Asynchronous communication is the future. But it’s also the communication of the past. It’s been around since the dawn of carrier pigeons, telegrams, and smoke signals — all of which technically count, as do emails, texts, and chat messages. But how are we using it today? And, is it helping teams as effectively as we think it is?
What is asynchronous communication?
To understand asynchronous communication, let’s first look at its opposite: synchronous communication.
Synchronous vs asynchronous
Synchronous communication is any form of contact that takes place in real time. During a phone call, for example, two people deliver and receive information together at once. They’re synchronized. Getting up from your desk to talk to someone is another example, as is a brainstorming session, a video conference, a Skype call, or an in-person meeting.
Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, is when there’s a delay between the message sent and the recipient’s response. If someone didn’t answer a call, and the dialer had to leave a voicemail, that would be a type of asynchronous communication. Asynchronous communication involves the exchange of information without the need for simultaneous interaction.
Asynchronous communication examples
Here are some examples of technology that enables asynchronous communication:
- Chat apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Microsoft Teams, where users read and respond to messages in their own time
- Project management tools like Backlog, where users review comments and notifications from other users throughout their day
- Design and diagramming apps like InVision or Cacoo, where users respond to mentions on designs as they please
- Email like Gmail or Outlook, where users reply to emails when they choose
- Collaborative documents like Google Docs or Microsoft Word Online, where users contribute and review content at their own pace
- Discussion forums like Reddit or specialized forums for various topics, where users engage in conversations without real-time interaction
- Voice messaging apps like Voxer or WhatsApp, where users exchange voice messages asynchronously
- Code repositories like GitHub, Bitbucket, and Backlog, where developers collaborate on coding projects by reviewing and merging code changes independently
- Video-sharing platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, where users upload and watch videos without needing real-time interaction
When asynchronous communication is misused
Somewhere along the line, asynchronous tools like email started to be treated more synchronously, with many people feeling obligated to respond to messages and notifications as immediately as if they’d received a phone call. Bosses came to expect it. And employees responded by doing it more and more. After all, what better way to show the boss or client you’re committed than by being available to fix issues right away?
If an email is about a timely matter, then a fast reply is appropriate. But always providing an immediate response doesn’t just make you look like you have a little too much spare time on your hands; it also lowers your focus throughout the day, which puts a damper on your ability to work effectively.
In fact, reports show employees are interrupted around 12 times an hour, and it takes, on average, 25 minutes to recover from a distraction. When you crunch the numbers, the benefits of truly asynchronous communication become obvious: it allows workers to reduce interruptions, stay focused, and ultimately be more productive.
If you’re really worried your boss will think you’re ignoring people, just give them a heads-up beforehand or set up a kind of ‘out of office’ response status email. Here’s a handy template:
Due to high workload, I’m currently checking and responding to email at [time] and [time] [plus time zone].
If you require urgent help that can’t wait, please contact me via phone at [phone number].
Thanks for your understanding.
Benefits of asynchronous communication
Aside from reducing distractions, asynchronous communication has many benefits to the quality of work and collaboration.
Let’s use a real-life situation where asynchronous communication is better than its real-time counterpart.
Imagine you’re writing an article with a tight deadline. You have to send it to the editor in three hours. Then, a colleague approaches you and wants to discuss a presentation that’s happening next week. Nightmare! Not only are they wasting your precious time discussing a non-urgent topic, but they’ve interrupted your concentration, which will take time to recover. This is synchronous communication at its worst.
If asynchronous communication methods had been used in this situation, the frantic article writer would have been able to delay responding by turning off their emails, putting up a ‘do not disturb’ status on their chat app, or muting notifications for a while.
They would then be able to focus on their assignment, hit their deadline (hopefully), and then give their full attention to the upcoming presentation. Both projects receive the best of the writer’s time and effort.
Being able to focus on your work without distractions is one major benefit of asynchronous communication. But it’s not the only one.
Another BIG benefit is this: it gives people a chance to give their best answers.
Again, somewhere along the way, the ability to think quickly and respond with snappy answers became highly prized in the workplace. Brainstorming sessions became the norm, and decisions were made on gut instinct.
This is all in the process of being flipped on its head: while fast thinkers are a valuable — and vital — part of your team’s culture, people are now beginning to see the value in slow, analytical thinkers. Until recently, slow thinkers were thought to underperform in meetings and group brainstorming sessions, but those quick interactions are now under heavy criticism for their ineffectiveness.
