When everyone first shifted to remote work during the pandemic, it was like the world had been turned upside down. But it didn’t take long for most teams to get on board. Leaders quickly realized there were fewer downsides than anticipated, and employees realized just how much they loved working from home (and hated their commute).
At some point, though, things changed. Companies started to worry their teams weren’t actually working, people started spending more time in meetings, and the result was that many teams were working longer hours and getting more burned out than they ever had in the office. All of a sudden, working remotely wasn’t quite as appealing as it once was.
Having run a remote company for more than seven years now, we’ve gone through the same ups and downs that everyone else has recently experienced. And if you ask me, the key factor in making remote work “work” is getting aligned as a team around when to use synchronous versus asynchronous communication.
The rule is simple: Synchronous (now) is for making decisions, asynchronous (later) is for sharing information.
For the uninitiated, synchronous communication (meaning “at the same time”) is usually relegated to phone calls and virtual or in-person meetings. Whereas asynchronous communication (meaning “not at the same time”) consists of emails, text messages, video or audio recordings, and messages on Slack or Microsoft Teams.
Knowing when to use each is a critical skill for remote teams that can take years to master. Too much asynchronous communication and people feel isolated and out of the loop. Too much synchronous communication and everyone is wasting time in long meetings. My team and I have gone through both extremes, and they’re equally terrible.
This rule is a good way to create some guardrails for your team, but there’s some nuance to it. The key is understanding the benefits of each, and learning to use them in tandem.
Finding the right balance
As a former high-frequency trader, I like to think of the benefits of asynchronous communication as similar to “options” in finance. An option is a financial derivative that gives you the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell something at a future date at a future price. An option has intrinsic value because it gives you a choice.
Asynchronous communication has that same intrinsic value because you are given the choice of when and how to respond–and you can take as much time as you need. That typically leads to better, more thoughtful, and more concise communication. It also cuts down on meetings and gives people more control of their time, allowing them to focus on important work and respond to messages when it’s convenient for them.
For these reasons, asynchronous communication should typically be the default communication method for remote teams.
But it does have some critical downsides. In my own business, we relied far too heavily on asynchronous communication, to the point where it started to cause problems both from an efficiency and cultural standpoint. That’s because it can be easily misinterpreted, resulting in mistakes or interpersonal issues. Plus, you lose the face-to-face connection that synchronous communication provides–a key part of company culture while remote.
I’ve found that situations that involve brainstorming, lengthy feedback, or lots of back-and-forth conversations are worth settling synchronously (in a meeting). And anytime you really need to make sure everyone’s on the same page, it’s best to get on a call.
You can think of the two as being on either end of a spectrum. The more complicated communication is, the more likely it should be done synchronously. And the simpler it is, the more likely it should be done asynchronously.
Using them in tandem
If you want to really level up your communication, start looking for opportunities where these two forms can be combined.
For example, if you dedicate the first 15 minutes of a weekly marketing call to report on metrics, that could be done asynchronously in advance. Each person uses Loom to record a quick video running through their metrics and giving their thoughts, and then sends it out to the team ahead of time.
Now, everyone can watch the recordings (on 1.5 or 2x speed to be really efficient) prior to the meeting to get informed. The meeting itself can then be cut by 15 minutes or that time can be used for more meaningful discussion.
I’ve found there are countless situations like this in both remote and in-person companies, where most meetings are riddled with topics that could easily be covered asynchronously.
Here’s a bonus rule. If there’s ever a situation in a meeting where someone is reporting information and everyone else is just listening (or not listening), next time it should be done asynchronously in advance.