While businesses everywhere went remote last year at the onset of COVID, they weren’t the first to make this change. Tech companies like Buffer, Doist, and Github had already been famously 100% remote for years. These organizations opted for and embraced remote work, publicly citing its many benefits, including better work-life balance, more productive employees, and access to a richer talent pool, to name a few.
Another thing these companies have in common is the way they work remotely: Asynchronously (also referred to as “async”). Async work, collaboration, and communication 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 hours, companies that work asynchronously allow their employees to complete work and answer colleagues when it’s convenient for them and within a reasonable timeframe, like 24 hours, for instance. For these organizations, working asynchronously isn’t merely helpful for remote work to be successful — it’s essential.
Even though “async” may sound foreign, it’s actually more familiar than you think. For example, say you’re working on a set of questions for an upcoming panel. You’re part of the events team, but you’d like input from corporate communications and the content team, too. Rather than calling a meeting to discuss the flow of the event or pinging a colleague to ask for an opinion on the opening question, you could collaborate asynchronously with Google Docs. Specifically, you could ask for async feedback by using the program’s ‘suggesting’ feature and tag colleagues using comments.
Async work can feel intimidating for people who have always worked and communicated synchronously. And it’s common to have several 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 done asynchronous work in some form or another — and making the transition to incorporating it more may be easier than you think.
Benefits of Becoming More Asynchronous
Async 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 VP of Marketing at Silicon Valley data verification startup Truthset. “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 over 25 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. Rather, they’ve had to find ways to work asynchronously.
As mentioned, async work offers companies many benefits. Here are three of its top perks.
1. It provides more flexibility.
The most lauded benefit of remote or hybrid work is flexibility. But for workers who are spending their days in back-to-back meetings or glued to Slack fielding colleagues’ requests, they don’t really benefit from all that much flexibility. Async companies can offer employees a greater degree of flexibility since the ability to complete work isn’t dependent on the availability of other employees.
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. “[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 results in constant interruptions, which makes it difficult to achieve the deep concentration and critical thinking required for tasks like writing, coding, strategizing, and problem solving. Because you’re not expected to respond to messages immediately in async companies, 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.
6 Tips for Becoming a More Asynchronous Company
Becoming a 100% async 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.
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 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 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 from the get-go. There are plenty of resources available for learning the basics of effective business writing and communication, from eBooks to online courses, and infographics to long-form blog posts and articles. We recommend this blog post “The Remote Worker’s Guide to Becoming a Better Writer” by Fadeke Adegbuyi, Senior Marketing Manager of Content at Doist, as a starting point.
3. Replace meetings with more efficient alternatives whenever possible.
Asynchronous companies and meetings do not go together. For companies working to transition to asynchronous communication and collaboration, decreasing the amount 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 a video of yourself speaking while simultaneously recording your screen to walk your colleagues through some content, 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 cloud-based document-sharing platform like Google Workspace, 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 the top. “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,” noted Sweazey.
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 regularly checking or responding to messages and requests, you need a way to send an SOS that colleagues will see, like a dedicated #urgent Slack channel or a phone call to their personal cells (so 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, more is more. Employees should aim to be concise but thorough in their messages and requests (and use the appropriate, designated medium) to cut down on as much back-and-forth as possible. For example, say you’re a product marketing team member who is requesting help from the newly onboarded content marketing manager to produce a customer 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 ABC 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 at your company.
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. Additionally, here’s a link to ABC’s client folder that has 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. Thanks!
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, and the overall project timeline and by 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.
Async Isn’t for Everything
While async communication and collaboration have many benefits, they aren’t always 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 good old-fashioned phone call.
- One-on-Ones: One-on-ones serve many purposes. They can be used to review project updates, hold employee development conversations, exchange feedback, and build and strengthen the manager-employee relationship. It’s this last reason that makes the 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.
Asynchronous work may seem impossible to some — perhaps the same way 100% remote operations did only a year and a half ago. But while transitioning to a more asynchronous company is not a quick process, nor without its challenges, async 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.