One colleague has moved from London to Dubai. Another has shifted his hours to manage childcare responsibilities. Don’t forget the person putting in two more hours at night than she did before. And you’re all collaborating on the same project.
This is asynchronous communication: exchanges that don’t happen in real time, but rather on your own time.
Asynchronous communication isn’t new, and it’s possible that a part of your workday is already asynchronous. Maybe you’ve been a dealing with a client on a different coast or colleagues in different time zones, or maybe you have a habit of clearing your inbox before bed while everyone else is offline.
But after the pandemic forced many out of shared office buildings and into private spaces, asynchronous communication has become more ingrained in daily life. And although Zoom meetings and instant messaging are synchronous – meaning they happen in real time and immediately – many of us now work more on our own schedules, especially as we juggle other personal tasks. This makes working on the same clock as everyone else near impossible.
On one hand, this gives workers more freedom to work in a way that makes sense for our lives. However, some say asynchronous communication is slower and less collaborative, and can make us feel isolated. So, as more companies bang the drum of worker flexibility in the post-pandemic world, should we all expect to operate asynchronously in the future? And how will this change the way we do our jobs?
Many workers like asynchronous work, since it allows them to squeeze work in between tasks like running errands or tending to childcare (Credit: Alamy)
Not the same as ‘remote’
Although remote work often involves a lot of asynchronous communication, these two terms are definitively different.
"I think it is important to note that remote and async work are not equivalent," says Jen Rhymer, a researcher at Stanford University, who's looked at how companies implement both synchronous and asynchronous models. Some companies who have gone remote still expect workers to be at their home desks from nine to five, like they would at the office, and participate in synchronous activities like Zoom check-ins.
In asynchronous work, however, workers complete tasks on their own timetable, which may be very different to that of their colleagues. That means communication is not expected to be immediate – people respond when it's convenient, and within the hours of their own workdays. Online hubs, like Google Docs or Dropbox, help facilitate this way of working; people can access the resources they need on their own, and then send completed tasks to other colleagues, who can pick them up whenever their workday begins.
Of course, teams and organisations who work across multiple countries have been acquainted with asynchronous working since well before the pandemic. If a company has staff in Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles, for example, different time zones make it impossible to work synchronously all the time.
What's different now is how the pandemic has made asynchronous communication far more common, even for companies with no international staff. No one is physically in the same space at the same time, and many people have ended up working unconventional hours to juggle caring for kids and other family members, for instance. That means that some workers who were used to having their colleagues alongside them from nine to five have been forced to shift to asynchronous working – which comes with both benefits and challenges.
"Remote and especially async work is an important option, but not a great fit for everyone; it is a mode of work that has trade-offs," says Rhymer. Advantages to working asynchronously include the ability to set aside time for deep thinking. "When the expectation of an immediate response is removed, people are able to focus on their work for long periods of time while scheduling times of the day to reply to colleagues,” she says.
Asynchronous work also makes it easier to onboard new employees, says Erica Brescia, COO of GitHub, a software company whose workforce was 70% remote before the pandemic, and which has been a vocal supporter of asynchronous working.
“[New hires] have access to more information relevant to their work, and can easily follow the context around decisions that have been made prior to their start," says Brescia. This is because with asynchronous communication, more things have to be in writing so that people can read important information. And with everything documented, it's easier to bring people up to speed.
Asynchronous communication can also help reduce meeting fatigue, she adds: senior staff can record weekly announcements that people can watch own their own time, for example.
Setting your own schedule also heightens many of the existing benefits of remote work: location doesn't matter, you can work at your own pace in or out of traditional office hours and this makes it easier to juggle home responsibilities and work-life balance.
The pandemic has caused a shift toward asynchronous communication, meaning we all communicate and do our work at different times (Credit: Alamy)
One potential downside of asynchronous working, however, is that way it can end up blurring the line between work and home – a boundary that’s already gotten fuzzier during the pandemic. It might be more tempting to check email at bedtime, for example, as teammates in other regions start coming online.
Working alone, on your own schedule, may also make you feel disconnected from the rest of your organisation, exacerbating Covid-19-era loneliness. Plus, communicating asynchronously with colleagues doesn't bring any of the immediate feedback or visual cues that in-person or synchronous communication provides.
Additionally, a surprising amount of burden falls on the worker to stay up to date and in touch with their organisation. Asynchronous communication "gives people more autonomy in how they work, and with that comes more responsibility", says Kristen Shockley, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, who specialises in applied psychology in business. So, while a company might allow employees to work to their own schedule, the worker then absorbs the responsibility to access team resources and manage their tasks in a way they wouldn’t in an office working ‘normal’ hours.
Ultimately, less hand-holding means the worker is responsible for their own productivity. But this asks for a lot of employer trust, which may open up problems of micromanagement. Shockley posits that asynchronous working might even lead to an increase in employee monitoring.
Experts also say that socialising and informal conversations suffer under the asynchronous work model, as do brainstorming and collaborative creativity. It's much more difficult to have those 'water-cooler’ moments, and the interactions that do happen can be more easily misconstrued.
“When people send emails or messages on Slack, it’s harder to understand the sender’s intent, because you can’t hear the tone of their voice or see their facial expressions and body language. Even emojis can be misinterpreted," says Michael Johnson, associate professor of management at the University of Washington. "Another disadvantage is having to spend so much time responding to messages. Many people are frustrated with the amount of time they spend on email."
Change isn’t coming tomorrow
Importantly, asynchronous communication isn't something that can be flipped on, like a switch.
Instead, a move toward this type of working means a more core transformation within the company – changing its "culture and norms", says Rhymer, like deciding to give workers more freedom and responsibility. Similar to giving workers the option to work remotely, the company needs to fully commit to making async communication part of its culture – otherwise it'll never come up with the necessary organisational processes and tools that make it actually feasible.
Plus, we may not actually know enough about in asynchronous communication to start implementing it immediately, then declaring it the future. In many ways, the last year has been a major experiment in both remote work and asynchronous work, and there’s still more we need to learn in order to figure out what to keep and what to jettison. Rhymer says that, as a result, workers and managers alike are mulling one key question: “What are the things we really need to do synchronously?".
At GitHub, Brescia has found: "Teams will still want real-time communication to make decisions, do creative brainstorming, and build relationships with their colleagues and customers. And they’ll use async communications to document those decisions, collect input and feedback, track progress and work effectively with team members across time zones."
So, just like we still don’t definitively know how much time we’ll work in office versus remote post-pandemic, it’s also hard to quantify how much we’ll work asynchronously versus in real-time. But there have never been more possibilities for how our workdays can look in the future – and how bosses will be communicating what they decide.