Asynchronous communication as team productivity

Vidas Vasiliauskas ·

2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood. 2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank. 2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course 2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise. Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products. MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University. Hobbies: Racing, MTB cycling, Windsurfing


Asynchronous communication has never been more relevant than in 2020 when COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe and companies had to shift from offices to home-offices. Either fully or partially remote, people had to learn and adapt to new daily skills like running efficient meetings, reducing direct communication and being able to work when not everyone in the team is present. Before we start, a small disclaimer: this has nothing to do with technical term Asynchronous communication.

Contents of this post:

The sunset of direct communication

A lot of us are used to just talk to our colleagues, call on the phone or chat over skype/slack/teams or other business conversion software. First of all, let’s talk about the categories of direct communication:

  • Phone
  • Meetings (online or offline)
  • 1on1’s
  • Face to face conversations
  • Direct messaging applications which are always on in the business setup
  • All the notifications that arrive to your phone or computer

All of the above and more are the usual suspects for reduced productivity and increased task switching. All of us as professionals must understand and respect other people’s work. Think twice before asking directly or calling on the phone, can this answer or can the information you are seeking be achieved asynchronously, i.e. sending an email or checking some information system?

Secondly, it depends on the maturity of company communication culture as well as maturity of work processes. What you will find among majority of market leading companies is the high level of maturity in communication and work processes. Simply because getting more juice without paying extra is the right way to go when you reach certain scale.

To better illustrate the effect of interruptions and task switching, lets see how that looks on personal productivity baseline:

direct communication interrupts productivity

If we try to retrospect on every workday and look for such interrupts, I have no doubt we will find dozens of cases. Further on, if we drill down and look for the root cause of those interruptions we will find our usual suspect – direct communication which actually could have been just a simple asynchronous information request.

Productivity vs generativity

Direct over asynchronous communication can also be a consequence of personal productivity goals. This can be tolerated to some extent, but should be avoided as part of culture. For example, someone has an achiever personality and to meet personal goals will try to work through other people, their time and cost of productivity. From personal perspective this will look like an achievement, from team’s perspective this will turn out as a loss. So the key idea here is to focus on teams productivity, which I will simply call generativity. We as a team generate value, we as personal contributors produce pieces of that value. Moreover, we need to fit those pieces together to create final value stream.

Lastly, team generativity should not be a one time show. Every team leader should strive for predictable and repeatable output if measured on some periodic basis. Just imagine the below formula-1 team having some personal achievers instead of team players… that would be a disaster. And, yes, that has been observed numerous times when team pilot rivalry creates a disaster.

team generativity vs productivity

Deep work and asynchronous communication

As we move on, another very important part to understand is that every professional nowadays is way more reliant on ability to focus, ability to have prolonged periods of deep work. There is an amazing book about deep work by professor Cal Newport, where he pursues the idea of relentless battle with distractions and fast information ingestion.

deep work by cal newport

Again, to visualize the cost required to get into “the zone” or “deep work” let’s look at how much time it can take to get there and how much time we will stay there if interrupted. Of course the time scale is relative and can vary from person to person.

deep work vs interrupts

How to facilitate asynchronous communication?

  • Plan ahead to ensure output continuity by the team, but not too far into the future to reduce waste because of changes
  • Over-describe tasks for standalone execution and reduced risk of ambiguity
  • Introduce asynchronous communication agents

My favorite and I think the easiest approach is to put an agent in between people to facilitate that communication. In majority of cases that would be a work collaboration system, project management tool, task management software or something similar.

Here are some key principles that should be applied when starting or using such systems:

  • New work should fall into some inbox/backlog/bucket to prevent interrupts when new requests/tasks arrive. And it should be a single entry point for all the work
  • Work should be broken down into smaller pieces to ensure progress can be visualized every day (meaning task actual execution time is less than a day)
  • Team should agree to use task or project management software as a single point of truth for work
  • Team leaders/project managers/senior specialists should ensure tasks are over-described and has everything required attached so team members can  execute without direct communication
  • Task descriptions should follow a template to ensure repeatable success:
    • What needs to be achieved?
    • What is the evidence of completed work?
    • Clearly listed dependencies (people, resources, other tasks, etc.)
    • Leading ideas or suggestions

As usual, to visualize the idea, take a look of an example of work collaboration system based on advanced visual Kanban:

simple kanban board

Such system communicates a lot of implicit information visually, like: status of work, priorities of work, progress of work. Also, such system documents the work process, so every time it is repeatable and chance of success is similar.

The best part is that we can further comment on our process to ensure every person joining the team can train asynchronously and perform functions successfully.

asynchronous communication kanban board

Now the last part of such system is to understand and document responsibilities so people in the team can focus on what matters the most and have a higher chance of deep work.

kanban board roles

So if this makes sense, I suggest not only reading but experiencing true asynchronous communication. And to do that, try using Teamhood – an asynchronous work collaboration platform.

asynchronous work collaboration

Now before we conclude, the last but very important part to note is that a switch from synchronous to asynchronous communication will have it’s cost. Mainly, peoples time. If we could plot out the time taken and benefits gained, it would be probably like crossing the chasm, you keep walking, but there is no end to mountain, until you reach a peak and finally see it.

I believe it can take at least 2 months to start feeling boost of value from asynchronous communication, but that is very subjective and it will vary per team based on team’s maturity, digital dexterity and other various aspects. In worst case, such effort can become even costlier if prepared poorly, if team commitment is low and if wrong solution is taken.

switching to asynchronous communication

To facilitate such change and keep motivation high, my rule of thumb tool would be to run retrospectives on weekly basis to check on impediments and possible solutions. Yes, this would require direct synchronous communication, but paying the price is worth a while!

Misuse of instant messaging applications

A lot of us will argue that work collaboration platforms can be partially reduced by using instant messaging tools like slack or teams. For conversational purposes, that would be true, but those conversations still need to be asynchronous. No expectations or added messaging should be used in order to receive response faster. My general rule of thumb recommendation would be to reduce notifications or completely turning them off. This will help your focus and prolong “the zone”. Extensive post on how GitLab lives asynchronous values as a culture.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

Evidence of initial success will come in many forms, but I have observed at least few of them, so here is the list of gains, which will be your strategic assets going forward.

  • Ability to work remotely or in distributed environments
  • Ability to work in different time zones with minimal overlap
  • Increased generativity on team level
  • Reduced stress levels for team members
  • Predictable output
  • Workload control
  • Reduced dependencies among people

Crush your competition, generate value, communicate asynchronously!

What is Teamhood?

Teamhood is a work collaboration platform for team task management and project management. Modern features combined with a time-proven kanban system works magic on your projects and team collaboration. Check out our kanban board example or register in Teamhood for free to see the benefits!

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