Notifications on a smartphone

Choosing asynchronous forms of communication can lift remote team productivity tranmautritam / Pixabay

Desktop notifications, manager check-ins, conversation threads and project alerts can be just as distracting as office shenanigans and play havoc with our productivity. This, coupled with, ‘work from home guilt’ – experienced by a sizeable proportion of remote workers – can make people feel obliged to reply instantly, just to prove they’re still hard at work.

More than a third (36%) of remote workers have felt pressure to appear “more responsive” on email while almost a quarter (23%) felt a pressure to work longer hours, found a survey of 500 UK workers by LogMeIn.

That’s where asynchronous communication can help. In simple terms, a person sends a message or asks a question without demanding or expecting an immediate response. This makes email asynchronous, while a video call would be synchronous.

It solves two huge problems for largely remote teams. First, it’s an easy way to overcome time differences, not only between geographical time zones, but also those affected by flexible working. Today, during the pandemic, people are increasingly juggling work with childcare and other responsibilities, and they’re not keeping ‘normal’ hours.

By choosing asynchronous communication channels, you’re showing support for your colleagues who can’t be ‘always on’ during the working day and you’re making sure that colleagues overseas are fully involved.

The second problem it solves is one of productivity. Continuous interruptions and notifications are not conducive to deep work. The ability to switch these off and avoid distractions is critical. The beauty of asynchronous communication is the avoidance of unnecessary noise.

In our company, asynchronous is now the default option. We record ‘show and tell’ product presentations and all-hands meetings and make them available to watch after the event for our teams and partners in Canada, Australia and the US.

Meetings are used sparingly, and only in specific circumstances. It’s so easy for hours each day to be consumed by participating in video calls that yield very little.

Our company-wide chat functions more like a social media conversation thread than an instant messenger, so people can weigh in between stints of deep work. And, crucially, people can quiet notifications while they work and change their status to ‘do not disturb’.

But synchronous chat has its place for certain types of help: where the issue itself is live and an answer in three hours or next week would be useless e.g. I have this specific customer issue – has anyone here seen this before? Another is social: a friendly conversation with a colleague about how your week has been, and what you’ve been up to outside work, is always more enjoyable when it’s rapid fire. Finally, meetings about an individual’s progress or HR matters are best done synchronously.

There’s an argument to be had over how best to brainstorm ideas remotely. Some think that getting on a video call and putting your heads together is effective but I disagree. Most good ideas come while walking the dog, or in the shower, or while researching. Better to get people thinking on a topic alone, and then develop ideas together once they’re better formed.

However you choose to converse, everyone needs to be on the same page. The way you communicate has to be made policy and reaffirmed by the whole team. A simple training video could help people make better decisions and pick the best channel for the circumstance.

Try it and watch company productivity soar.