Asynchronous Communication: Making Remote Team Communication More Effective

Let me be honest about something. Communication while remote working can be harder than I ever imagined.

If you’d indulge me for a minute, I’d like to rewind the story a bit.

So, in Jan 2020, when COVID-19 cases started rising in Hong Kong, Toasty went into a fully work-from-home mode. Before that, we actually worked in a hybrid set-up; five of us worked at our Hong Kong office, and three worked remotely. As a company building a platform that makes remote meeting participants engage efficiently, we actually had all the tools we could possibly need in our arsenal.

Working from home during this period opened up a new door for us. Therefore, once we were back in the office, I implemented work-from-home Wednesdays. Firstly this reduced commute times, and secondly it allowed team members more time with families.

And for me, this was an experiment that could dictate our future work environment.

What keeps me from committing to a fully remote Toasty, you ask?

Finding the perfect model for seamless and effective communication for interacting with and managing remote employees.

The Communication We are Used to

Conversations in same-space offices aren’t just limited to meeting rooms. Think about it. How often have you picked walking over to a colleague’s desk for a discussion instead of shooting a mail? Or been plagued by a problem by hours, only to find the solution over coffee break with a colleague?

In other words, in a same-space office, conversations and the exchange of information is real-time or live. It happens in the hour pre-defined as work hours. Therefore, it comes with the assumption that any piece of communication sent during office hours will get immediate replies. This is synchronous communication. It’s the form of communication we are most used to, and this includes:

  • Face-to-face conversations 🙋‍♂️
  • Phone calls 📳
  • Team meetings at the office 🤝
  • Video conferences 👩‍💻
  • Chat sessions 💬

So synchronous communication may not require everyone to be in the same room, but it does require them to chat at the same time. 

Why Synchronous Communication is Our Default for Communicating

Synchronous communication is a crucial element of work conversations and is the go-to for several reasons. 

Builds Good Rapport: Nothing is as effective as having a face-to-face conversation. However, video conferencing does come in pretty close. It allows you to exchange information and lets you interpret things left unsaid, through facial expressions and tone of voice. Synchronous communications help build connections and prevent misunderstandings. 

Perfect for Sensitive Discussions: Imagine having to let go of someone and doing it over email? Could there be anything more apathetic? Synchronous communication allows us to be more personal with intimate conversations.  

Breaks down Complexity: Discussing a dynamic issue, where the nitty-gritty is complex, can be really awkward over email or chat. So, for an in-depth discussion with everyone, a structured video call during a virtual meeting is your best bet. 

Best for Urgent Communication: If your house is burning down, I don’t think you are going to write an email to the fire department. The same holds for some critical office situations. If you require an urgent response, getting your synchronous communication right is the best way to do this. 

Is This Impossible for Remote Teams?

Remote working does not mean there is no synchronous communication. Look at your schedule. If you work remotely, chances are your schedule is choc-a-bloc full of video calls and team meetings.

Even though it’s not exactly the same as physical interaction, it’s as close as you will get to the real life experience. You’ll have a much easier time picking up on the meaning and tone of any message, and also get the opportunity to clarify details on the spot without confusion.

Magda Sowierszenko, Head of Communications – Remote How, in her latest article on BUILDING INCLUSIVE COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION IN DIGITAL WORKPLACES.

What’s hard to come across in remote meetings are those ‘Aha!’ moments that often are part and parcel of face-to-face conversations. 

In remote set-ups, we often don’t see our colleagues unless we reach out to them proactively. 

And is that good? It can be. Because communication then becomes intentional and it’s also structured. What backs this up is the many technological tools we have at our disposal. Emails, Trello, Basecamp, Slack; they are all cornerstones of a remote working team.

Is There Even a Problem, Then? 

Sadly, yes. While, in theory, communication should become more mindful during remote work, what it becomes is constant. I recently read a study on RescueTime, which said that an average knowledge worker (writers, designers, developers, and project managers) checks in with communication tools every 6 minutes! What’s concerning is that usage is only increasing. 

RescueTime’s latest survey shows that during this global health crisis, post-March 11 (the date when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic), the percentage of people using communication apps has increased from 35.5% to 49%.

But can overcommunicating be a problem? I would say, in some cases, yes. It can spell disaster for remote teams, especially when there are no clear guidelines on how, where, and when to communicate. 

And I know because it’s what I experienced while working remotely. 

Why and How I Changed My Remote Communication Style

When back in Jan, the Toasty team went into work-from-home; my work style transformed. All the time I previously spent commuting, in face-to-face meetings with colleagues, or even in team lunches, became the time I spent messaging or video calling people. I was Slack-ing my team constantly, expecting quick, if not immediate, responses.

I realized the pitfalls of this only when I saw that my task list remained overwhelmingly long, even though I spent more hours at my computer. How had my productivity dropped when I was communicating more? 

I knew I was missing the bigger picture. It was then that I refreshed my memory on asynchronous communication. Using the Drift and Buffer guides and methods, I decided to dive headfirst into asynchronous communication. 

Asynchronous Communication

/eɪˈsɪŋkrənəs/ /kəmjuːnɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/

“Electronically mediated communication in which the participants do not communicate concurrently.”

Implementing Asynchronous Communication: The How 🎯

For me, it was essential to understand what was going wrong, and that’s where I started. I audited our current communication process to figure out the pitfalls and highlight what was working efficiently. 

I don’t want to mince words here. Constant pings and messages on Slack were driving us crazy and becoming a distraction. The result: hours of work but nothing productive to show for it. 

