The power of asynchronous communication

Published Jul. 2, 2020 by Andy Leverenz in Communication

The power of asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is a superpower for teams worldwide.

In a recent stir on hacker news I got lost in the discussion of the pros and cons of written communication in a remote work setting. This topic was originally authored by a developer named Snir David on his blog that I highly recommend you read. The same goes for the wonderful discussion on Hacker News regarding the subject.

I found the topic of the blog post to ring true towards our goals with Compose.

Snir's article discusses how a remote work environment calls for alternative forms of communication and that when working remotely, you don't always have the luxury of an in-person conversation.

This constraint often makes remote workers take to their favorite text editor, email platform, chat application, or similar tools to draft up their thoughts in written form. This concept is asynchronous communication in a nutshell and it's powerful because it's less relative to "time". It may be slower than synchronous communication but with writing comes deeper thought.

How it works

The process of communicating asynchronously begins by setting time aside for yourself to compile your thoughts and reflect through writing or recording.

When reflecting you need a way to convey thoughts and ideas on a subject in a way your peers can understand. This process is tedious but necessary to deliver the most compelling message. In this format, your thoughts are typically rehearsed before your peers even get wind of it.

Another format we use today to connect is through video. You may be asking yourself “How is video asynchronous?”. Rather than meeting in real-time, you can optionally record yourself or your screen to help convey your message with more visual queues. I would describe this approach as both an asynchronous and synchronous system of communication.

Synchronous communication is best described as "real-time". This could be chat, verbal, video meetings, voice meetings, and more. This type of communication is efficient and fast but lacks some of the rehearsed substance asynchronous communication gives us.

We think combining the two is a great approach towards communicating as a team. Though, if you're looking for optimal productivity, asynchronous communication is a great choice on its own.

Getting work done

When at work you might be trying to accomplish a task or research something new and don't have time to chat with colleagues. This is your deep work time you don't want to spend communicating. In this asynchronous communication system, you might collect your thoughts and proceed to draft those in a written format to share later.

Your team might also reach for real-time chat tools to communicate. Tools like Slack or Skype enable modern-day workers to communicate in real-time (synchronously). While these tools are insanely powerful, they do come with a cost. In my history with synchronous tools, I found myself always stuck in them. There are always new activity updates to see, notifications to check, and conversations (most meaningless) to be had.

The problem with synchronous communication is that not everything deserves your attention. When other teammates are conversing you don't need to be watching over the discussion but many of us fall trap of doing just that.

People dislike missing out on anything if they can help it. Synchronous tools give us a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, they also produce a live feed of information that keeps us quite distracted.

On the opposite spectrum, asynchronous tools are less active by design. They are a means to communicate but done so through longer-form writing or recording. There are fewer distractions to compete with but you do miss out on that sense of belonging.

Reduced expectations and anxiety

Synchronous tools allow us to be always online virtually anywhere. This connection is powerful but also weighs on our time. You might be attending to an errand or finished with work for the day and your team might still have access to you (assuming you're still logged in and online).

If a team member reaches out at a bad time, you build up anxiety around whether you need to reply or not. The good person in you wants to help but the other side of you wants to ensure your teammates respect your privacy. The minute you give in to a response, a new expectation pattern is born from the people trying to connect with you.

If they can access you any time they are going to assume you are always able to respond. This is a big issue and one that makes synchronous tools a chore to use for some.

Asynchronous tools don't enforce those instantaneous response expectations. They do, however, leave room for a response when you want to. I find this to be the best communication strategy.

You aren't bound to your desk, computer, or phone and expected to respond. Instead, your teammates carry on about there day responding when it makes the most sense for them and you. It may mean communication moves slower but it's also a big reminder that we're all human and need our own time to make decisions, think, and respond.

It's calm

Synchronous communication requires almost your full attention. Because of this, there is a layer of anxiety always present. Assuming it's your turn to communicate, you need to be on top of things to adequately get your thoughts out for others to hear or read. Unlike asynchronous communication, there is no time to pause and reflect on things you hear or read that require a response. Instead, you need to react immediately which doesn't always turn out well. This can be hectic and disrupt your emotions.

Communicating asynchronously allows you to respond when you are able. Because of this less timely expectation, you're less anxious about coming up with something on the spot. Instead, you can take your time, develop some ideas, and respond when ready. This style of communication is much calmer. It allows for a deeper separation from work and life. Taking the time to reflect allows you to make more thoughtful decisions.

It's not perfect

Asynchronous communication has many great advantages but as with anything comes with some downsides. These typically turn up when an immediate need is required like emergencies, important conversations, and important decision-making meetings.

Synchronous tools are great for one on one communication situations where you and another are discussing important matters that aren't typical in the day-to-day. Maybe you're getting a promotion or maybe your getting fired. Doing those in written form asynchronously just doesn't seem right.

Issues like a website going down or security threats to a web app, for example, tend to be great use cases for synchronous tools as well.

When it comes to important decisions, research, and general discussion we think going all-in on asynchronous communication is a good move. Because of this, we sought to build a tool to make this process more effective. With email, your conversation gets buried deep and threads and it's hard to understand after a while. Our tool Compose maintains the entire context of a conversation in a completely asynchronous way. Combine that with rich text editing, user mentions, and categorization of messages inside boards and you've got yourself one powerful asynchronous tool.

We hope you'll give it a try. You can subscribe below to receive updates about Compose and get instant access to new features if you're a subscriber.