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Synchronous vs Asynchronous communication

Understanding asynchronous communication is key for remote work

Created by Will Ceolin
Created on Mar 29, 20 - Updated on Jun 9, 20

In traditional companies, communication happens : everyone is working at the same time and employees are interrupted all the time. Your day is split into several chunks of 15, 30 minutes. This makes harder to get meaningful work done.

Remote work encourages : forget working from 9 am to 5 pm. In remote teams, people should be are free to work whenever they want. Decisions are written down, as well as most of the communication.

Say goodbye to meetings

When a company is starting to remotely is very common to use the same old practices. You can't make it work if you don't change your habits. One of the first steps is saying goodbye to meetings.

Most meetings are useless. They're interrupting people's real work while the decision process could be done asynchronously. You don't have to embrace email. There are tons of other useful tools to get your job done.

Besides, when you start writing things down, everything is clearer and more transparent. Everyone knows what has been decided, and how we reached that decision. If a new employee joins your company, they can have the whole thread about how (and why) a decision was made in the past.

By avoiding meetings and using asynchronous communication, your company can have a culture of non-linear workdays where you can work at multiple intervals throughout the day.

Say goodbye to whiteboards

People love whiteboards. They like it so much that's one of the first things they'll ask when transitioning to remote work. We've even created a lesson for online brainstorming tools. But don't fool yourself: whiteboards aren't the best tool for remote work.

They don't allow you to work asynchronously. Everyone has to be there at the same time. They're also bad for indexing, preserving, and retrieving information. Have you ever tried to find something a colleague posted on an online whiteboard? It's a nightmare for documenting things as lots of information gets lost.

Of course, they have a time and place to be used and might be useful sometimes. But remember: you're working remotely. Don't try to replicate your on-site practices.

Avoid chats

Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams offers an easy to chat with your team. However, those conversations just bring offline practices to the online world: everyone has the feeling they need to be always available and checking out their messages all the time, reducing productivity and increasing the chances of burning out:

Letting Slack pings dictate your working life is a recipe for burnout. It's also a terrible way to work. Messages are siloed outside of public channels, so it's impossible for others to transparently see what others are working on.

Prefer keeping your formal communication to project management tools where you can easily find the whole history of a conversation and it's easier to keep it asynchronous (if someone replies a day later it wouldn't make a difference).

To avoid this some companies even disable the history of chat tools. GitLab, for example, pays for a chat plan that retains messages for 90 days or less. Their intention is to force people to use the right tools for the job and keep chats for informal communication only.

Nothing is urgent

When you switch to asynchronous communication, you'll realize something: nothing is urgent. Most things can wait until tomorrow or maybe even next week.

We got used to interrupting others to get our stuff done. By embracing asynchronous communication, we just communicate our colleagues when we need something from them and we move on to our next task. When they unblock our previous task, we get back to it. No drama required. Someone could disappear for a week and nothing would change in the company because everything was planned ahead.

Of course, there are urgent cases sometimes (e.g. servers are down), but they're the exception not the rule.