I live about 300 miles from my closest team member – I’m in Kansas; she’s in St. Louis – and neither of us live within 500 miles of Atlassian’s nearest office in Austin, Texas. It’s currently 6:46 p.m. Central Time as I draft this blog post – but I was able to make it to my favorite mid-morning barre class earlier today. This flexibility in location and working hours is made possible because I work on a distributed team. Because we are apart from one another physically, our work is often completed outside of real-time or face-to-face exchanges. In other words, our collaboration and communication are, more often than not, asynchronous.
Post-pandemic, companies worldwide have been adopting remote-first policies to allow them to compete for the best talent: Gartner estimates that fully remote and hybrid workers will account for 71% of the US workforce in 2023, and 48% of the global workforce. But much of our collective asynchronous working muscle is still relatively new, and we’re still learning how and when to flex it.
To this point, a recent study Atlassian conducted with Wakefield Research of 1,000 knowledge workers in the US and Australia showed that the problem with distributed work is not the physical distance, but that “companies don’t have the right tools, norms, and ways of working in place, and are relying on practices that are better suited for in-person, in-office collaboration.”
When should your team employ asynchronous communication – and when is synchronous (AKA real-time) communication the better option? How can you ensure your team is truly making the most of asynchronous communication? Atlassian is on the front lines of this brave new world of work, and our tried-and-tested practices can help resolve some of the trickier challenges of distributed work.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: What’s the difference?
Let’s make sure we’ve defined both terms properly before we dive in. It’s a bit of a mouthful for how simple the term is, but asynchronous communication is just any communication – email, page comment, carrier pigeon – that doesn’t take place in real time. So yes, even a rapid-fire Slack back-and-forth is technically asynchronous – more on that in a minute. Synchronous communication happens live and in the moment: think meetings (virtual or in-person), or that bane of millennial existence, the telephone call.
The rise in asynchronous communication and collaboration matters because communication accounts for a truly sizable chunk of how we spend our work days: A May 2023 Loom study found that knowledge workers spend “an average of 3 hours and 43 minutes a day communicating through various means, including emails, instant messages, video conferences, and phone calls.” Put another way, we spend half our days communicating with one another.
Check out this video, a quick slice of a free, self-paced course from Atlassian University called Async Collaboration for Distributed Teams, for more on the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication, and how to make the most of each:
Three times you think you need synchronous communication – but might not.
The pandemic shifted many of us to remote work on distributed teams, and fast – but instead of changing our ways of working, most of us simply brought along our in-person meeting habits with us to this new distributed world, holding all the same meetings, but over Zoom.
This is not a best practice: 76% of employees report getting more distracted on Zoom compared to in-person meetings. Since hybrid work is here to stay, we should rethink how often we’re meeting and how effectively we’re communicating. We can maximize shared understanding and productivity by asking ourselves: is the task in question better suited for synchronous or asynchronous communication?
Here are three specific work tasks often accomplished via meetings that might be better accomplished asynchronously:
Ideation and brainstorming
Traditionally, we’ve used our brains to “storm” a problem together, in group settings and in real time. But asynchronous brainstorming can be more effective and more equitable.
The natural benefit of asynchronous brainstorming is that team members can work at their own pace, thereby allowing more time for reflection. But studies also show that women and people from marginalized communities are given fewer opportunities to contribute – and “are criticized more harshly when they do so in a range of synchronous work settings,” according to the Harvard Business Review. In short? Asynchronous work can fuel creativity by allowing traditionally quieted voices to add their contributions without interruption, thereby diversifying the pool of new ideas. And who doesn’t want more, and more creative, ideas?
The next step after brainstorming all those incredible ideas is, of course, to bring them to life. And it turns out, there’s often no need to plan work in a room, live, when team collaboration tools (like, say, Atlassian’s 😉) can act as an easily referenced and sharable home for teams’ work.
Work and project management tools are designed to help teams collaborate. They also control for some of our favorite asynchronous tools’ quirks: though a Slack message allows for less formality than an email and therefore (often, anyway) greater efficiency, there is also no way to assign any system of priority to a Slack message. And because of our hardwiring, it can be incredibly tempting to yield to feelings of urgency – I just got a message from my boss’s boss asking me why a campaign is under-performing; I should address it ASAP – versus priority: there’s another campaign that needs to get out the door next week; I should focus on finalizing that work.
Our hot take is that status meetings should never have been meetings in the first place. After all, the purpose of a status meeting is alignment, which doesn’t require back-and-forth or collaboration – it simply requires stakeholders to be informed.
Atlassian teams use Atlas to achieve this kind of alignment. Atlas is essentially a directory, where teams can establish themselves and identify the projects and goals they’re working on, as well as connect with other teams working on those same goals. If you’d like to try out replacing status meeting with Atlas, check out this how-to. There are dozens of tools on the market to suit the needs of every team size and shape.
Keep your team aligned in the way that works best for you – but for status meetings, synchronous is never the way to go.
One time you really do need synchronous communication: intentional togetherness
On the other side of Atlassian’s Work From Anywhere philosophy is our dedication to connecting in person when we can in order to bond and build trust. And while it’s possible to build trust asynchronously, relationships do struggle to develop in an asynchronous model. That’s why prioritize what we call “intentional togetherness” to round out our sense of one another: digitally, but also in person, so that we might know one another as full humans with lives outside of the digital “walls” of our workplace. It’s hard to beat gathering in real life in order to build personal connections, so if you can, save some budget and time to nurture team connections and build psychological safety. The investment will pay off in dividends.
7 tips to excel at asynchronous communication with your team
These tips were taken from our Atlassian University course designed to help you understand and excel at asynchronous communication and collaboration with your team.
- Start slow. Small changes can make more of an impact than you’d think. Take a look at your calendar for the next week: is there one meeting you might be able to move to async communication instead? Congrats: you just found yourself 30 or 60 minutes.
- Experiment with new tactics and techniques. What kind of hypothesis can you generate about async communication with your team, and how can you test that hypothesis to determine whether it’s accurate?
- Ask your team to share their async best practices. Survey them: what are they doing, and what have they tried that they like? The more you bring your team in from the start, the better the change management, if it’s not just a “you” but an “us” process
- Establish a working agreement. Working agreements can help teams align on sync vs. async communication and collaboration preferences by making the implicit explicit. Among other questions, this play will help you determine how your team members want to communicate with one another, and which channels they’ll use to do it.
- Do the pre-work. Whether it’s as simple as setting an agenda or as involved as soliciting brainstorming async before getting together to collaborate on those ideas synchronously, one of the best chances of synchronous communication’s success is async pre-work.
- Be intentional in how you use async communication tools. The idea is to use them to help you, not let them rule over you. Try setting blocks of time to respond to Slack pings and email, saving more of your time for completing projects and tasks that are not communication-related.
- Avoid burnout. The joy of a flexible work schedule is also a potential threat: when you could work anytime, you have to be careful not to work all the time. If you don’t set those personal boundaries, you’ll burn yourself out, so be intentional about it. Set an agreement with your team about message response time, so you can ensure you’re meeting team expectations – and then more fully enjoy your time away from your work.
Eager to learn more about async communication and how to make it work harder for you? Take the free, self-paced Atlassian University course, Async Collaboration for Distributed Teams and earn a free badge showing you know how to collaborate and communicate asynchronously.
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