Re-building asynchronous workplaces to drive productivity in pandemic and post-pandemic times

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With all of us now stuck at home due to COVID-19, parts of our days have certainly changed. Boundaries between work life and personal life have blurred, creating high expectations in the long workdays, and causing the daily an emotional distress that employees (and individuals) are experiencing become what sometimes is called ‘productivity’!

For businesses, the challenge is to ensure continuity, deliver results (outcomes) for transforming markets, different demands, and focus on developing new customers and retaining existing ones. Drawing on the experience of my own remote working, the intent is to show how asynchronous communication can help organizations drive productivity, measures that human resource functions can implement to start building (or re-building) a more asynchronous workplace, minimize talent loss and operational risks, and achieve better business outcomes.

Let us first take a look at why there is a question about largely synchronous (or real-time) ways of communication.

COVID-19 has created massive changes to the way we work, collaborate and engage. Rise of remote working worldwide has made communication more challenging. While on the positive side, we see more adoption and acceleration of newer technologies by a broader audience, electronic means of communication can lead to complications and loss of productivity.

According to the Harvard Business Review article Collaborative Overload, the time employees spend on collaboration has gone up by 50 percent over the 20 years. Research shows that it is not uncommon for co-workers to spend almost 80 percent of their workdays communicating with colleagues on email (which employees’ spend an average of six hours a day); meetings (approximately 15 percent of a company’s time, on average); and more recently, on the chat-based collaboration platforms including Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Slack, and more.

Evidently, remote work is here to stay, and that makes it more crucial for both businesses and employees is to identify, understand, and strike the balance between asynchronous and synchronous communication.

What is asynchronous communication?

Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send an email without expecting an immediate response. For example, an email is sent by a colleague, and they respond a few hours later. Asynchronous communication allows you to be in control over when to connect and communicate. 

Synchronous communication is when a message is sent and the recipient responds in real-time (immediately). In-person communication, like meetings, chat/skype messaging are a few examples. It is evident that the highly synchronous way of real-time communication makes it difficult to focus, drains mental resources, and generally, makes it harder to work and make meaningful progress. It leads to constant interruptions and distractions, prioritizes being connected over being productive, creates unnecessary stress, lowers quality of discussions and can result in sub-optimal solutions. 

Benefits of a more asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication lets employees to be in control over when to connect to communicate with their colleagues. Here are a few key benefits offered:

  • Control over the workday results in more productive and happy employees as it allows them to structure their professional and personal responsibilities.
  • Better planning leads to less stress – Last minute requests, rescheduling of requests or ASAP requests aren’t an option. Rather,  employees plan their workloads and collaborations better by giving enough time to co-workers to respond to request and ultimately quality deliverables.
  • High-quality of communication versus reactive responses to avoid unnecessary back-and-forth.
  • More focus on meaningful work that creates the most value for organizations and customers.
  • Automatic documentation of information, as most communication happens in writing (via email), thus making it easier to share and reference, and offers transparency.
  • Time zone equality:  Communication between time zones becomes smooth, and companies can build stellar and diverse teams from any global location.

Striking a balance between asynchronous and synchronous communication

With COVID-19, we experience longer periods of isolation during remote working, and may feel disconnected and miss seeing others, which can result in the  loss of the human element. “We are humans after all” and building rapport or personal relationships requires speaking and/or talking to each other. This is where synchronous communication is required in the form of one-on-one meetings, group meetings, stand-up meetings or team retreats, on a periodic basis to touch base, discuss ideas or roadblocks, set development goals, launch new projects/programmes, cross-functional handshakes and more. In nutshell, balance is the key!

How organizations can build culture of asynchronous communication

  • Emphasize trust, independence and accountability as core values to foster asynchronous communication.
  • Create handbook by HR with proper policies detailed with guidelines on communication protocols, conducting meetings with agenda, plan and minutes, and usage of tools and platforms.
  • Create a workplace culture where meetings are a last option and ensure that unavoidable meetings can be managed via asynchronous communication.  
  • The organization and employees must work together to implement asynchronous and synchronous communication stacks in a conscious, balanced and thorough manner.
  • Establish communication channels for emergencies, by developing white pages with home phone or emergency contact numbers.
  • Provide trainings for writing and communication skills and promote as core skill required for every employee.
  • Adopt model to make single persons responsible to make decisions (by decreasing the number of people involved in decision making) and decentralizing authority, increasing individuals’ accountability (example is Apple’s DRI).
  • Implement results-driven performance management systems that measure employees on outcomes or results, rather than numbers or hours spent (example is Intel’s OKRs). 

Indeed, it will be challenging the status quo as asynchronous communication isn’t the current normal. It will take a paradigm shift to bring the change. With a growth mindset, successful companies will be the ones to be able make this shift in the near future. It will be the organizations that don’t require their employees to always be online, and prioritize asynchronous communication to create space for meaningful work to deliver outcomes, where employees will truly be able to disconnect and recharge fully.

Dipti leads Presales function at MetricStream, with her two decades of experience, leadership and versatile management capabilities that offers our customers with multi-faceted business value.