That “Quick Email” You Just Sent? It‘s Slowly Killing Your Company.

The asynchronous communication tools preferred by most organizations are exacting an enormous and largely unseen toll.

Does your inbox look like this? Illustration by Joan LeMay

It’s a typical Monday morning at CompanyCo. The smell of freshly brewed coffee fills the air, folks are cordially recapping their weekends, and you’re *finally* digging in to that big presentation you’re supposed to give on Friday. As you scan through the slides you started putting together last week, it occurs to you — you’re presenting to some pretty important people. It probably couldn’t hurt to get some quick feedback from the design team. You look around the office —everybody seems pretty busy. A short email seems like a good way to keep your colleagues in the loop without interrupting anybody’s day.

You navigate over to your gmail tab and fire up a quick draft:

Hey there! Wanted to get some quick feedback on this presentation; esp. slide 7. See attached.Thanks so much!

You click over to the “to:” field and pause for a moment. You’ve worked with a few people on the design team before, and you don’t want anybody to feel left out or neglected — plus, you’re not sure who on the team will have capacity to give you feedback. So you include all five members of the design team — heck, your email client even autocompletes their addresses for you! You hit “send,” and take a long, satisfied sip of coffee. That barely took a minute, and you’ve managed to keep the entire design team in the loop and set yourself up for a more successful presentation — and you didn’t even need to interrupt anybody. This is going to be a great week.

A few desks over, an alert flashes across the screen of CompanyCo’s lead designer. “Quick Q re: big presentation,” it advises. She pauses for a second. “What ‘big presentation’ is this?” she wonders. “Is this something I was supposed to know about?” She navigates away from the product mock-up she has been working on, and takes a closer look at the e-mail. It’s from someone in marketing, who she’s worked with on a couple of projects before. Four of her colleagues in design are cc’ed as well. “OK,” she says to herself, “I’m just going to hope that somebody else deals with this.” She navigates back to the product mock-up and takes a few moments to reorient herself to the task at hand.

Meanwhile, across town, that same alert comes across the screen of a junior designer who prefers to work from home. He’s been having a slow morning, and is actually pretty excited to have a specific task to work on. He downloads the PowerPoint presentation, and takes a look at the slides. They look… fine. But they could definitely look better— and a quick facelift could be a big help for a colleague in need. Within a couple of hours, he’s got the whole deck looking awesome. He navigates back to his e-mail tab, ready to send along the updated deck and receive some well-deserved praise from his colleagues.

No sooner than he can attach the updated deck, a new alert flashes across his screen: “re: Quick Q re: big presentation.” Huh. He updates the thread and sees that a senior designer has already chimed in. “Looks good to me, made a few small changes to slide 7 as you requested!” reads the response. Our junior designer, curious to see what his colleague came up with, downloads the deck and advances to slide 7. The changes are pretty similar to the ones that he made. But now he’s wondering… would sending along his version of the deck be helpful at this point? Would he be stepping on a more senior colleague’s toes? Not wanting to overthink things, he decides to stay out of it. “Welp,” he says to himself, “I guess it’s time for lunch.”

Back at HQ, the lead designer takes a break from the product mockup to check her email again. “Huh,” she says to herself, “If one of my best people saw fit to provide some feedback, I should probably know what this presentation is all about.” She downloads the attachment, opens it, and begins reading through the slides. She’s not entirely sure what she’s looking for —but she wants to make sure there’s nothing in there that might impact the work that her team is doing. As she finishes reading the last slide, she chuckles a little bit. “Typical marketing stuff,” she shrugs, and briefly scans the clock at the top-right of her screen.

“Holy crap, how is 2 o’clock already?”

The Agonizing, Unseen Asymmetry of Asynchronous Communications

Stories like the above play out minute after minute, day after day, at organizations all across the world. Millions of “Quick Q”s are sent off as a well-intended way to keep people in the loop without asking too much of them in the moment. But each of those “Quick Q,”s and each of the “re: re: Quick Q”s it spawns, can represent a bottomless and unbounded time commitment to the people who must receive, contextualize, and prioritize them. An email thread that takes less than a minute to start can wind up collectively costing days of productive time before it is resolved or abandoned.

