Maximizing the value of asynchronous communication for distributed teams.png

A new approach to asynchronous communication for distributed teams

By Antoine Aubert

Last update on Dec 26, 2022 · 5 min read

We're living in a 'new normal,' where remote work has created distributed teams in practically all work environments, from small start-ups to multinational corporations. 

While it's been an adjustment period for some, the benefits for business are endless. Employees are shown to be more productive with better work-life balance (goodbye, stressful commutes!), and employers have gained access to a richer talent pool while outside their regional borders.

The basics of distributed teams' collaboration

An aspect of remote work, even more, vital in a distributed environment, is the reliance on tools and processes to communicate, collaborate and get the job done.

People can neither give each other a tap on the shoulder like in the old days at the office nor ask for a last-minute discussion with three coworkers at the coffee machine as they used to.

Therefore, companies must adapt to continue to perform, which means finding the right software tools and processes for their teams to maximize productivity while ensuring talent retention.

It mainly comes down to mastering two types of communication: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous communication goes through video meetings (through Google Meet and Handouts, Zoom, Skype, or Slack video calls) and phone calls. It has three primary thoughtful use cases:

  • Socializing, team events, virtual coffees (shallow conversations)
  • Emergencies, quick alignments
  • Complex bottlenecks resolution

Besides some specific use cases, synchronous meetings involving multiple people are costly, hard to set up in distributed environments, and can easily break productive work sessions.

Asynchronous communication, on the other side, refers to exchanges that do not happen in real-time — responses can occur intermittently: Email communication tools, Slack & Microsoft Teams, project and task management tools, and in-app collaboration software (Google Docs, GitHub, etc.).

The value of asynchronous work

Working asynchronously helps deliver excellent outcomes for companies with a remote culture:

  • Increase employees' productivity by reducing distractions at the workplace
  • Support well-being with flexible schedules
  • Tap talent pools in different time zones, and recruit faster
  • Fosters autonomy and trust within the company

Moreover, knowledge workers praise flexibility, not just about where they work but also when. A recent study by Future forum emphasizes the growing desire for flexibility among global employees. Compared to those with schedule flexibility, knowledge workers with little or no ability to adjust their working hours' report:

  • 3.4x worse work-related stress and anxiety
  • 3x more likely to "definitely" look for a new job in the next year

Working async also becomes necessary when teams are fully distributed worldwide and need to communicate efficiently.

Timezones for some of our partners — via everytimezoneTimezones for some of our partners — via everytimezone

Yet working in distributed work environments mean more async and fewer in-person meetings. Consequently, companies need to improve the quality of written documents (or async voice/video recordings with Loom, for example) that outline critical workflows, processes, and operations.

Asynchronous communication tools are not broken — some communication practices are

Internal communication tools with channels and threads can be powerful in some cases, like company-wide announcements, short 1–1 shallow direct messaging, and private conversations.

But these async chat platforms have become all but productivity tools for nontrivial genuine work requests (involving 3+ workers or with multiple sub-dependencies):

  • Important information gets lost under new messages in public channels, while going back to private messages creates information silos. Onboarding new joiners and giving them historical context for meaningful discussions are hell when everything goes through Slack.
  • Constant interruptions: chat tools make it impossible to separate what is time-sensitive and what is not in notifications.
  • Time-consuming back-and-forth messages: users do not naturally structure requests in chat apps. They could do so through plug-ins, but that would be a very static structure and not adapted to how receivers would want to see them.
  • Instant messaging cannot organize conversations with more than one idea in a thread — impossible to take the exchanges in multiple directions naturally.

The bottom line is that while tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are async in their form, their actual usage is close to synchronous. These apps feel in the moment and in real-time, thus producing interruptions and FOMO that prevent deep work.

As Dave Teare, the founder of 1Password, pointed out when he decided to quit Slack some years ago:

“The allure of the always on nature of Slack and instant gratification was just too strong to resist.

