Embrace async communication at work

Asynchronous (also referred to as “async”) communication should be the norm in the modern workplace, especially in tech.

For context, let’s not get confused between ‘remote’ and ‘async’. While remote work allows you to work from anywhere without having to be at the office, async communication lets one communicate in their own time without the expectation of responding immediately to others.

In an async culture, employees are not expected to be online, and responsive during set hours. They can work on their priority tasks and answer colleagues when it’s convenient for them and within a reasonable timeframe, like 24 hours, for instance.

There are no set work hours in an async environment. With trust and independence being the core value of an async culture, employees have more control over how they structure their workdays depending on when they are most productive.

After all, people are hired to get productive work done that moves the needle. Not answering Slack messages and emails all day long.

The need for async communication

The way most teams communicate is messed up.

According to research from RescueTime, knowledge workers spend 40% of their day context switching between communication and productive work. On average, this leaves employees with 1 hour and 12 minutes of productive time that’s not interrupted by communication tools.

An average knowledge worker’s schedule is designed around multiple meetings with the remaining time spent doing work in a half-distracted state with an eye on Slack and email notifications.

Image source: Doist blog

The underlying problem is that most workplaces have no concrete guidelines on how communication should happen. Hardly any effort is being made to protect an individual’s schedule, making it hard to produce meaningful progress on core tasks.

Guide to async communication

Communicating asynchronously starts with intentionality.

If you feel like you lack control of your time due to the constant back and forth on Slack and never-ending meetings, here’s what you can do to evangelize the philosophy of async communication internally.

Plan ahead

Planning ahead is a great way to avoid surprises and keep your team informed. With async, people learn to plan their collaborations way ahead of time since ASAP requests are not an option.

If you prefer writing, you can keep a notebook to chart out your tasks for the week in advance and see how much focused time you need to complete them. If you prefer digital, you can use a tool like Sunsama, Amie, Routine or Kosmotime for planning.

Preparing for a vacation or planned day off? Use your status or calendar to let your teammates know a week or two in advance about your absence. This helps them to act accordingly and ensure that they don’t disturb you during your time away. Range, Pause and Nook are some tools that can serve this purpose.

Block your calendar, update your status

Time blocking your calendar for deep work is a great exercise to control your schedule. Coding, writing, designing and strategizing are all cognitively demanding activities that require long periods of deep focus. Your most productive hours should be used to accomplish such tasks.

And more importantly, make sure that your teammates can see your calendar so that they know what your day looks like.

Added to that, updating your Slack status to DND with a customized status mentioning that you’re working on an important task is a great way to let your teammates know that they should not be expecting quick replies.

Make thoughtful communication

Learn to differentiate between urgent and non-urgent communication. Your urgent question may be interrupting your teammate from an important task. 90% of things are not urgent and don’t need a quick response.

Dig deeper to see if you can find the answer to the question yourself.

If you do need to ask, formulate your message in a way that gives context and links to relevant documents with a clear CTA of what exactly you need from them. If it’s a time-sensitive task, let them know when your deadline is.

Say yes to fewer meetings

Having more meetings or jumping on an impromptu meeting should not be the default.

Meetings tend to eat into the best hours of a maker’s day. The majority of the workforce in a company are individual contributors who operate on the maker’s schedule.

As Paul Graham mentions in his essay, “When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. But in addition, there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you're a maker, think of your own case. Don't your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don't.”

Studies show that it takes a person 23 minutes to get back on track once they are interrupted. So, think twice before you send your teammate that message next time.

Proper written communication is the way to go for async. Default to writing whenever possible and schedule meetings if and only if it is absolutely necessary.

Document everything

Having a central knowledge base for internal documentation that everyone on the team has access to is a must for successful async communication. It also makes it easier to reference past discussions and decisions since it’s all available in writing. Notion is a great tool to document everything and get knowledge out of silos.

A central knowledge hub would include details about the product, processes, guides, culture and anything and everything the team should be well informed about. GitLab’s Handbook is probably the best resource out there that encompasses everything that should be documented.

Closing thoughts

Embracing async communication at work requires transparency and proper communication and it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a philosophy that needs to be adopted gradually and constantly improved upon.

If your organization currently has a synchronous style of working, you don’t have to look further to discover why your employee productivity is a mess.

Transitioning to async does come with its challenges but the most successful companies are making the shift to allow teams to produce their best possible work.

It’s time we embrace productivity over constant communication.

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Thank you for taking the time to read. Until next time! ✌️