The shift to remote work was fairly seamless for many of us, thanks in part to video technology, intranet software, and instant messaging platforms.
But as the pandemic lingered on, new and unexpected communication-related challenges erupted: Zoom fatigue, blurred work-life balance, and the increasing pressure to be ‘always on’.
Many of these challenges were a result of us spending a lot of time in a response-mode rather than in a productive state. This is partly because the communication tools we were relying on in our ‘new normal’ weren’t designed for productivity, but rather rapid communication.
As organizations begin welcoming employees back into the workplace, it’s important to understand the strengths and limitations of collaborating with synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and communication tools. If we want to emerge from the pandemic with better communication, we will need to master how we use both sets of tools.
What is asynchronous and synchronous communication?
Asynchronous means ‘not at the same time’, so when you are having asynchronous communication, it isn’t happening live, and responses occur intermittently. For example, an email sent, and then read 30 minutes later is asynchronous.
Information hosted on your intranet is also asynchronous, because it is accessible to employees when they need it. The term asynchronous collaboration might feel esoteric, but it really isn't. It’s about being able to collaborate with team members, without having to be working on the same problem at the same time.
Conversely, synchronous collaboration requires live conversation like text chats, phone calls, or in-person meetings. In synchronous collaboration, responses occur immediately. If you are communicating on an instant messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams with people at the same time, then you are engaging in synchronous collaboration.
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Which one is better?
At first glance synchronous collaboration seems like the clear winner. Don’t we all want an immediate response?
Well, not exactly.
Faster communication isn’t necessarily better. And not all work requires an immediate response. This is particularly true if your work involves deep concentration, like coding, writing, or designing (Side note: as I am writing this post, my Slack notifications are going berserk). If we are constantly responding, then we really aren’t getting anything accomplished, are we?
Synchronous communication tools can also create a heightened sense of anxiety. “I better answer this now or my colleagues will think I am not working,” is a common sentiment among remote workers. These employees may feel an obligation to over compensate, since they cannot be physically seen. And the pressure to be ‘always on’ generally leads to more conversations, which then leads to expectations for those conversations. It’s an endless cycle.
Communication can also easily become buried within instant messaging apps. This can be somewhat remedied by having specific and defined channels, but even then communication can get missed. Most of us have experienced a scenario like this: You post an important topic or document and request input from your team. While you await feedback, another colleague posts a humorous meme. Now that meme is getting all the attention and the comments, and subsequently your topic has become completely buried.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with synchronous collaboration is that it can halt ‘flow’. As noted by famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Click the link for further reading and to learn how to pronounce his name correctly), flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.
Instant messaging platforms are not the problem. They are performing exactly how they were intended to perform. The problem is how we use the tools. Instant messaging platforms were designed for shallow conversations, and updates—not deep brainstorming.
Focusing without distraction is going to be critical in the hyper-connected, ‘always on’ workplace. So we need to ensure we are using our synchronous communication tools for synchronous communication, and our asynchronous communication tools for asynchronous communication.
The impact on the hybrid workplace
In an office environment (pre pandemic), there were many chances to obtain information from colleagues in a synchronous way —meetings, water cooler chats, after work socials, or coffee breaks. In most cases, communication was a simple “Oh hey” away.
As many of us shifted to an all-remote environment, we were forced to rely on instant messaging platforms, which as we discussed, has advantages and disadvantages. But now, as many businesses are beginning to reopen their physical spaces, we are finding ourselves in a new workplace paradigm: the hybrid workplace.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, a hybrid workplace can be tricky because it involves managing two distinct employee experiences.
Without careful consideration about conversations, an information hierarchy may become created with remote workers sitting at the bottom. This can create information silos and knowledge gaps, which inevitably can degrade employee morale and trust.
In hybrid workplace settings you will need to ensure that synchronous communication occurring between onsite workers doesn’t negatively impact off-site or remote workers. Even with the best intentions, this can quickly go awry.
For example, it can be incredibly difficult to attend a meeting as the sole remote employee. You are either interrupting someone or end up being quiet for the duration because you can’t find your opening to participate in the conversation. Video or sound lags can also make it challenging to participate in the conversation.
Shifting to a culture of asynchronous collaboration
Finding the balance between asynchronous and synchronous communication isn’t going to happen overnight. It takes a profound shift in tools, processes, habits, and culture.
For instance, moving to a meeting model where agendas are circulated ahead of time allows for thoughtful reflection from all meeting participants, not just the most vocal. Here are some other steps you can take to reap the benefits of asynchronous collaboration and communication:
When communicating, communicate with intent. Be clear about what you need from the other person and what the deadline may be. Adding in those extra details will prevent unnecessary back and forth.
If you need a response urgently, then say so. For example, “Here is the last RFP, I need your feedback by Tuesday at 4pm.”
Evaluate employees on their work, not their availability
Having an employee who is consistently available isn’t as valuable as an employee who provides strong output.
Reconsider work hours
While it’s great to have employees generally working similar core hours, it limits the opportunity to hire in different time zones.
Understand when to use what
Don’t use email internally. It locks information inside people’s inboxes where no one else can find it. When people can’t find the information they need, collaboration becomes less efficient.
Provide emergency communication opportunities
With so much communication happening digitally, it can be easy for messages to get lost, ignored, or even muted. This becomes critical for urgent messages, like health and safety information. Internally, we rely on our Broadcast feature. It pushes out critical messages to employees on their phones.
Benefits of asynchronous collaboration in a hybrid workplace
While it’s hard to predict the future of work at this exact moment, it’s almost impossible to dispute the benefits to shifting to an asynchronous culture—particularly in a hybrid workplace. Some of these include:
In an asynchronous culture, employees can communicate and collaborate at a time most suitable to the environment, there are no set work hours. Employees control how they structure their workdays to fit their lifestyles, sleep schedules, and personal responsibilities.
Asynchronous communication is slower, but that can be an advantage. It prevents knee-jerk responses, and communication tends to be of higher quality. No one wants back-and-forth in a platform like email, so communication tends to be more clear and succinct.
In an asynchronous culture, no employee is at a disadvantage because of the city they work in or the hours they keep. That also means organizations can increase their hiring efforts to a wider audience of candidates.
In five years from now, the most successful organizations will be those that mastered both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, to create opportunities for deep thinking and reflection while at the same time satisfying our need for quick answers to simple questions. So whether you are researching new communication tools or are auditing your existing ones, ask yourself: Is the tool truly empowering our team to do their best work? Or is it simply hijacking employee time and attention?
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