Remote Work — Asynchronous Communication

Shane Gearon
Nov 14, 2019 · 4 min read

Recently I’ve started a new role at a company where we are all working remote. While we are remote, some of the other companies we are working with are not, so I started thinking about what makes you able to work remote. I’d like to pass on some of what I think makes you a better communicator, not only for remote, but for any kind of group project in general, asynchronous communication.

By assuming that all of your messages won’t be answered right away, you can plan out your work better and have a nice backlog of tasks to complete while wait for answers from the team.

For this post, I want to talk specifically about chat. Chat comes in a bunch of different forms these days, and at a lot of companies, it has almost completely replaced email. But in gaining the immediate nature of chat, I think we’ve…

Photo by Linda Eller-Shein


Are you there?

I need your help with something.

These are the kind of messages I get all the time. Most of the time it’s not intentional, but you’re asking me to stop working and chat with you. This leads to a very interruption driven workplace, and it falls apart pretty quickly when dealing with remote workers or flexible schedules.

If I’m busy right now, then I will probably stop what I’m doing and respond. Even if my response is to tell you I’m busy and I’ll chat later, you’ve already interrupted my work. Likely I’ll need to gather some kind of information around what they are asking about, and decide if it’s worth stopping my current task to help. Or if I’ve muted my chat notifications, I’m not going to respond right away and when I do, maybe the person messaging me is not available as well. So I’ll leave a message asking about what the issue was, or catch up with them again later.

So what can we do to solve this? Crafting a chat message that’s good enough for the person to be able to respond when they get time and gives them all the information that you have on the subject. A colleague referred to this as dumping your current brain status into the message, giving the person you believe can help you a much better idea of the mindset you are in and likely the problem you are facing.

Photo by Andrew Neel

What does this look like in practice? It’s like writing an essay or even just a good email. It usually contains something like this:

  • Subject line that explains the topic you’d like to discuss, or the task you are trying to complete
  • Details on what the problem is that is blocking that task, or that you aren’t understanding correctly.
  • All the relevant information you have about what you’ve tried so far
  • Think of the questions that they might ask right away and try and answer them as well

Hi, I’m trying to write a blog post about asynchronous communication. The problem I’m having is coming up with a good generic example of what a chat message should look like.

Currently all the examples I can think of are related to my industry specifically, instead of just general ones. I’ve thought of using a sporting metaphor but I don’t like sports and don’t think it’s a good fit for the audience.

If you have time to come up with some ideas you can let me know, or add it to the draft document I’ve written. The link is here.

Sure, it’s a longer message, and it took you much longer to write, but the responses you get from this kind of message are much better quality and more helpful than the first kind of message. Sometimes you will even find in the process of writing up a detailed message, you’ll solve your own problem or answer the question yourself.

Another benefit is that you can post something like this into a team chat and potentially have multiple people able to answer it as well. I would recommend this, and some companies even enforce this with a “No Direct Messages” policy. The reason to do this is to prevent knowledge being stuck with certain team members instead of being shared. Even if others on the team can’t answer the question, when someone does, the whole team can learn from the issue as well.

I’m trying to keep it as generic as possible, but in a lot of chat clients they have the ability to use threads as well. If you have the opportunity to respond to a message in a thread that’s usually much nicer as it keeps the team chat nice and orderly, and allows multiple issues to be in the same chat without causing confusion.

Once you start thinking about communicating with your team in this way it solves a lot of problems. If you’re remote and working in different time zones, you gain the ability to do hand-offs to other teams to work on something when you are offline.

Photo by Nursultan Rakysh

If you’re on a team that suffers from many interruptions, you can mute your chat for a few hours to be more productive and still be able to help the team. Seeing someone put in the effort to write up a proper chat message is usually a trigger for them to give a better answer when responding as well.

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Shane Gearon

Written by

Shane Gearon is an Engineering Partner at Commit. Commit is an early-stage talent firm that pairs engineers with startup companies.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Shane Gearon

Written by

Shane Gearon is an Engineering Partner at Commit. Commit is an early-stage talent firm that pairs engineers with startup companies.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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