In order to run a successful remote or hybrid team, maximising the use of Asynchronous – aka Async – communication is key. At Bean Ninjas, we have been using Async from the start. But there has been a learning curve which has taken many iterations to develop.
After six years of experience, here is the ultimate guide to Async so that you can take all of our lessons and run with them.
What is Async Communication?
Async means there is a time lag between when information is given and when that information being processed by the receiver, or a response being sent. It occurs anytime people involved aren’t communicating in a real time, live setting.
Async includes email, Slack, text messages or other messaging services, video updates and via files on Google Drive or other collaborative platforms.
What is Synchronous Communication?
Synchronous (or Sync) Communication on the other hand, is where communication is happening live and in real time. For example phone calls, in person meetings and zoom video conferences.
We can think of Async as happening on “my time” versus Sync happening on “our time”.
Of course, there are pros and cons to both types of communication. Understanding and articulating those pros and cons helps our team know when to choose Async.
The Pros of Async Communication
Async is always our default because of the flexibility it affords us. There is no need to consider calendar availability or use advance planning to align meetings. It is particularly useful when our team members are working across six different time zones. This also plays to our advantage with a mix of full time and part time staff with different availability in their working days.
Records of communication
Another advantage of Async which continues to pay dividends is that there are excellent records and notes at every stage. Especially when it comes to long term projects where the last action might have been taken weeks ago. It is easy to refresh because conversations are documented in writing or recorded video messages.
When dense information is distributed by video recording, it enables the receiver to rewatch, play and pause at their will. This maximises their understanding and take down relevant notes.
Async Communication is inclusive
Especially with hybrid teams, where some people see each other in person and others are completely remote. An unconscious bias can form where decisions are made and information disseminated using Sync communication in the office. But for those who are working remotely, it means they can easily become excluded from those conversations and ultimately breed disharmony.
By choosing to use Async, we purposefully engineer inclusivity of communication and decision making.
Countering the dominance of highly outspoken team members when gathering perspectives
Async communication has the distinct advantage of ensuring all opinions are voiced aloud and given weight. Especially where there are highly outspoken team members who have the tendency to dominate the airwaves during sync meetings.
Maximising alignment to strategic goals
Defaulting to Async communication allows time to thoughtfully consider responses and check priorities before actioning something. Async can help mitigate the tendency to go off on tangents or down rabbit holes which are not in alignment with strategy.
We have really found that the more we use Async, the more we have seen thoughtful communication occurring throughout all levels of Bean Ninjas.
The Cons of Async Communication
Async Communication isn’t the best choice for hard conversations
If dealing with a sensitive or difficult topic, async does not allow for the real time ability to gauge someone’s reactions or emotional response. When it’s time for a hard conversation, we choose Sync.
Misunderstandings will happen
A double edged sword of Async is that without care and attention, misunderstandings do inevitably occur. Throughout the years we have found two main ways that misunderstandings occur:
1. Misunderstandings due to lack of clarity. A disadvantage of async is miscommunication and this is a problem when communicating across time zones. It can take 12 hours, or sometimes even a day or two, before realising a miscommunication has happened. These misunderstandings usually happen when someone hasn’t communicated clearly or precisely.
The number one way we work to avoid this is by pre-empting the receiver’s questions, and by being extremely specific. For example:
“Can you send those figures through ASAP?”, is much clearer when asked as, “Can you send x,y,z figures through for X client from the month of November 2021 in a pdf report? I need them by 5pm AEST today.”
Overcommunication helps us to avoid mistakes and lost time.
2. Misunderstandings due to tone. Sometimes our written communication can be interpreted in a different tone than what was intended. Any time where tone is really important or has any potential to be misunderstood, we choose to send a video instead of a written message. That way tone is far more easily conveyed and doesn’t leave anyone wondering what the intent was from a piece of communication.
Requires a high ability for people to context switch and compartmentalize
This skill takes practice and time to get used to. When using Async, it sometimes means that someone is unable to continue working on a project while they are awaiting a response from someone else.
There are two solutions to this, the first being that Async works best when there are multiple pieces of work going on at once so that when one project is blocked, you can focus on something else.
Alternatively, where there is a high need for collaboration or feedback we choose to put a sprint in place where both parties are available for some level of collaboration.
Async Communication is more difficult to implement in client facing roles
One thing we have learnt is that while it is one thing to implement and bias towards Async communication within our team internally, it isn’t always possible to communicate with our clients asynchronously. When clients prefer synchronous communication, we of course facilitate that rather than trying to mould them to our way of working.
What this can mean for team members in client facing roles is that the habit of synchronous communication with clients can make the switch to async for internal comms more difficult.
Move Status updates and Company updates to Async
Why have a thirty minute meeting to get a status update? Instead we use 3-5 minute loom videos which the receiver can watch at their convenience, and at double speed.
We have a regular schedule for status updates, for example our weekly workflow loom videos are due every week on Thursday.
I also use Loom to send out important updates internally instead of interrupting the team company wide with a meeting.
Adapting weekly department meetings
Every week, I have a content marketing meeting scheduled, and a number of others.
The agenda is sent out between a week to a day prior to the meeting with status updates at the top and items requiring discussion listed at the bottom. Whenever possible, we try and address agenda items in advance via slack or loom videos so that the meeting can be shortened or to maximise time spent together.
For example, each of these Carried Forward action items for one of our recent Leadership meetings was covered in Slack instead of taking time during our zoom call. Links to documents and video examples in the agenda are extremely helpful for this:
Question every meeting
Whether in a team member role or a leadership role, we are progressing to every single person questioning whether a meeting is necessary or not. To help with the process, these are two questions we ask on a regular basis around meetings:
1. What are we trying to achieve by holding this meeting? For example, trying to gather consensus, make a decision, decide on a plan of action
2. Could the bigger task or conversation be broken down into smaller tasks and smaller conversations via slack, email or video? I will regularly ask:
Turning “Can we jump on a call?” into “How about async?”
Once upon a time at Bean Ninjas, our answer to when someone asked “can we jump on a call?” was yes.
But now, the default answer is “can we handle it async instead?” What we have found out in the process is that many things don’t actually need a meeting or a phonecall.
Providing feedback to a team member is often better via a loom video as they can watch the replays. Additionally, we ask team members to write out the question they want to discuss or share a loom video. It forces conciseness and clarity on the roadblock they are experiencing.
Instead of having a weekly meeting, convert to a video with slides instead that team members can each view at a time which is convenient for them:
Introducing New Team Members
The async process we use when someone new joins the Bean Ninjas team:
1. Whoever has hired them sends out an introductory video to everyone the new team member will be working with to provide them with background and context:
2. Once the new team member has joined, their team lead introduces them on slack in the #general channel with a written bio and a short video.
3. The new team member then shares their own written or video intro video so others can get to know them.
Each week our team members send a 3 minute loom video stating what their upcoming workload looks like. It is accompanied by a screen recording of their calendar or a spreadsheet with their different projects and how they have allocated their time.
This format increases team members’ engagement in the planning process by having a written and spoken commitment as well as decreasing the meeting load on their team leader.
Using Slack status to indicate availability
Another part of effective Asynchronous communication is having clear communication and understanding of fellow team members’ availability and work status.
The way we do this is through our Slack status.
How do you update your Slack Status?
Click on your profile picture and select “Update your status”.
Here are some examples of ways to communicate to your fellow team members when they can expect to hear back from you or if you are unavailable:
We believe the combination of remote teams and asynchronous communication is a key foundation to the future of work. Async has made us a more productive and happier workplace, and we hope that embracing some of these strategies and approaches can help you do the same in your teams.