Meetings and interruptions are two of the worst things about working in an office. When people work remotely, it becomes a little more difficult to interrupt people and start meetings. That is a good thing.
The Problem With Meetings
In an office environment, the most obvious way to share information is to talk. That could mean scheduling a meeting, or going to someone else’s desk and starting an impromptu meeting. Either way, everyone involved must stop what they are doing and switch their mental context to the meeting. Afterward, everyone will need time to refocus on whatever it was they were trying to do before the meeting.
If somebody was not in the room the first time the meeting happened, the conversation needs to be repeated. And again when a new hire comes along.
The heart of the problem is that meetings are synchronous; everyone has to be doing the same thing at the same time, for however long anyone needs it to happen.
Asynchronous communication happens without everyone having to do it at the same moment. Email is one example of this. A question can be asked in the morning, and answered later that day — whenever it was natural to write a reply. No one had to interrupt anyone.
This time delay can make the communication smarter. The answerer had a chance to see how the answer looked when written, and revise it. They also have the opportunity to think it over, and check the accuracy of what they’re saying. Also, the reader can check the exact wording of the answer later.
Compare that to a meeting, where it is easy to give the first, not-thought-through answer. It’s also easy misremember the answer in the future.
Email is not perfect. It is easy to lose track of old conversations. Also, the emails are concealed within the email accounts involved in the conversation. When a new hire comes along, they will not have easy access to that conversation. Especially if the people who had the original conversation are on vacation or otherwise not available.
The Best Asynchronous Method
The best asynchronous communication tool I have seen is P2. It’s a private-to-the-team blog that the whole team can post on. Have something to announce or ask? Start a post. Folks can respond to the post with their own thoughts.
Having the communication in the open like this means that all interested parties can contribute to the conversation — no need to guess who has the answer or who will need to know. All P2 conversations are searchable, so they can be found even when you are on vacation.
This solution is especially useful for teams that include multiple time zones. If it can be handled asynchronously, then no one needs to interrupt their personal lives for meetings in the middle of the night.
Sometimes, Synchronous is Good
There are advantages to synchronous communication.
There will be times when something must be resolved immediately. Realtime text chat like Slack can be a useful tool when that comes up.
Communicating well in text is a skill, though, and can be a barrier. In those cases, a voice or video call are good solutions. They add tone of voice and body language to the conversation, which can be helpful.
There is also a human bonding aspect to hearing someone’s voice and seeing their expression. I encourage teams to get together in person from time to time to strengthen that bond, or at least talk a bit on a video call. When people feel a connection to each other as human beings, they tend interact better in text communication.
So use synchronous communication when necessary. But asynchronous is often better.
Building Asynchronous Culture
Communicating well in writing is a skill. Without that skill, written communication can devolve into an ugly bickering match. Bad communication can stop productivity and drive a wedge between people.
For people to work together well, they need to be open and honest with each other. People will only be open and honest if they trust each other. Fear of reprisal or personal attack from team mates distracts from good communication. That is true in any business, whether people work together in an office or not.
The best way to encourage a healthy communication culture is to:
- Assume positive intent – be generous when you are reading. Interpret with the assumption that the writer means well. Do not look for things to be offended at.
- Be a considerate writer – focus on the tasks and issues. Avoid making personal accusations. Avoid jokes that can be misinterpreted. Make it easy to assume positive intent.
A business with an asynchronous culture benefits from smarter communication and more focused workers. Workers benefit from fewer interruptions, and more control over their own schedule. A feeling of control is an excellent stress reducer. And having control over one’s own schedule is a powerful tool.
Those are the things that are possible when workers are freed from the demands of frequent interruptions, or having to work around other people’s schedules.