Hackernoon logoAsynchronous Communications Can Help Reclaim Lost Time by@joachim

Asynchronous Communications Can Help Reclaim Lost Time

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@joachimJoachim Eeckhout

I’m a digital entrepreneur living in Berlin, founder of Labiotech.eu, and father of two.

Have you ever felt like having done nothing after a full day of work? Do you find yourself going away from the office so you can finally get things done? Good news: you’re not alone. Bad news: this may be linked to how you communicate at work!

How communication pollutes your workday

You’re at your office, ready to get things done, and a colleague approaches and asks, “Hey, do you have a minute?” You’re a nice person, so you say yes. Fast-forward to five minutes later and you try to go back to what you were doing, only to realize that you lost track of it. Now you're losing time to get back to the flow you were in.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes around 23 minutes to get back into a concentrated state after an interruption. And when you know that a typical worker gets interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes on average, it’s not surprising that we can’t get things done at the office.

This feeling of busy work days is a real problem. Look at meeting practice, for instance. The average middle-level manager spends around 35% of their time in meetings—and the worst part is that 37% of those meetings are valued as unproductive! That’s a terrible waste of time. 

Another common issue is the use of emails. Workers spend around 30% of their time checking emails. There’s nothing wrong with communication via email—it’s actually an essential part of asynchronous communication. The problem lies in how we expect our colleagues or employees to answer emails: instantly.

We've all met these people who can't stay focused for five minutes on a task without checking their emails. Companies often encourage this behavior by rewarding employees who are always "reactive" or "fast to answer." However, this is a very shallow view of employee performance that leads to highly stressed teams.

So, how do you regain time and focus in a busy workplace? One very efficient practice I discovered over the years is asynchronous communication.

Asynchronous communication's fundamental principles

According to Wikipedia, asynchronous communication is a transmission of data where data can be transmitted intermittently rather than in a steady stream. In work practice, it’s communicating without the immediate back and forth.

In order for asynchronous communication to work, members of a team or company need to agree on simple rules. Below are the basic rules to follow to make asynchronous communication work:

1. Agree on delayed responses

Asynchronous companies agree that instant communication is not a good practice and favor delayed responses. Employees are not expected to answer instant messages, emails, and messages on other communication channels in the following minutes. Instead, they should be allowed to take several hours or even days, depending on the importance and urgency of the message.

That’s the fundamental building block of asynchronous communication. Without this first rule in place, the whole system scrambles, and tension may arise in the team. If this is not clearly adopted by everybody, some people may push back and force the communication back to its initial state.

Once you start allowing delayed response, you will see that stress linked to constantly checking emails or Slack messages will decrease in the team. With less stress, you can start focusing on the bigger picture.

2. Talk less, write more

Have you ever attended one of those meetings where you feel like only one person’s voice counted? That’s a common problem of meetings, and it’s not the only one. Face-to-face conversations are full of cognitive bias. Asynchronous communication offers to remove these biases through more writing and less talking.

Talking is reactive; writing is constructive. By allowing people to put their thoughts on paper, we give them more time and space to express complex ideas. Giving time to read the answer also leads to better-formed responses. The constant back and forth of a meeting doesn’t allow for the deep understanding of a written conversation.

In asynchronous companies, meetings are a last-resort tool in your communication box. Meetings should only be used for things that can’t be discussed in writing or for things that need a personal connection.

Meetings should also use a set of rules to make sure they are aligned with the asynchronous communication system:

  • Prepare an agenda in advance so people can prepare for the meeting
  • Agree in advance on a specific time for the meeting
  • Take notes and share with people that didn’t attend but could use the information
  • Meet only with people adding value to the meeting

Meetings can be a very productive tool if they are used sparingly.

3. Don’t interrupt

Constant interruptions are quite common in office spaces, and as long as you allow them, they will mess up your concentration. One important rule of asynchronous communication is "no spontaneous interruption." This has to be clearly communicated so the whole team knows what to expect.

This may be difficult for some teams that value spontaneous talk. If that’s the case, you can also use a simple rule to build a hybrid model where interruptions are allowed in certain conditions. For instance, you can agree that anybody wearing headphones should not be interrupted. It’s effortless, and you don’t even need to listen to music.

