My former boss did not have Skype or any similar software installed on his PC. He did not use instant messaging or chat. E-mails were enough for most communications – on the other hand, if he needed something urgent, he’d call you up on your phone or talk to you face to face.
I admired this. Maybe it was just novel to me then, considering how spoiled (not to mention, distracted) most of us are with so many lines of communications at our disposal in this age. However, there were also obvious merits to his approach. For one, nothing beats talking face-to-face. In addition, he came from a hardware background and I think timing and fast response is everything in that environment.
To me, it seemed like a no-nonsense approach worth emulating.
The problem with face-to-face
Then things like the current COVID-19 pandemic happen and you realize you don’t always have this option. Now instead of having face-to-face meetings in offices, you’ll need to settle for choppy video calls.
With the rise of video calls, there’s been a lot of research surfacing on the draining effect video conferencing has on people. That’s just one of many articles from various publications that talk about this. And anyone who’s had to sit through more than two hours in a Zoom call can probably relate (I definitely can).
Likewise, internet speeds are terrible in many parts of the world (definitely in my part of the world) and made even worse by the surge caused by the pandemic. This ends up in people getting disconnected from calls here and there and talking with robotic voices. In a lot of cases, these things simply become normal. But it undoubtedly leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, or a general sense of being left out for many people.
And these things don’t happen only during pandemics. The world has continued to become more interconnected and remote work has become a normal, with or without the pandemic. And where there’s remote work, there’s bound to be problems with effective communication.
The promise of async
So now we realize the need to turn to improved asynchronous communication to prevent bad things from happening. This could be something as simple as dropping a message in your Slack channel or taking down notes during a meeting to share later. It could also be as complex as a 10-page wiki topic.
The written form makes sure nothing and no one is left out of the discussion, unless, of course, he or she chooses to be. Likewise, there’s no question about the content being correctly read – ignoring typos and lack of tone cues, of course.
But while asynchronous communication has its advantages, it doesn’t take long for one to realize it’s not as easy as it sounds. Yes, we don’t have to carve out time in our day for “meetings that could be e-mails”. Then again, there’s a completely different set of challenges and skill sets (or habits) your team needs to build up to do it effectively.
Respect and trust
In my experience, shifting more towards asynchronous communication has been a practice in respect and trust. Without the visual cues and emotional visibility you get from being face-to-face, you basically have no choice. You have to believe in your teammates.
Here are a few things asynchronous communication challenges you to do that could lead to healthier relationships with your colleagues.
Respect their time
Seems like common sense, but you might be surprised to reflect and realize how often you failed to respect people’s time without knowing it. When your teammates are in the same workspace, it’s easy to poke them or pull them out for meetings with little thought. Subconsciously, we often feel like we deserve their time whenever we need it.
A lot of people struggle with managing their own time. Adding a wildcard by pulling them out for an unplanned meeting only makes things worse. When we communicate asynchronously, we give them permission to read, digest, and respond at their own pace. Seems like a very respectful thing to do.
Trust that they know their own informational needs.
When talking face to face, you have the power to “read the room” or tailor information to what people seem to need. On the other hand, asynchronous communication often means communicating to many people at the same time (e.g. in Slack channels or email threads). You might be tempted to try the same “filtering of information” in this case, but without the visual cues, it’s nearly impossible to do so.
This essentially forces you to trust your teammates to pick out and distill the information they need. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to barrage them with walls of text. They can always get back to you if the information is not enough. Likewise, “respecting people’s inboxes” is a thing in some work cultures, so don’t send out team-specific messages to the entire company mailing list.
Trust that they’re doing their best.
Asynchronous communication means giving up control on when people respond or take action on your message. You might be tempted to ping them and that’s fine. But expecting an instant response goes against what asynchronous communication is about.
Giving up control, in itself, is always a good exercise. If you can’t trust your teammates to do the right thing, there’s no point in working with them at all. Working asynchronously helps you develop that trust that everyone is doing the best they can, even if they don’t respond instantly.
As much as we want to replicate what we would normally have in an on-site environment, remote work will always have a set of best practices and habits that would otherwise not be as applicable. Being aware and accepting this is a key to making improvements.
Asynchronous communication is one of those things that takes time to master, especially when we’ve gotten used to instant responses. But with enough trust and respect, this could be a great shift for your team to make – even when you’re back on site.
For more ideas and tips on remote work, check out my other article with a summary of good remote practices.