And yet, nearly every organization I’ve worked with is much more concerned about the time they spend in synchronous meetings than they are about the time being lost to open-ended, asynchronous “pings.” In the interest of minimizing the time spent in synchronous meetings (or as a result of being “too busy” for such meetings), I have seen many teams fall deeper into asynchronous communication patterns that ultimately consume the vast majority of their collective time and energy. For example, I have been in countless meetings that end in a decision to “send something around for feedback,” only for that decision to result in a 40-message-deep email thread that costs hours, if not days, of productive time.

Over the last few years of working with teams and organizations, I have noticed a few common reasons as to why teams continue to blame “meetings” when most of their time is actually being lost to asynchronous messaging:

  • The cost of asynchronous communication accumulates when we are at our own desks and on our own time. Thus, we feel like synchronous meetings are costlier, simply because we cannot see the collective cost of our “Quick Q”s and “ping”s.
  • Making a final, definitive decision in a synchronous meeting can be uncomfortable and challenging. People often feel more comfortable, and more in control, soliciting feedback asynchronously and then making a decision individually.
  • Asking for open-ended feedback asynchronously feels less burdensome and interruptive than asking for somebody’s time and attention directly.

Ironically, it is often this wish to avoid larger and more direct asks that turns “small” asynchronous messages into bottomless pits of time and energy. The goal of making an asynchronous ask as lightweight and open-ended as possible often means omitting context, specificities, timelines, and other information that might seem too directly demanding. This leaves the recipient to fill in the blanks, which can often be be both time-consuming and anxiety-provoking. In other words, the asymmetry of asynchronous communication is self-compounding: the less time and attention goes into an asynchronous ask, the more time and attention that ask ultimately demands of its recipients.

For this reason, it is critical that we cast off the passive-aggressive tyranny of the open-ended ask, and learn to be clear and specific about what we need, and when we need it.

When Asking for Less Is Actually Asking for (Much) More

Let’s return to our original quasi-hypothetical scenario. Imagine that, rather than firing off that quick email, you had decided to directly ask one of your colleagues for a finite and specific amount of their synchronous time.

For starters, you would have had to decide who to ask — synchronous communication already makes it much more difficult to blanket multiple people with the same question. You would likely feel a little uncomfortable asking someone as senior as the lead designer for her time. And the junior designer working from home wouldn’t be in your immediate line of sight. You may have chosen, then, simply to approach the senior designer at their desk and say, “Hey, when you have a chance, could I ask for five minutes of your time to help me with something I’m working on?”

While it may have felt like you were asking for more in the moment, the total cost to your colleagues winds up being exponentially smaller. In our original scenario, your open-ended, one-minute email ultimately cost hours of productive time from multiple colleagues. In this updated scenario, the total cost of time to your colleagues is exactly the amount you asked for: five minutes. And, critically, you have committed that exact same amount of time to helping your colleague understand the task at hand.

Not only is this synchronous approach more symmetrical and equitable, it is also likely to produce better and faster outcomes. In my latest book Agile for Everybody, VP of Engineering and Innovation at Coca-Cola Freestyle Thomas Stubbs explained to me how his team was able to move faster by favoring a synchronous approach:

We’ve operated under the very simple principle that we’re not going to communicate over email and PowerPoint presentation; we’re going to put the designers and the technical folks into a room with the business owners and let them do their work…. Putting the right people together, we are able to make decisions and make progress really fast.
It’s also much harder to create negative working relationships when you sit in the room with someone and figure something out. There are boundaries of civility that generally apply to how you will interact with the person who is sitting across from you. Email, meanwhile, can become a passive- aggressive medium when misused — making it possibly the worst tool for Agile [teams] ever invented. The wrong people can be copied, and people who don’t need to be copied are sometimes copied. And even the people who should be copied get a lot of things they don’t need to see. Beyond that, people’s ability to perceive and deliver content and context is challenged over email. In situations where we need to make decisions and move fast, PowerPoint and email slow progress.

Stubbs’s experience offers a critical insight for everybody working in organizations of any shape and size: while a “quick ping” over email might seem like the fastest and least obtrusive way to ask a colleague for feedback, odds are it is actually slowing down your team.