It was also very easy to miss out on important communication because Slack became a dumping ground for all messages that flew between team members. 

What we needed was for every type of communication to have its own home. And the communication guideline I then drafted was based on getting that one thing right. 

The Toasty Communication Process

The table below outlines the Toasty communication process, and for us, it has saved critical time and upped productivity.

Communication Channel Used For Used by Use Case Urgency Level
Toasty Daily standups/Alignment meetings/all-hands Toasty Team Live meetings High
Slack Critical communication/Quick Check-ins/Brainstorm Ideas Toasty Team Server down/product experience glitches, etc. High
Clubhouse Most Communication Product and Engineering Teams Bugs/New Tasks Intermediate
Trello Most Communication Marketing Teams New Tasks/Discussions Intermediate
Google Docs  Knowledge Sharing Toasty Team User insights/Milestones Low
Email Notes Toasty Team User insights/Milestones Low

With different teams communicating on various platforms like Clubhouse and Trello, record keeping and issue tracking became seamless. It also kept team members up to date on the relevant communication. 

If a message needed us to spend time on it, and then sending out a structured response, emails and Google docs became our go-to. It also gave everyone more time to digest the information they were receiving.

I also spent some time drafting additional guidelines. Closing the loop on emails, responding to emergency messages on Slack, sticking to communication channels; all became rules set in stone. Inhabiting this new communication model became my goal for Toasty. 

While sharing this with the team was one task, another thing that lay ahead was aligning the entire team to this shift. 

Screenshot of email to Toasty Team announcing move to asynchronous communication

It’s a mindset we are all learning together. It’s not easy to go from constant messages to batching communication throughout the day. But the results we have noticed since we established this form of communication wins out. 

Why Asynchronous Communication

The increasing popularity of asynchronous communication in workplaces, remote, hybrid, or traditional, can be attributed to the structure and discipline it injects into the workflow. Also, let’s not forget that asynchronous communication is a cheerleader for unhampered productivity. 

That constant Slack communications left me in a tizzy is something I’ve already mentioned. The thing is, I am not alone. 

The average Slack user sends an average of 200 messages a day, though 1,000-message power users are “not the exception.

Harvard Business Review article on Collaborative Overload

Working with one eye on instant messaging business apps and email, going through a revolving door of video call meetings, leaves most of us with no time for actual work. And being mobile means, we are also never off the clock.

Asynchronous communication has helped me regain control over my space and time. I don’t have a hundred things fighting for my headspace, which means I am more productive.

How I Have Benefitted 👍

As a leader, I need to have proper documentation on everything. Async comms helps streamline all communication and keeps it trackable.

Nothing beats a smooth, functional, effective process in my book. In the past month, I have noticed how async comms can run like a finely tuned machine once you set it up and streamline it. 

It’s an added advantage that this leaves me with time and mind space for other, more important tasks. 

Where it Falters 👎

I run a semi-remote team building a virtual product, but I know that asynchronous communication is not for everyone. It will not work effectively for every type of business, especially those that have tangible operations. 

It can also be a boiling pot for misunderstandings, especially in large teams. The difference between ‘Take up this issue’ and ‘Could you take up this issue’ is of two words, but when sent out as a message, it becomes a case of command vs. request. The lack of tone of voice and sometimes clarity can be a huge issue. 

But most importantly, you feel disconnected. In such a system, you can miss the face-to-face communication, which in a remote set-up, video calls, and sessions provide. Without video conferencing, you also miss out on interactive sessions and team building which is so important in a remote setup.

So, Only Asynchronous Communication Isn’t Enough?

The simple answer? No.

If your team needs to communicate and collaborate effectively, you need to mix in synchronous communication where it makes sense. When you have a crisis, want to build rapport, discuss sensitive or dynamic issues, synchronous communication is best, especially in the form of collaborative video conferencing.

At Toasty, we know that video meetings aren’t going anywhere. Asynchronous communication may be the way to run an all-star team, but your team can’t score that winning point if they don’t have the same playbook. And for that, they need to come together. 

That may not be enough, however. Why? Because on a 15-people call, the loudest voices often dominate the meeting. Engagement levels drop if you can’t get everyone to participate. 

The key is to run a productive, interactive video meeting with a structure, clear instructions, and responsibility-sharing mechanism. 

How Do I Get the Best of Both Worlds?

Imagine this with me! You are the meeting host. At the start, you introduce the agenda, and then break up your team into smaller groups. You create breakout rooms for these groups to meet in, giving them discussion prompts and tools to submit and curate their responses. You bring these groups back together in the main room, share group responses, and have a more seamless, useful, and engaging discussion. 

Toasty does precisely this. Our platform infuses virtual team meetings with the same exuberance and interactivity experienced during in-person meetings. With everyone forming smaller groups, we encourage participation from every team member. The result: more ideas and an increase in the discussion’s value.

Asynchronous or synchronous, that is not the question. The question is how to strike a balance between the two. 

We, at Toasty, are still experimenting with getting that balance right. But the moment we do, we are definitely taking another step towards our utopia of remote working. 

🎋  Small group discussions are the secret to running productive online team meetings. Toasty differs from most video conferencing platforms in that it doesn’t just allow breakout groups, it also prompts each group a topic/question to respond collectively right away. All groups can see each other’s responses after entering their idea. This makes discussion between large groups and small groups flow seamlessly and simplifies your role as a meeting leader.