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Asynchronous Communication and Collaboration

Some companies have already been used to the remote culture, with employees scattered around the globe, and everyone working (mostly) from home. For those of us who had an office to go to, the past few months brought changes to everyday life.


Shifting from a chat by the coffee machine to a chat platform, and from sitting all together in a conference room to sitting at home on a conference call has not been easy for everyone. But, that's not the point. We're adapting. It's a long process, but we've made a lot of progress.

What we didn't expect is the shift in our own alertness and productivity. All of a sudden, everyone was at home, in front of the computer. Some found it liberating to be free from all the office distractions, others missed the socializing.

What follows is our story, how we went from synchronous to asynchronous communication and collaboration.

Synchronous - existing or occurring at the same time.

In the first days and weeks, chats and video calls were on fire. It went so far that if you asked a question at 11 PM on a group chat, you'd get an answer within 10 minutes. That still happens sometimes, but in those days, people felt compelled to answer. Why?

The logic is, you're at home because you can't be anywhere else; you want to show you're a dedicated employee, but there's no common space where your dedication can be displayed; if you don't reply quickly enough, it means you're not a reliable source of information, like a news portal that doesn't have the latest updates.

In most cases, the messages would pop up at a strange time simply because they would be forgotten otherwise. The rules weren't set or talked about. Should I reply right away or not? Should I solve this now, or can it wait till tomorrow? No one was sure what was expected of them.

Not to mention the response time during the regular working hours. The funny part is, we're not even the employee-controlling kind of company. Still, your gut feeling (or your anxiety) tells you that if you don't reply instantly, it automatically means you're not looking at your screen, therefore you're not working.

Translated into everyday routine, you wake up and drink your tea while turning on the computer, and from that moment on your brain is wired to be on high alert. Try getting anything done properly while your panic mode is on and blinking. It's nearly impossible.

The constant messages and invitations to video calls made it very difficult to focus on whatever it is you should be doing. Don't forget, it takes your brain about 23 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption! As a result, the omnipresence came at the cost of productivity, which in this situation is the equivalent of adding fuel to the fire.

The first move was to take a step back, and define exactly what you're working on. Then, a deadline needs to be set. This way, the responsibility is transferred from the manager to the employee. Needless to say, deadlines and workload should be adequate and achievable. Otherwise, the nervous employee becomes the very stressed employee, dancing toward the infamous burnout.

When you have tasks and due dates, the focus shifts to what's accomplished and if it's done in time. Again, translated into everyday routine, you can wake up at 4 PM and work until midnight if it suits you best. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today." This does not necessarily mean today is strictly confined from 9 AM to 5 PM.

It's important to point out one can't just up and decide this is the new way to do things and not show up until midday waving the "asynchronous" flag. It's an arrangement that needs to be talked about, discussed, and agreed upon. The management and the entire team has to be aware and ok with this type of collaboration. Maybe it's not ideal for everyone, but for some teams, it could work out really well.

If someone needs to ask you something, they can email you, send a quick message, or leave a comment on a task. Either way, the sense of urgency is gone. You could turn off those noisy notifications and really focus on your work. Unless you're a firefighter, then forget about all of this!

But seriously, just because a person is sitting in front of a computer, doesn't mean they're doing Real Work. Likewise, not answering within minutes does not equal not working. On the contrary, the alerts could be snoozed in an attempt to concentrate better.

For all those who don't have to answer the phone, work in shifts, or generally perform jobs that require an immediate exchange of information, there's no reason to deny them some benefits of asynchronous collaboration.

Asynchronous - not existing or occurring at the same time.

To illustrate the difference plainly, synchronous - phone calls, asynchronous - letters. It's all about giving people the freedom to complete their tasks on time, but in a way that suits them best.

You might think, "What about meetings?" How many times have you seen or heard the sentences That meeting could have been an email, A meeting without food should be an email? The amount of articles on the internet giving advice on how to cut back meeting hours probably outnumbers the grains of sand in the Sahara desert.

Just a few, off the top of our heads:

4 things you should do if you want to cut back on your meeting time

5 Ways to Cut Back on Meetings That Don't Matter

5 Ways to Reduce Internal Meetings By 75%

Of course, we can't throw all meetings out of the window. With the right agenda, guest list, timebox, and facilitator, some get-togethers can be really productive.

However, one wonders, is it really necessary to sit all together at the same time and discuss a topic? When there are ten people in the room, and three of them have an idea to pitch, whose idea will be accepted? Most likely the one presented with more charisma, or the one closest to what others have in mind already. The chance to let a good idea sink just because no one had the time to really think it through is too high.

Why not use a discussion board instead? Everyone can write down their thoughts, let others digest them, and give their feedback. We found Discussions very useful. Not only because we didn't have the liberty to pop into the conference room anymore every time we wanted to talk about something, but also because talking about something would often transform into 3-hour long open-ended brainstormings. Now, we can finally focus on a topic, stay on it, and actually agree upon actionable tasks, transparently.

All in all, it's about going back to the basics. The past twenty years have been marked by instant messaging. The quicker, the better. Now it's time to hit the brakes and give people the space to answer in their own time. The tasks will be done on time, and all the messages will receive a reply.

There used to be a "Nudge" option in MSN Messenger back in the day, and some of us old enough to remember it miss it sometimes. Now that concentration, focus, and attention are rare gems, difficult to obtain, even more difficult to keep, we realize nudging is the last thing we need. We're not firefighters, after all. 

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