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

Reason 2: Accessible communication

  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

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

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

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

Hire proactive people

Experiment with communication tools

We still need 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!