And even if we had been successful in changing people’s behaviour, the lack of threading made it very difficult to have meaningful, deep conversations about complex subjects anyway. Before you could even fully understand the problem being discussed (let alone find a solution), someone would invariably start a new conversation or reply to a previous discussion that happened earlier in the channel.”

Keeping track of requests sent to individuals and teams and their resolution remains a manual process (you could manage it at a timely expense).

There is no way to separate important from non-important notifications. Therefore you either get pinged or risk missing something important.

That being said, the successful use of chat apps company-wide strongly depends on the company's culture and employees' respect for the guidelines. While some succeed by putting robust communication processes at the heart of the company culture from the beginning, many realize too late the mess these tools can create and the consequent impact on productivity.

Keep the peanut butter jar out of the kitchen if you want to go on a diet.

Project management tools are excellent for managing projects, but not all kinds of requests, especially as companies grow

On the other side, comprehensive project management tools like Asana or Trello are great for monitoring the advancement of projects, tracking dependencies and bottlenecks, and creating tickets but:

  • Not everyone uses the same project management tool (some tech teams may use Jira or Github only, others teams would use ClickUp or Basecamp, or no collaborative PM software tool at all)
  • They are heavy to set up to manage short, rapidly changing, and mid-complexity request flows.
  • They are not built to reach out to people outside of a specific project, either individuals or whole departments when you don't know who's in charge of what
  • Some people mix personal and team organization in these tools and may want to preserve access and filter incoming requests.
  • The generic structure of cards and forms does not ensure individual and functional departments receive and resolve work requests the way they want.

How Isla can help teams work efficiently in remote environments

We built Isla with the ambition to centralize and structure work requests coming to individuals and groups working async, removing the hassle of back-and-forth messages and noisy interruptions in business chats.

Isla provides individuals and teams a page made of custom forms (ticket-like) that you can seamlessly share with other individuals and teams in your company (in Slack if you want) or directly embed where it suits you best (in your email signature, for instance), ensuring that everything work-related that comes to you or your team is contextualized and instantly actionable.

You may then collaborate on each request with relevant stakeholders directly in Isla or the collaborative task/project management tool without polluting anyone out of the loop in public channels. There is no need to force other people or teams to switch from one project management tool to yours to submit a request (which would not make sense for short or low-complexity work requests).

You will only get notified of incoming work requests on Isla when it suits you best: when you have some free time in your calendar, for instance, or you could select a daily/weekly digest option so that you can focus on deep work the rest of the time.

This does not mean you must quit workplace chat apps or push everyone to collaborate on the same project management tool across your company. If Slack or Teams suits you well for company announcements, short feedback, and async private conversations, then you should keep this there.

Isla is your best ally in sending and receiving structured work requests in one place without noisy interruptions in chats and without the hassle of navigating different project management tools and back-and-forth messages.

Isla wasn't built as a "replacement tool" in collaboration. It fits among existing ones. Think of a missing piece to efficiently deal with communication in remote work, a place to discuss work requests asynchronously and keep track of their resolution.

Isla lets you use any task/work management tool you like, personal or collaborative, from project management tools like Asana and Trello to personal ones (Todoist) and calendars. Isla can be shared in Slack, Microsoft teams, and actually everywhere.

Use cases

Here are a few use cases for which we have replaced Slack channels and synchronous meetings with Isla with excellent results.

In conclusion

The key to achieving efficient distributed work in a company is having autonomous people who are aligned in vision and trust each other. What makes cooperation possible lies in an asynchronous-first concept of work, where you don't replicate the mess of physical open space in the instant messaging app.

Pioneering remote-first organizations have invested a lot of time and effort into creating their tools on top of work messaging apps to ensure their organizations would work seamlessly in remote environments (Stripe with Home, Zapier with Async).

Making sure people in remote-work companies work efficiently, free of unnecessary stress, while their employer can retain the right talent is the purpose of Isla.

Feel free to try Isla and let me know what you think.

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