front of others. “[Async] better incorporates the work of more introverted people or people who prefer [having] time to process ideas before they contribute to an initiative,” he noted. “So there is less [importance placed on] reactive ‘fast thinking,’ allowing for valuable deliberative ‘slow thinking’ as well.”

3. It encourages longer periods of deep, concentrated work.

Synchronous communication can result in frequent interruptions which can make it difficult to achieve the deep concentration and critical thinking required for tasks like writing, coding, strategizing, and problem-solving. 

On asynchronous teams, because they’re not expected to respond to colleagues immediately, employees have longer blocks of time to focus more deeply on the work at hand — and produce better solutions and more innovative work as a result. In fact, research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that cutting back on meetings (one form of synchronous communication) can increase employees’ feelings of productivity and autonomy.

6 Tips for Becoming a More Asynchronous Company

Becoming a 100% asynchronous company overnight isn’t realistic, and many companies aren’t interested in making such a radical change. But you don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to incorporating more elements of async work at your company — and reaping the benefits.

“It’s not about shifting everything to asynchronous communication — it’s about balance,” said Tammy Bjelland, founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a company that offers training for remote and hybrid workplaces. “Teams that rely primarily on synchronous communication will experience burnout in addition to information silos, and teams that rely too heavily on asynchronous communication can suffer from isolation and limited social capital.”

For many organizations, gradually working to become a more asynchronous workplace will still deliver a lot of the aforementioned benefits. But large-scale change like overhauling the entire way you work and communicate takes time. As a first step, companies need to put a foundation in place by deciding on new processes; expectations; and locations for where content, materials, and resources will live.

For example, a formal work-from-home policy provides clarity and consistency for both employees and the company. Our work-from-home policy template offers clear guidance for creating or updating policies that work best for your team.

Much like learning how to manage remote teams or lead an engaging hybrid meeting took time, practice, and creativity, moving toward async requires the same. Here’s how to start.

1. Stop having conversations in email.

A major downside of email is that it keeps information hidden away from others. As your company moves toward a more asynchronous work model, you’ll want information to be accessible to everyone who needs it — not siloed in email threads. Consider a focused conversation and decision app, like Slack or Threads, which allows you to tag individuals, scan conversations, and see who’s read your thread.

2. Help employees become better writers.

Asynchronous companies depend on team members to be strong, effective writers. Since you won’t have access to the (typically inefficient) back-and-forth that takes place when a colleague’s message is unclear or hard to understand, employees need to learn how to communicate better overall. There are plenty of resources available for learning the basics of effective business writing and communication, or your company could roll out a learning and development program with a focus on communication skills.

3. Replace meetings with more efficient alternatives whenever possible.

For companies working to transition to asynchronous communication and collaboration, reducing the number of meetings on the calendar is a great place to start. First, make an inventory of all the meetings you regularly hold and evaluate the purpose of each one. Then “identify any meeting that can be converted to asynchronous or blended processes instead,” advised Bjelland. “For example, meetings [where the] primary purpose is to inform, update, or collaborate can easily be converted to an asynchronous process.”  

Meetings you were holding to share information can become Loom videos — in which you can record yourself speaking while simultaneously recording your screen to walk colleagues through a process or update — or thoughtfully composed messages you share through your company’s go-to communication tool, like Slack or Threads. And meetings in which the purpose is collaboration can become asynchronous work in a shared document on Google Docs or on a digital whiteboard like Mural or Miro, where you can collaborate with others on a shared digital canvas with features like sticky notes, polling, and comments.

4. Get support from leadership.

Transitioning to a more asynchronous workplace requires buy-in from executives. “Senior leadership must commit to invest in the right technology, prioritize the time required to document everything, and correctly value the upside of effective, distributed teamwork for async companies to succeed,” said Sweazey. If your company culture still incentivizes synchronous work like face-to-face meetings, it may be difficult for employees to adopt asynchronous practices without feeling like they’re upsetting the standard.

Managers will also be responsible for leading their teams during this change, which means they’ll have to model the new collaboration and communication practices. “Leaders who want to support their teams’ transition to more asynchronous communication practices have to model the mindset and behavior shift themselves,” Bjelland said. “This begins with an honest reflection on how their own mindset and habits contribute to a sync-heavy culture.” From there, leaders can then make any necessary changes and behavioral adjustments.

5. Designate a specific medium for urgent requests.

As you move toward being a more asynchronous company, be sure to have an emergency communication plan in place. Since employees won’t be all checking or responding to messages and requests at a specific time, you need a way to send a message that colleagues will see, like a dedicated #urgent Slack channel or a text to their personal or work phones. This means employees need to be set up in advance with the necessary contact numbers — before there’s an emergency.

6. When in doubt, over-communicate.

With asynchronous communication, clarity is key. Employees should aim to be concise but thorough in their messages and to use the designated medium to cut down on as much back and forth as possible. 

For example, say you’re requesting help from a newly onboarded content manager to produce a client case study. Rather than dashing off a quick but unclear Slack message to your colleague that says, “Can you help me write a case study for X client?” you should be more specific in your request. Here’s an example of what you could write instead. Just be sure to add links to the appropriate files, folders, guides, and examples as applicable to your company.

Hi there,

Can you please write a first draft of a case study for ABC client for me? You can find the content specifications for case studies under the header “Case Studies,” as well as general content guidelines in our Style Guide. Additionally, I’ve included a link to the previous case studies we’ve published, which should be a helpful guide.

I’ve already conducted the interview and had it transcribed, both of which you’ll find in a folder here. Here’s a link to X’s client folder with information on when they first started working with us, what products and services they’re currently using, and anything else you might need to know about their relationship with us. I’m hoping to have this published within two weeks, so it’d be great to have the first draft from you a week from today. Please let me know if I can provide more context or answer any questions.

Your Name

With all the information and details included in the second, more complete message, your new colleague will understand exactly what’s expected of them, where they can find additional resources, the overall project timeline, and when they need to finish their assignment. The first message leaves a lot of unanswered questions, which causes confusion, while the second one provides clear answers and direction. 

When is synchronous work best?

While async communication and collaboration have many benefits, they aren’t the best option in every situation. And while moving toward a more asynchronous company can help employees produce better work, there are times when synchronous communication is preferred. Here’s when to stick with synchronous communication, like a Zoom meeting, in-person discussion, or a phone call. 

  • One-on-Ones: One-on-ones serve many purposes. They can be used to hold employee development conversations, review project updates, exchange feedback, and build and strengthen the manager-employee relationship. It’s this last reason that makes regular check-ins with your team members better suited to a free-flowing conversation than asynchronous communication. 
  • Tough Conversations: Need to talk about underperformance, resolve an employee relations issue, or broach an otherwise difficult topic? Stick with traditional communication so you can read body language and adjust the tone of your voice as needed. It can be easy to misinterpret a written message, especially if the content is sensitive. In these moments, the back-and-forth of verbal communication is better.
  • Emergency Situations: If there’s an issue you need to fix immediately, avoid async and use your dedicated medium for urgent requests. Issues like a 404 error message on the company website or a potential data leak require immediate attention and can’t wait for an async response. 

While transitioning to a more asynchronous workflow is not a quick process, nor without its challenges, async work provides the opportunity for more flexibility, larger blocks of uninterrupted time for deep work and critical thinking, and the ability to access a wider, richer pool of talent. With the right tools, processes, and a little bit of time, companies can help their employees do better work from afar with asynchronous communication and collaboration.

Want to learn more about what leading HR teams are doing to develop a successful hybrid work environment? Download our 2023 State of People Strategy Report to see the current trends and best practices.