How Our Team is Building Asynchronous Communication into our Workflows
Many of us are enjoying the benefits of working from home: eating home-cooked food, throwing in a load of laundry between meetings, and eliminating wasted commuting time. But, there’s another benefit of remote work we’re loving here at Shift — asynchronous communication.
It may sound like another buzz word, but it’s an important concept to consider as we adjust to a more permanent — or at least blended — state of working from home. Simply put, it refers to communication that doesn’t happen in real-time. And what we’ve discovered over the last few months of the pandemic is that not always being available actually makes us more productive. It’s a little counterintuitive, right? When you dig in, it makes sense how asynchronous communication helps people get more work done (and often higher quality, too). But, it’s essential to be thoughtful and intentional about the way you do it with your team.
What is the right balance?
Before the pandemic, and our decision to close the office entirely, the Shift team didn’t work from home all that often. We take great pleasure in working together in our beautiful office in downtown Victoria, so the reality of working from home day in and day out was daunting. I know that I get a LOT of energy just being around the team, talking through issues, cracking jokes — often unscheduled but important chats. As work from home started, I worried about what the impact would be: How would we run meetings differently? Did we need more or fewer meetings? How do we continue to build a healthy team culture, especially with a growing team? How would we onboard new employees and get to know them the way we know each other? Though we’re still figuring out the answer to some of these questions, I have been amazed at how well we’ve done. In fact, I’d say that we are more productive than ever, thanks in great part to our commitment to effective asynchronous collaboration.
We’ve also been lucky enough to be able to safely open up the office just two days per week for optional in-office days, giving people a chance to come in — if they choose to — on Thursday and Friday. This mix of both remote and in-office workdays has given us the opportunity not only to compare and contrast but also think about how we work remotely versus in person. While we are constantly re-assessing based on our provincial health and safety guidelines, this has been an excellent opportunity for our team to observe the perks of both — and the consensus so far is that balancing the two works fabulously for us.
Let’s dig in: what makes it work?
Mixing both in-person and remote modes of work has allowed us to rethink how we organize meetings and decide which days are for what — like time blocking, but in days rather than hours. That mix looks a bit different for each role, but overall it’s allowed us to do more deep work. For example, we’ve moved the most critical internal team meetings to in-person days. By minimizing the amount of time spent on video calls, everyone gets a bit of a break from exhausting constant screen time.
We’ve been thinking about the benefits of asynchronous communication for a while now as we have members of our design and development teams in Europe. So, there’s always been a need to balance expectations around communication for those teams due to time zone differences. The most important lesson has been the surprising advantages of not always getting an instant response from people. Taking the pressure off of replying to an email or Slack message the second you receive it, and being clear about not expecting an immediate reply, allows more time for all those involved to be a little more thoughtful, a little less rushed, and perhaps a little more clear. If you have to wait a few hours, or even a day, for a response, will it change the outcome?
The expectation for instantaneous responses doesn’t always lead to lower quality communication. Still, it certainly results in more frequent interruptions, and that has a big impact on everyone’s ability to do deep work. Every alert, notification, and email requires a break in concentration to respond. According to researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Humboldt University, those disruptions eat up an average of 23 minutes each time. A few thoughtful messages, with time in between, will actually save everyone time in the long run by reducing back-and-forth chats and reserving more of the day for focused work.
Bring back focus & flow
Asynchronous communication can help reclaim the essential component of the workday that so many people have lost — focus. Mentally demanding work such as writing code or content requires dedicated periods of focus and shouldn’t just be squeezed between meetings and writing emails. A synchronous by default workday can have the detrimental effect of saturating working hours with meetings, emails, and Slack conversations that don’t lead to any meaningful output.
Don’t be afraid to block off chunks of time during the day solely dedicated to focused work — with notifications turned off and all communication reserved for later. Just make sure to let your team know your plan. Setting aside periods of time to get in the flow, or “the zone,” means you’re giving yourself a chance to be fully engaged with the task at hand. It’s the ultimate way to work on complex and creative projects that demand full attention. So turn off those notifications and give your thoughts a chance to run wild, ideally when your energy is at its peak for the day (post morning coffee for me!)
Remove unnecessary barriers and make information easily accessible
We recently reorganized our shared marketing Google Drive folder. It sounds so simple, but by making sure all of our documents live in a shared Drive, we no longer have to worry about anyone on the team hitting unnecessary barriers in their workflow, or interrupting another coworker for a basic request like file access. For asynchronous communication to really work, people need access to all of the information they need to do their job. Having to rely on someone else for access, who may or may not be simultaneously working, is a roadblock no one needs.
Make the most of synchronous meetings
It isn’t possible to function on asynchronous communication alone. Real-time meetings definitely have a critical role at Shift, but what we’ve learned over the past few months is that these blocks of time should be managed judiciously. There are still several use cases for synchronous communication at Shift: 1:1 check-ins and catch-ups, urgent problem solving, delivering critical information to the whole team, digging into important discussions and priorities with key stakeholders (think OKRs), and of course brainstorming (like in our #Strat meetings).
The truth is, Slack messages and email are the worst offenders and often don’t actually need an immediate response. Whoever is on the receiving end of that message shouldn’t be expected to break their focus all in the name of an immediate response. According to our friends at RescueTime, when there was a Slack outage on the morning of June 27, 2018, productive work increased. To replicate that forced bubble of productive work, try muting Slack notifications for defined periods of time every day. You can take it one step further and mark that time on your calendar so that your team knows you aren’t available.
Take it slow
It’s way too stressful when there’s pressure to respond immediately — and many of us are inundated with messages, coming at us from everywhere all the time. As the sender, think about the person on the other end: is your priority their priority? Asynchronous communication doesn’t always work — sometimes, you need that answer now. But, it’s an important topic to raise with your team. The more people you have thinking critically about it, the easier it is to end the vicious cycle of “real-time expectations.” Be thoughtful, allow everyone the time they need to focus, and build systems to ensure you’re all on the same page.