5 Tips for Improving Asynchronous Communication
How reading and writing more can promote collaboration across time-zones and save time for everyone
When I started at DocuSign in August of 2018, I was living in Portland, OR and was mostly working with a Product Development team based in Paris.
The first time I had to schedule a meeting to review designs, I looked at my calendar hoping to find time available the next day. We were 9 hours apart and there were only two time slots that were compatible across the time zones. As I compared calendars, I discovered these time slots were booked for the entire week, and the week after that some attendees were taking a vacation.
In short, it would have been about 3 weeks until everyone was available to review my designs.
There had to be a better way.
At that time, I had been working remotely for many years. But the 9-hour difference required more than the remote working skills I had developed. I scoured the internet for solutions to my problem, but was disappointed to find that most information about working remotely focused on real-time communication — namely meetings and chat.
Basically, many existing solutions for remote working focused on overcoming the distance. I needed ways to collaborate while not only being in a different place, but more importantly, while working at different times.
To address that, over the past year I’ve developed 5 very specific practices that I use daily and that I have shared with the various teams I work with.
1. Request specific feedback from specific people
Don’t wait until you’re done to share what you’re working on. Choose a tool where you’re going to publish your work (for me, it’s Abstract) and make sure your project or document is always up to date. Send your team a link to your work and add comments asking specific questions to specific individuals.
Also, if the tool you’re using allows it, close out comments as they get resolved. A project with tens or hundreds of open comments gets very overwhelming and hard to navigate.
2. Schedule time to read and comment
As you start tagging people in comments, you also start getting a lot of comment notifications. Make sure you keep them organized in your email inbox and schedule time on your calendar to read them and respond. For me, it’s about 30 minutes to 1 hour per day. While that may seem like a lot of time to spend reviewing comments, I’ve found it takes less time than holding meetings to review or discuss all of the projects I’m involved with.
If time allows, I also spend a few minutes looking through documentation or designs posted by other teams. To make that easier, I subscribe to certain projects in Confluence and Jira so that I get notified when there are updates. I will also scan through InVision and Abstract projects to see if anything catches my eye. Spending a few minutes every day to look through other teams’ work has helped me identify dependencies and opportunities for cross-team collaboration that I would never have known about.
3. Use the right commenting tools for your team
When I started using Abstract, most people on my team weren’t familiar with the tool. First, I needed to make sure everyone created an account and knew how to use it. Even after a few months, I still had teammates who were not using the new tool. For those individuals, I use Google Slides instead because I know they are familiar with it. I create a few intro slides that set the context for the project and then either show screenshots of my designs or link to Abstract directly from the slides. Interestingly, I’ve found that the structure and familiarity of using Google Slides as a starting point make it more likely that people access my designs through Abstract.
What I’ve learned is that if you want people to collaborate with you asynchronously, you have to make it easy for them and not expect them to adopt the communication channels you prefer.
4. Don’t forget email
Email often gets a bad rep, but to me, it’s still one of the most powerful asynchronous communication channels. To make sure your emails don’t get lost in people’s inboxes, there are a few simple rules you can try to follow.
Keep an email focused on one topic or one question only. If you ask two questions in an email, more often than not, only one of them will be answered and you have no control over which one.
Just as with comments, ask specific people specific questions. If there is more than one person on the email thread, you might never get an answer if you don’t call someone out specifically. If it is important that people take some kind of action, I add [ACTION REQUIRED] to the email subject. I use that very sparingly though. If overused, I would imagine people might start ignoring my calls for action.
Always respond to emails, even if your response is a simple “Thanks!”. It shows that you read what was written, and it makes it more likely that people will reach out to you because they know you take their messages seriously. If possible, close email threads by replying to everyone the resolution, what updates or changes were made, or what actions were taken. If the thread gets out of hand, then it might be time to schedule a meeting.
5. Schedule meetings when needed
As much as I rely on collaborating asynchronously, there are still instances when I have to resort to real-time communication. I’ve found that there are two kinds of coworkers with whom asynchronous collaboration doesn’t work well.
First, there are always people who will not respond to emails and especially comments no matter what you do. Second, some people find it very hard to express themselves concisely and clearly in written form. In those cases, comments or email threads can become messy and confusing very quickly.
When I come across one of those two challenges, I continue to prioritize meetings instead of asynchronous ways of collaborating. Again, meeting people where they are and respecting their comfort zone always tends to wield better collaboration.
However, there are still some things you can do to keep meetings as short and focused as possible.
If possible, send out materials in advance and ask people to read and comment on it ahead of the meeting. During the meeting, address all the comments first before opening up to other remarks.
If it’s not possible to have reading materials available ahead of time, take the first 10 minutes of the meeting to do some silent reading. As people read, they should also leave comments that will then be used as the agenda for the meeting. One big advantage of having people read is that it ensures that that documentation is self-explanatory. I’ve often seen people produce incomplete or unclear documentation because they rely on the fact that they can fill in the gaps during a meeting.
Flash forward 9 months, 5000 miles, and too many moving boxes. I’m now living in Paris with my family!
Even though the developers and PMs I work with closely are now sitting next to me, I’m still using all of these best practices to collaborate with teams back in the US. And the best part is that it’s not just me. After sharing these ideas with different teams I work with, I often hear colleagues say “Let’s continue this asynchronously!”. That means many follow-up meetings are being avoided simply because people are more aware that collaboration can be done via other channels.
But the biggest surprise is how much these practices still apply to working with team members in my own office. Yes, we do prioritize real-time collaboration since we’re co-located, but follow-ups and quick updates can still be done asynchronously. This frees up people’s calendars and also allows for team members elsewhere to follow and join discussions.
If you have other ideas or stories to share about how you’re collaborating asynchronously, I would love to hear them.
🙌 Special thanks to Christa Louks for her help editing this article and to Anndo Ko for her wonderful illustrations.