Asynchronous Communication: The Answer to Our 'Always on' Culture

Although it’s often chalked up as merely a symptom of modern attitudes towards work, burnout can have a serious impact on employees and organizations. According to a Gallup study, employees experiencing work-related stress are more likely to take sick days and actively search for other jobs — they’re also 13% less confident in their performance and half as likely to discuss goals with their managers.

Employee burnout became a major talking point over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic further eroded the boundaries between our personal and professional lives. Many of us now eat, sleep, and work in the same room, logging longer hours than we did at the office. Is it any wonder we’re struggling to switch off?

One way that organizations can reduce employee stress and fight the “always on” mentality is by embracing asynchronous communication. In this article, we’ll explain what asynchronous communication is and explore some asynchronous communication examples and best practices. 

What is asynchronous communication? 

The easiest way to explain asynchronous communication is by comparing it to its counterpart, synchronous communication. So, what is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication? 

Synchronous communication requires all participants to be present on the same platform to exchange information. Examples of synchronous communication include phone calls, Zoom meetings, in-person meetings, or simply stopping by a colleague’s desk for a chat.

Asynchronous communication, meanwhile, is essentially sending a message without expecting to receive an immediate response. It does not require all parties to be present to share information. Many of the modes of communication we use in both our personal and working lives are asynchronous — emails, instant messages, texts, and voicemail, for example. When adapting a working from home psychology, it makes sense that, when teams are dispersed and have different schedules, asynchronous communication can be a way forward.

How asynchronous communication can help battle burnout

Communication is crucial in all aspects of life and work — but can there be such thing as too much communication? Yes, according to research from the Harvard Business Review, which found that employees can spend up to 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues in emails, meetings, and instant messaging apps. But it doesn’t end when you’re off the clock. Thanks to our mobile devices, it’s never been easier to check and respond to work messages at any time of the day or night.

All that, and it isn’t even driving us to do our best work. In fact, the constant demands on our attention make it impossible to focus fully on our projects and tasks. As one study shows, employees often attempt to work faster to compensate for workplace interruptions, leading to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort.” 

How is asynchronous communication the answer to all this? Let’s break it down.

It allows for deep work

"Deep work" is a concept coined by computer science professor Cal Newport, describing work produced in a state of “distraction-free concentration.” Newport argues that this results in higher quality output and increased satisfaction for the employee. However, most of us spend our days participating in what is known as "shallow work" — sifting through emails, responding to messages, and answering queries from colleagues.

Asynchronous Communication: The Answer to Our “Always on” Culture 2

Asynchronous communication allows employees to respond to messages on their own schedule, freeing up time for uninterrupted work on more complex projects and tasks. Shallow work makes us busy; deep work makes us productive.

It gives employees control over their working days
Relying less on synchronous communication gives employees more freedom to structure their days around deep work, yes — but it also allows them to fit work into their lives, not vice versa. 

As the world returns to work after the COVID-19 pandemic, asynchronous communication will be vital for those continuing to work from home on a full- or part-time basis. When employees are not obligated to answer messages instantly, they can mold their workdays to suit their lifestyles, responsibilities, and personal productivity preferences (for example, those who find they do their best work at night or in the early morning).

It simplifies communication between time zones

If your company includes teams spread out across countries, communicating can get complicated. Asynchronous communication makes allowances for time differences because employees can simply move on to other work while they wait for their colleagues abroad to wake up or log on.

It encourages better communication overall

When an instant response is not guaranteed, you have to consider your words more carefully. Will the recipient of your message be able to understand what you’re saying without the need for back-and-forth? The same goes for the other side, too. Asynchronous communication gives you the time to formulate a thoughtful response instead of a knee-jerk reaction. 

What’s more, asynchronous communication also encourages forward planning. Last-minute requests just won’t fly, so you have to be organized. 

Asynchronous communication tips

The line between synchronous and asynchronous communication is often blurred. Slack messages and emails are asynchronous but still often used for real-time conversation. In fact, most emails are answered within two minutes. But if embracing asynchronous communication is your goal, here are some guidelines to follow.

  • Make use of statuses: Statuses are the handiest way to communicate that you’re responding to messages on a different schedule. Instant messaging app Slack allows users to set statuses informing colleagues that they’re on vacation, in a meeting, or otherwise away from their laptops. It also flags any time differences, warning users that their message may not be seen until a certain time.
  • Over-communicate: It’s natural to have a quick, informal chat with a colleague before asking them a question in person. However, this particular feature of office life does not translate well to asynchronous communication. Try to give your teammates all the information in one message (including links and files — check your document sharing settings), keeping in mind that they may be replying to you at a different time. That way, they won’t have to chase you for more details or wonder what that “Hi, do you have a second?” message could have been about.
  • Know the difference between "urgent" and "important": The two words have very different meanings. Organizations must define what an urgent message is and how it should be flagged. They should also ask employees to use good judgment when it comes to @mentions. Does the entire Slack channel really need to be notified of this development? Be mindful. Encourage staff to turn off notifications after hours or when they need to focus.
  • Employ asynchronous communication tools: A collaborative work management tool like Wrike can streamline communication between team members, giving them more time to actually get stuff done. Your team can stay connected no matter their time zone or schedule with a unified space to store files, share information, and collaborate with ease.

Balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication

None of this is to say that synchronous communication should be abandoned entirely. It’s still the best way for employees to socialize, problem-solve, and discuss complex issues — it’s just not the only way. Many organizations, including Buffer, prioritize asynchronous communication while acknowledging the importance of real-time meetings in building strong teams. 

The world of work has seen some enormous changes over the past year, and it’s clear that it will never be the same. To succeed, we must embrace new ideas — and for happier, more productive employees, asynchronous communication is the way forward. 

Wrike helps dispersed, hybrid, and in-person teams communicate more effectively and reap the benefits of asynchronous communication. Establish a digital workspace that encourages deep work and thoughtful collaboration across time zones. Try a free two-week trial of Wrike and see why it’s one of the most effective tools for asynchronous communication.

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