Asynchronous communication gives people more time to think without the pressure of providing an instant answer. The benefits of this are more rational, considered responses that directly result from slow thinking.
Another benefit is having a record of your conversations. Synchronous communication often requires the recipient(s) to either have a great memory or take notes — the latter of which is a drain on concentration.
Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, means you’ll have the message or group chat in text form (ideally organized into easily searchable topics) to digest in your own time and refer back to.
More honest responses
Some people are happy to share their opinions when asked. Others hate being put on the spot, usually because they don’t know what they think just yet and need time to gather their thoughts. Asynchronous communication allows everyone to be a little more thoughtful and honest.
Asynchronous best practices
As with all productivity techniques, asynchronous communication requires a little discipline to ensure you get the most from it. Here are some tips to make sure everything runs as smoothly as it should.
1. Set deadlines
So you’ve told your team you don’t expect them to reply immediately to everything. And now you’re worried about emails going unanswered for days. The way around this is to set action deadlines so your team knows exactly how long they have to postpone their response.
2. Batch your information
Rather than sending information through in bits and pieces, wait until you have the whole picture and send it through as one email or message to minimize interruptions to others.
3. Keep everyone informed
Let your colleagues and clients know when you’re not checking emails and don’t want to be disturbed. People will have far more patience when they understand why you’re slow to respond and when they can expect a response. Plus, it shows you’re taking your productivity seriously.
Working with remote teams
One of the most significant effects asynchronous communication has had on the modern workforce has been to diminish the drawbacks of working with remote teams. You’re no longer limited to the talent in your region, opening up access to specialists from anywhere in the world. This brings fresh ideas and new perspectives into your business.
The one slight downside is timezones: if you send an email, you may have to wait longer to get a response, solve a problem, or host a virtual meeting. So, what can you do to make this a little easier?
(Tip: The following tools and techniques are great for remote teams but just as useful for non-remote workers.)
1. Schedule email time
If you’re a manager, it’s up to you to set expectations for emails. Remind your team that they shouldn’t respond to emails as quickly as if they were picking up the phone. Instead, have your team check their inboxes at designated times throughout the day. And if you’re an employee, let your colleagues know when those times are.
When you know your team’s email schedule and time zone, predicting when you’ll likely receive a response gets much easier (and less stressful.)
2. Set your team chat app to ‘do not disturb’ when needed
The good thing about team chat apps (as opposed to email) is that they often allow you to mute notifications at certain hours of the day or for specific periods.
If half of your team is generally working during your sleeping hours, you probably don’t want to hear a little ‘ding’ for every message they tag you in. Instead, set your app to ‘do not disturb’ to turn on automatically when you’re outside regular work hours. You can also use it sporadically during the day when you need an hour or so of real focus.
3. Use project management software
Rather than share progress reports, documents, and spreadsheets over the course of hundreds of emails, users can simply upload the info and track progress online with a dedicated project management tool. That way, information is ready for every employee whenever and wherever they’re ready to read it. This has the added benefit of replacing those dreaded ‘reply all’ emails.
Making the most of asynchronous communication
Asynchronous communication is the future. By embracing a ‘send now, reply later’ culture, you’re essentially allowing your employees to work a little more on their own terms, which does wonders for productivity, focus, and collaboration.
Finding the right tools to support that communication is also key.
Backlog, our all-in-one project management software, offers a robust platform for teams to excel in asynchronous communication. With features like task assignments, comments, and notifications, teams can effectively coordinate and collaborate without the constraints of real-time interaction. Backlog’s intuitive interface ensures that team members can contribute and review updates at their own pace, fostering a more flexible and productive workflow. Embracing asynchronous communication with Nulab’s tools empowers teams to work efficiently, allowing members to focus on tasks without the pressure of immediate responses, ultimately enhancing overall productivity and collaboration.
Cacoo, our powerful diagramming application, complements asynchronous communication by providing a versatile platform for visual collaboration. Users can create and share diagrams, while features like comments and mentions facilitate asynchronous communication. Furthermore, Cacoo offers synchronous communication options, such as real-time collaboration and video chat, providing flexibility for teams to choose the mode that suits their needs.
By seamlessly integrating both asynchronous and synchronous communication, Nulab’s tools empower teams to collaborate effectively, ensuring that every aspect of the work process is streamlined for optimal productivity and innovation.
This post was originally published on March 19, 2019, and updated most recently on November 17, 2023.