Escaping the Asynchronous Hamster Wheel

Again, one of the biggest challenges with escaping the asynchronous hamster wheel is acknowledging that you have a problem in the first place.

When I’m coaching teams and individuals who complain about spending “too much time in meetings,” I often ask them to track the amount of time they spend on asynchronous communication (such as responding to “quick pings”) versus the amount of time they spend on synchronous communication (such as in-person meetings or video chats). I’ve put together a template you can use to easily keep track of how your time is divided between synchronous and asynchronous communication throughout the course of a given work week.

The Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Time Tracker I’ve used with Teams and Individuals — you can access the template via this link.

Reflecting on this template individually is one way to better diagnose the unseen toll of asynchronous communication — but the real “a ha” moment usually occurs when the whole team compares notes together. These conversations often reveal that a “quick message” one person spent a few minutes sending out can represent hours of collective effort for that person’s colleagues.

For the teams that struggle the most with this, there is often another conclusion that comes out of this collective reckoning: time spent in synchronous meetings is not being used very well. The documented “outcomes/decisions” that emerge from these teams’ synchronous meetings are often “decide to regroup” or “agree to send around meeting notes for feedback.” In other words, it is not the synchronous meetings themselves, but the asynchronous follow-ups that they produce, that are actually proving most deleterious to the team’s time and productivity.

Once a team better understands how it is actually using its synchronous and asynchronous time, it is able to address its collective needs realistically, moving beyond the convenient but often deceptive conclusion that “we’re spending too much time in meetings.” Here are some steps I have seen teams take to effectively address these challenges:

  • Use synchronous time to collaborate and drive decisions
    Most teams simply do not know how to make decisions together “in the room.” Every team’s needs and challenges are different, but I have found “disagree and commit” to be one of the most powerful tools for helping teams move beyond analysis paralysis and make definitive commitments in a finite timeframe. This can cause friction and discomfort at first, and is often a great time to bring in a coach from outside the immediate team or organization.
  • Bring clarity to asynchronous asks with an email subject style guide
    My geographically far-flung team and I have a rule for email: every message must include in its subject line the type of ask (whether it requires a response or is simply an FYI) and, if a response is needed, when it is needed. For example, one recent email I sent to a colleague had the subject: “[FYI] My Schedule for February.” Another one had the subject: “[RESPONSE NEEDED BY THURSDAY 5pm] New Marketing One-Sheet Draft.” This approach reduces the asymmetry of email by forcing the asker to take a more clear and thoughtful approach, leaving less ambiguity for the recipient(s) to resolve.
  • Give every (t)ask a time limit
    As the story that opens this article illustrates, open-ended asks can often become black holes into which time, energy, and good will disappear. My team and I have taken to both asking and offering specific and finite amounts of time, ie, “I will spend 10 minutes reviewing the document you sent,” or “please spend no more than a half-hour on the first draft of our comms plan.” Putting these clear limits in place has made it much easier for us to plan and prioritize.
  • Put structure around collaborative editing tools
    Email is not the only offender when it comes to thoughtless asynchronous communications. Collaborative editing tools like Google Docs have made it incredibly easy for multiple people to both solicit and offer feedback that is vague, open-ended, and at times flat-out contradictory. My colleagues and I have found it very helpful to write a “brief” at the top of such documents that states WHO is providing feedback and WHEN that feedback will be complete, as well as WHO is incorporating the feedback and WHEN it will be incorporated. This helps to avoid the frantic back-and-forths that dominate the inline comments of many collaborative documents.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, create and protect time for your team to reflect on the way you work together. It is during those “too busy” times when teams tend to lean most heavily on asynchronous communication, creating a vicious cycle of rushed, thoughtless messaging that only compounds itself over time. Be brave enough to break the cycle and ask directly for some time with your team to talk about the way you’re working together, rather than adding on one more “quick email” to the ever-growing pile.

Have an experience to share about how your team has balanced synchronous and asynchronous communication? Interested in learning more about the work I do coaching teams and individuals through some of these challenges? Drop me a line at matt@mattlemay.com — I’d love to hear from you!