Why we're frustrated with asynchronous communication for remote teams
We have become more frustrated with asynchronous communication.
For the last few years, asynchronous communication has been championed as the cornerstone of remote team communication. Companies like Basecamp have evangelized asynchronous communication as the most ideal way for teams to collaborate and persist a team’s collective knowledge.
The argument generally goes: if a team documents every process and uses structured, timezone-agnostic platforms for discussion, the team will naturally reduce knowledge gaps by making sure that everyone (often across time zones) is involved in the decision making process.
We don’t disagree! In the life cycle of every remote team, some form of asynchronous communication is critical to scaling conversations. But, there are serious consequences to ignoring impromptu, synchronous communication.
Our interviews with over 50 remote teams reveal 3 reasons why too much asynchronous communication could lead to greater frustration within your remote team.
Reason 1: Too much asynchronous communication can hurt company culture
According to Hiten Shah’s Remote Work Report, loneliness frequently tops the list as the most challenging problem that remote workers face. The socially isolating nature of remote work can easily draw out feelings of apathy and resentment. Part of the problem is inherently with the primary medium where most asynchronous communication happens, text.
Of course, remote companies also realize that audio/video (AV) communication is excellent for combating social isolation. The higher fidelity medium promotes quicker time to resolution and promotes more empathy. Many remote companies even require that all meeting participants turn on their video.
But in a remote setting, workers simply do not have enough conversations throughout the week. In our recent remote survey, we discovered that
- Around 50% of workers have only 1 scheduled AV meeting per day
- Most remote workers have at most 1 unscheduled (work or “water cooler”) AV conversation per week
These statistics are especially stunning given the frequency of impromptu conversations in physical offices, where workers take breaks by grabbing lunch or coffee with colleagues. The psychological consequences of micro-isolation during breaks throughout the workday cannot be understated.
Asynchronous communication unfortunately magnifies these effects by emphasizing text as the de facto standard for communication, which often dehumanizes decision making. Although synchronous communication is difficult to scale, many remote teams have overcompensated by over communicating with text than is really necessary.
Providing outlets for impromptu, synchronous communication pays serious dividends by providing a much-needed dose of humanity to remote communication.
Reason 2: New hires onboard best synchronously
When joining either a distributed or local company, new hires absorb tons of information about company culture, engineering best practices, and employee benefits. The list of basic onboarding tasks can easily consume your first week on the job.
Even still, new hire onboarding doesn’t stop at the end of the week. Ramp periods for most roles are measured in months, not weeks.
- As a marketer: understanding your company’s unique process for content creation and familiarizing yourself with their specific marketing toolkit takes time.
- As a salesperson: understanding the product feature set, its technical limitations, and the competitive landscape takes time.
- As an engineer: understanding the system architecture, unique motivations for the technology stack, and existing technical debt takes time.
For all roles during the onboarding period, new hires will inevitably have a ton of clarifying questions about their job. The speed with which the company can unblock new hires during this time translates directly into productivity wins.
In an asynchronous world, remote managers often “answer” new hire questions by pointing to FAQ documents in Confluence or Google Docs that may answer their questions only half of the time. And once new hires are blocked, they are often forced to twiddle their thumbs, resulting in disillusionment or insecurity in their ability to complete their work successfully.
That is not a great first experience for any new hire and can leave them looking for an escape hatch.
Impromptu, synchronous availability from remote managers and mentors can provide remote hires the quick answers that they need during the most critical time of their employment - when they step through the door.
Reason 3: Engineers work slower when they are frequently blocked and have to context switch
Engineers need concentrated focus time without distractions to build great products. Most engineering organizations (including ours) would agree.
Since asynchronous communication provides engineers with a structured process for triaging communication to a later point, the communication style seems like the perfect match for an engineer looking to optimize their deep work.
The primary issue with this line of thinking is again an issue of question resolution time. If you can create a technical spec within a single meeting that holistically captures every possible edge case, then I would agree that asynchronous communication would be strictly better.
The reality is far different. Engineering is an iterative and collaborative process, where unexpected details can quickly upend your original design and necessitate another collaboration session. Oftentimes for remote engineers, this means that they are immediately blocked and likely will have to wait anywhere between a few hours to an entire work day to properly resolve issues. To combat this, asynchronous philosophy generally endorses keeping multiple threads of operation to make global forward progress. But, the mental shift to other tasks can often have a severe effect on productivity and morale as teammates too often find themselves in limbo.
We have found that if you introduce a dose of impromptu synchronous communication into your team culture (perhaps with virtual office hours throughout the day), you can create tighter collaboration loops to resolve issues faster and get back to your focus time.
Don’t get me wrong! Asynchronous communication is critical for remote teams at scale. Certain high level decisions are best discussed using structured communication that is inclusive to people across time zones.
But, the recurring theme across these 3 points is that the remote community has not thought through how impromptu, synchronous communication can improve immediate productivity and foster mental health. We need more frequent audio and video conversations in remote teams and over communicating with asynchronous communication is holding us back!
We created Pesto as an online office to help remote workers dive into rich audio/video conversations frictionlessly. We use Pesto every day and believe that most remote teams could benefit from doing the same.
Try Pesto today and take your team's synchronous communication to the next level. The product is free to use.