Another good solution is the "office hours" system. This method is like the office hours used by professors in universities. With this system, each employee makes a few hours per week available for spontaneous interruptions. This works well with experts who are regularly asked to answer technical questions from the team. You don't want those people to be constantly interrupted. Protect their concentration by batching interruptions in a short window of time.

4. Batch your communication time

It’s important that you and your team learn to batch communications. Don’t forget, the goal of asynchronous communication is to offer you back the precious time you should spend on deep-focus work. One easy way to free up your daily schedule is by batching communication.

For instance, I check my emails, Slack messages, and project management notifications once or twice a day, never more (and also never outside of office hours). It usually happens once before lunch and once at the end of the day. In total, I spend one hour per day on these communication channels, while the average professional spends four hours per day on just emails. I do receive a higher number of messages than average, but the fact that they are batched lets me focus on it for a short time and use the rest of my time for deep focus. If I would not batch it, the task switch would completely disrupt my day (spoiler alert, I also use the Getting Things Done method to make the most of this batching time).

Don't be afraid about what's happening between two batches of communication. If asynchronous communication is established, your team will know to expect your responses at some point during the day.

5. Communicate on the right channel

Modern teams use many tools. In my team, for instance, we use a mix of Slack, Monday.com, and emails to communicate. If you don’t set rules for where messages should belong, you may rapidly find yourself with a mess. Chaotic Slack channels, lost project details, and long email chains are a common issue at the workplace.

Asynchronous communication fixes this issue by setting up rules about each channel. In my company, for instance, project-related discussions are always kept in our project management tool, Monday.com. If a project is discussed on Slack, we stop it and move it to our project management tool. Our Slack channels are dedicated to quick questions or updates, such as rescheduling a meeting or quickly sharing a link (it's also home to cat video links... you need a place for this). We use emails for external communication. If an email requires a complex discussion, it’s added to a project or to a meeting agenda. With these rules in place, you make sure that people know where to find the right information. You also make sure they can answer different communication channels by priority.

Embracing asynchronous communication in a resistant environment

Resistance to change in the workplace is quite common. And something as disrupting as asynchronous communication could be very difficult to adopt.

You will find common excuses to keep the status quo in the workplace. The statistics used at the beginning of this article are strong arguments in favor of asynchronous communication, but for those of you who encounter more resistance, here are the common critiques you will face:

  • Team spirit will suffer”: Many entrepreneurs think that constant chat in the office is a good sign of team spirit and collaboration. For me, it's a sign of chaos and low concentration. Social interactions at the office are a great motivator for your team, but it doesn't have to be all day long! Instead, use lunch breaks to gather the team to share real quality time, or organize regular team gatherings. The benefits will be way higher than constant interruptions.
  • I need an urgent answer”: The fear of waiting for an answer is a strong incentive against asynchronous communication. But are you sure that your tasks are urgent? Will something bad happen if the answer to your question doesn't come instantly? In 99% of the cases, no. Most people confuse urgent with important. I like to use the Eisenhower matrix to identify the urgency of a task. In case of real urgency, rules can always be broken, but if you allow every task to be urgent, then nothing is urgent.
  • I will look less reliable”: That's a normal concern for people who are used to being reactive in their communication. Unfortunately, there is only one way to go forward: you have to convince yourself of the benefits of asynchronous communication. Without a true understanding of the benefits, you will go back to bad practices. At the company level, it should also be agreed that people are not evaluated on their reactivity, but on their performance.

Reclaim your time

Asynchronous communication is the best method to regain your time and find deep focus at work. With the rise of remote work, this is becoming even more important.

After the COVID-19 crisis started, many companies were forced to work fully remotely. For most of them, they simply replaced the office formula with Zoom calls and constant Slack notifications. The companies are not benefiting from what remote work can offer.

Employees, especially millennials, are becoming aware of what a good work-life balance is. If you want your team to be happy at work and in life, the best gift you can do to them is offering a stressless communication practice, so they can use most of their working time to focus on tasks that matter. Go asynchronous, reclaim your time, and find deep focus.

Photos by Volodymyr Hryshchenko and RODOLFO BARRETO on Unsplash

Previously published at https://joachim.substack.com/p/asynchronous-communication


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