Async communication is what *really* unlocks productivity

I believe asynchronous working practices dramatically improve productivity and benefit the personal lives of team members, but most teams and companies pay far too little attention to it.

The pandemic has prompted a surge in distributed work but the real productivity benefits are driven when adopting an asynchronous approach. Many distributed work thought leaders share this sentiment — just read the blog posts or websites of Buffer, Gitlab or Zapier. As Sahil, the founder of Gumroad tweeted “Going fully remote was nice, but the real benefit was in going fully asynchronous”.

Asynchronous (or async for short) communication is not real-time (e.g. email, writing in documents), whereas Synchronous communication is live and real-time when responses are needed immediately (e.g. meetings).

Here are some of my examples where we have replaced synchronous with asynchronous communication and seen tangible productivity benefits.

Why asynchronous work is more productive

Reason 1: Effective communication

Communication becomes more thoughtful when asynchronous because written communication is generally considered more carefully. Live synchronous communication often results in lower quality discussions where individuals have not really prepared or thought about what they want to say. This is especially true if team members are stuck in all-day back to back meetings — they simply never have time to prepare or think through topics. It’s also very true when team members need to accommodate global timezones and are feeding back on a topic at 6am or 11pm.

Reason 2: Accessible communication

Key discussions and important information is always written down with asynchronous communication. I strongly encourage using tools like Google Docs or Notion (we use both of these) instead of email, and making the default sharing visibility “All in organisation”. This automatically generates company-wide documentation which becomes very helpful for:

  1. Onboarding new team members into a project: All important information is easily accessible to read.
  2. Team knowledge sharing: Any team is able to find work by other teams - aquick search query will return past thinking by the whole organisation.
  3. Referencing back to what was decided: I find it amazing how often the same question/problem can come up when things are not documented. I have found that when answers/discussions are documented — many repeated questions can be solved with a simple link to the documentation.

Reason 3: Reduce interruptions — allow for focus

A full schedule of meetings means your day is constantly interrupted. From my personal experience (and researchers have found the same) frequent context switching makes it difficult to think clearly and deeply. This is especially true for creative, demanding tasks like writing, software development and design. Whole books, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, have been written on this topic.

Conversely — some creative solutions are best generated from collaboration and conversation. As Socrates found, oral communication is a “great tool for promoting deeper learning”. My argument is not to make everything asynchronous — but limit synchronous communication for times when it is likely to improve outcomes.

Reason 4: Better personal lives

Teams who adopt more asynchronous work experience less fatigue from non-stop calls and a higher sense of accomplishment resulting from creative outputs.

The natural flexibility of asynchronous work allows team members to fit work around their personal commitments like picking children up from school or visiting the grocery store at a quieter time of day. For teams with extreme timezone distribution (like here at Whisk, where we are distributed from -8 GMT in San Francisco to +8 GMT in Seoul.. and everything in between) asynchronous work means that less work happens during unsociable working hours. Ultimately, control over work hours results in happier and more productive employees.

Example timezones for our team (via tool WorldTimeBuddy)

Tips to make asynchronous communication work well

Assume good intent

“Body language may account for between 60 to 65% of all communication” according to Psychiatry. A smile while delivering bad news goes a long way. With asynchronous communication you can’t hear the tone of voice, let alone read facial expressions. It’s easy for things to get lost in communication with asynchronous communication — which is why assuming good intent is so important. Assume the person writing the messaging didn’t intend to be rude and offend you, even if that’s your initial reaction. Take time to clarify.

This is so important that we centred one of our four team values around being both candid and kind. We actively work to make sure our communication is kind and structured effectively, not just fast and direct. One framework I’ve found works particularly well for this is the Netflix 4A model.

One of our four team values at Whisk

Use video and audio

I’ve found that recording videos and sending them via Slack can be very helpful. I regularly record 5 minute videos using Loom’s free Chrome extension, or longer videos using Zoom meetings. I do what has become known in our team as “lonely zoom calls’’ — a zoom call on my own where I press the record button and then send the recording to my team. I’ve also started sending video recordings to some of my friends on Whatsapp and Telegram — and it works surprisingly well there too (I think).

Hire proactive people

Asynchronous work requires each individual to pro-actively stay in touch with their organisation. It’s definitely not for everyone — which is why hiring for independent and proactive people is so important in distributed environments.

Experiment with communication tools

Different teams find different tools work for them — it depends on not just the type of work but also the team personalities. Almost all teams find collaborative documents like Google Docs (my favourite) or Notion important. Digital whiteboard tools like Miro are great for synchronous collaborative meetings, but some teams at Whisk use them for asynchronous work as well. Some teams also find it effective to send voice messages via walkie-talkie apps like Voxer.

We still need synchronous communication!

There are many situations where synchronous communication is best. Synchronous communication often works better to build rapport, discuss sensitive topics or grapple with topics where there are many unknowns or variables, and where the creativity from bouncing ideas around in a meeting can really help. Obviously time sensitive topics require synchronous communication.

I still hold many synchronous meetings — I have just become more deliberate about how many synchronous meetings we hold and what for. I hold weekly 1–1 meetings with all my direct reports. Most teams meet at least once a week to discuss what they are working on - we encourage prepared agendas and talking topics. I also arrange a bi-weekly “social hour” which is dedicated to sharing personal stories, books we’re reading, holiday photos or whatever takes someone’s interest. We have a bi-weekly all-hands to share vision, production direction, reviews of where we are and anything else that feels important to share team-wide. We also hold an annual retreat synchronously and in one physical location (everyone flies to one location globally) - although we held our last retreat in an online game because of COVID travel restrictions.

While synchronous meetings still take up part of my everyday life, I’m trying to complete as much as possible asynchronously.

I hope you find the move to Asynchronous work as rewarding as I have!

CEO of Whisk.com, acquired by Samsung.