In this week’s column, future of work specialist Jared Lindzon underlines the importance of leveraging asynchronous communication to make remote working work.
It’s hard to blame anyone for feeling frustrated whenever they need to wait for vital information, a go-ahead to start a project, or the answer to a simple question.
After all, the majority of us have had the opportunity to tap a colleague on the shoulder or pop into the manager’s office to ask a quick question for the vast majority of our careers. As we moved out of the office and into a remote setting, however, colleagues and managers are suddenly no longer in the same room, or even the same city, or perhaps the same country. That is why it’s now time to reconsider our longstanding communication structures.
The friction and frustration many are experiencing today is often a result of applying the expectations of an in-person working environment into our more decentralized reality. While we may have once assumed that these communication breakdowns or delays would be temporary, many workers won’t be in the same room as their entire team on a daily basis ever again.
Not only is the workforce becoming less centralized and more global, but employers are also allowing staff to adjust their working hours. Gone are the days when you could call a colleague or business between nine and five, and expect an immediate response.
So how can businesses ensure strong communications in a situation where real-time conversations are the exception, not the norm?
The key is asynchronous communication, a skill few of us have had to learn before, but one that is critical in a remote or hybrid work environment.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, asynchronous communication, as the name implies, refers to interactions that don’t occur live or in “real-time,” like traditional synchronized commination. Asynchronous communication instead takes place over a longer timeframe, with stretches between responses.
Even if the term is foreign, however, we’ve all had some experience with asynchronous communication, whether waiting for a reply to an email or text message, responding to a social media post, or sending voice notes across time zones.
As work becomes more global, and as organizations become more remote, mastering this skill will become increasingly vital.
There are a number of steps both organizations and individuals can take to improve asynchronous communications. For employers, the first step is creating a repository of information that is available to all staff around the clock, easily searchable, and regularly updated (it could be as simple as a Google Doc).
Employees meanwhile need to demonstrate a certain degree of self-reliance and get accustomed to consulting those sources of information prior to asking for direct help.
For example, GitLab, a DevOps software provider that has operated remotely since its founding in 2014, provides a 2,000-page employee handbook to its nearly 1,700 staff. The “living document” is updated regularly, and is intended to provide employees with access to vital information and answers to common questions, reducing the need to wait for a direct reply.
Organizations that are seeking to improve their asynchronous communication should similarly seek to provide staff with resources that can reduce their reliance on real-time communication.
Another category of remote collaboration tools that can improve asynchronous communication is workflow automation solutions like Trello, Jira, Asana, Monday, and Taskworld. Each offers individuals clear visibility into their team’s collective efforts by breaking down projects into tasks. Each task bubble can be populated with additional information, such as deadlines, key contacts, progress updates, and comments.
Workflow automation tools ultimately ensure everyone is up to date and on the same page no matter when or where they log in to work.
Other novel solutions include internal videos and podcasts. For example, organizations that previously held in-person “all hands” meetings with their teams at regular intervals might find themselves struggling to disseminate information to a more distributed workforce.
Instead of trying to squeeze company-wide meetings into a narrow window when every employee is at their desk, organizations should instead consider producing videos or podcasts that can be accessed by employees at their own convenience.
By pre-recording weekly or monthly updates, organizations can ensure that their teams receive the necessary information without having to coordinate scheduling. They can even call on staff members to record their own updates or presentations to be included in the audio or video communications, as they might in an in-person meeting.
The transition to asynchronous communication will also require everyone to beef up their writing skills. Since we won’t always have the luxury of real-time communication, it’s become more important to provide context, clarity, and all the necessary information in concise written communications.
This can be especially challenging to those who haven’t had to focus on their written communication skills as a job requirement before.
In an asynchronous working environment, however, reducing the amount of back-and-forth is key, especially when the delay between messages can be hours or even days long. Being able to communicate all the necessary information clearly and concisely in the first message can save everyone a tremendous amount of time, and will go a long way in reducing our reliance on synchronized communication.
This isn’t the end of real-time conversations, but the transition to remote work will challenge all of us to find better ways to maintain clear lines of communication without relying on face-to-face interactions.
Now is the time for both employees and their employers to develop strategies for improving asynchronous communications.