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Asynchronous Communication 101

Asynchronous Communication 101
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Asynchronous Communication 101

‘I’ll get to it when it suits me.’

This is the nature of asynchronous communication.

The reality is that most things don’t require an immediate response. For most things, a one-way email or instant message should do the job, with the recipient responding when it suits them.

The benefits of asynchronous communication are obvious:

  • you’re not at the mercy of constant interruption
  • you have more time to get in ‘the zone’, to create and do great work
  • you have more time between stimulus and response in order to make better decisions

The Peril of Hyper-Responsiveness

But today’s organizations set counter-productive expectations on availability, responsiveness, and meeting attendance. In a world of push notifications, email, instant messaging, and shrinking office space, we’re becoming increasingly distracted at work.

The average employee is getting interrupted 50 to 60 times per day, and about 80% of these interruptions are unimportant. As a result, people are spending little time in what psychologists call “the flow state,” a space where people are up to five times more productive, according to research from McKinsey.

Employees are in a constant state of distraction and hyper-responsiveness.

Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp and author of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, said on my podcast, Future Squared, that for creative jobs such as programming and writing, people need time to truly think about the work that they’re doing. “If you asked them when the last time they had a chance to really think at work was, most people would tell you they haven’t had a chance to think in quite a long time, which is really unfortunate.”

The Modern Workday

Today, the typical employee day is characterized by:

  • Hour-long meetings, by default, to discuss matters that can usually be handled virtually in one’s own time
  • Unplanned interruptions, helped in no small part by open-plan offices, instant messaging platforms, and the “ding” of desktop and smartphone notifications
  • Unnecessary consensus-seeking for reversible, non-consequential decisions
  • The relentless pursuit of “inbox zero,” a badge of honor in most workplaces, but a symbol of proficiency at putting other people’s goals ahead of one’s own
  • Traveling, often long-distance, to meet people face-to-face, when a phone call would suffice
  • Switching between tasks constantly, and suffering the dreaded cognitive switching penalty as a result, leaving one feeling exhausted with little to show for it
  • Wasting time on a specific task long after most of the value has been delivered
  • Rudimentary and administrative tasks

Decision-Making

Aside from the obvious and massive benefit of giving knowledge workers time to think, create and get into the flow state, asynchronous communication predisposes people to making better decisions.

As Robert Greene says, if you want to cut emotion out of the equation, increase your response time. Giving people time to think between question and response, rather than fall victim to blurting out the first thing that comes to mind in a meeting or when tapped on the shoulders, delivers a compound benefit to the organisation over time.

Clear and Specific Communication is Key

Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace asynchronous communication. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, most communication is text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.

In order to avoid tennis games and duplication of effort, ensure that asynchronous messages:

  • provide sufficient background detail, where necessary provide clear action item(s) and outcome(s) required.
  • provide a due date
  • provide a path of recourse if the recipient is unable to meet your requirements.

For example:

Hey Shay

Attached is the incorporation document for our new spin-off company.

Please sign the document where requested and send it back to me by 4 pm this Friday.

If you have any concerns, give me a call on 555 1983.

Companies that truly practice asynchronous communication have stepped off the factory room floor to which dated practices harken back to, and no longer conflate presence with productivity, or hours with output.

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Steve Glaveski

Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Time Rich, Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s a chronic autodidact, and he’s into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.

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