The definitive guide to effective asynchronous communication
June 30, 2022
By deciding which meetings can be done asynchronously, you’ll save your team time — and sanity. Here’s how to do it.
Let’s face it, we’re all swimming in meetings.
Take a look at your work calendar. If you could cancel half of your meetings this week, would you? Think of what you could accomplish with all that time back. Less screen time, more coffee runs. Greater productivity.
According to Harvard Business Review, 71 percent of senior managers across a range of industries said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. So why do we default to “let’s schedule a meeting” when we can get the same work done on our own time?
We’re not saying cancel all your meetings. Effective meetings are key to making important decisions and providing clarity. And there are some topics and decisions that absolutely need to be addressed with everyone at the same time. But by identifying what work can be done asynchronously, and building out a process for it, you can give your team some breathing room to actually get work done … and done well!
Asynchronous communication may not be a new idea, but it is definitely something more teams could benefit from. It may even save your sanity. This is your guide to evaluating which of your meetings could use asynchronous communication, and how to implement it.
What is asynchronous communication?
Async communication (not to be confused with the popular boy band) is any type of communication where the involved parties contribute at different times. In other words, a form of communication and collaboration that does not happen simultaneously.
So what’s the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication? Simply put, asynchronous communication does not require anyone to be in the same room or on the same call or otherwise engaged at the same time. More than likely, you’re already familiar with this. Examples of async communication include email, chat, comments on a document, and recorded video presentations.
Why is asynchronous communication important?
Because it accommodates everyone’s productivity.
Asynchronous team communication allows people to prioritize the work they need to get done, as well as make sure they’re fully prepared to contribute before sharing their ideas. It makes it easier to remove unwanted distractions, takes away the pressure to answer questions on the spot, and allows you to focus on what matters most.
Here are some other benefits of going async:
If your team has adopted a hybrid work structure but attends more meetings than ever, you’re doing it all wrong. Hybrid is all about encouraging more flexibility, not less. Async promotes this flexibility across your team by allowing the members of your team to contribute on their own time.
Do you have someone on your team who never speaks up in meetings? It’s not because they have nothing to contribute.
Research done by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that in a typical meeting, three people do 70 percent of the talking. With async collaboration, you’re giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute their ideas in their own way.
Meetings are limiting. Attendees are constrained to share their ideas in a specific way. When team members are given time and the right tools (like MURAL) to visualize and express their ideas — creativity and imagination shines.
The answer to this depends on your particular needs. Like we said earlier, despite the numerous benefits of async communication, not every meeting needs to be canceled or converted into a new format. Traditional synchronous meetings, whether in-person or remote, will likely still be an essential form of communication for your organization. The trick is learning when they make the most sense.
There are a few things to consider when evaluating what should be done asynchronously vs. synchronously.
Simple vs. complex: How difficult is it to explain? Can you provide clarity easily without a discussion?
Low-stakes vs. high-stakes decisions: How important are these decisions? Who will they impact?
Few vs. many people involved: Who needs to be involved? Is it a cross-functional task?
Time-sensitive: Is this urgent? Is it a bottleneck for other tasks?
We put together an Async Cheat Sheet, which you can reference below if you’re looking for recommendations on what meetings you can take async. As you can see, the factors that help determine how to best communicate are a spectrum — meaning they vary depending on the topic and the team.
A good way of looking at it is if all the pins line up to the left, you can probably take it async. If they’re all to the right, it’s probably best to keep that meeting on your calendar. For example, feedback can most likely be done asynchronously while a one-on-one is probably best done together.
There are exceptions to this rule. Team building activities, for example, are generally fairly simple, don’t involve important decisions, and aren’t time sensitive. But if you aren’t doing them together … it kind of defeats the purpose.
I’ll say it again for the people in the back: async is not meant to replace all meetings. Async debt can lead you down a vast black hole of emails and instant messages. Knowing how to identify when async works — and when it doesn’t — is the key to your team’s success.
Async cheat sheet
1. Process documentation
In general, process documentation can sometimes get moderately complex and may involve a few high-stakes decisions, but it doesn’t typically involve too many people and is not very time sensitive. If need be, people can meet to get their questions answered. However, most often it is something team members can do on their own time.
Often done at the outset of a project, brainstorming has the potential for complexity and may involve a few important decisions. But, by its nature, it shouldn’t involve too many people (this can quickly make it go out of hand) and rarely has any hard deadlines. Plus, it lends itself particularly well to collaborative digital whiteboarding tools like MURAL.
3. Gathering feedback
Getting user or product feedback almost always needs to be done quickly. Otherwise, you risk its accuracy. That said, it can be done by a relatively small number of people and is usually a fairly simple task. Drawing an entire team into a meeting to get this done is likely overkill.
4. Status updates / weekly standup
With the rise of agile methodologies and sprint-based projects, the weekly standup has become a poster child for the unnecessary meeting. They can be run through quickly, are typically concerned with everyday tasks, and rarely involve more than a few people. Most teams would benefit from rethinking how these are done entirely.
One-on-ones are unpredictable. They can be simple, or incredibly complex. They can be low-key, or they may have huge stakes. Sometimes, you never know what will happen. This makes them the most personal type of meeting, which means it just wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t held in real time.
6. Quarterly goal planning
These meetings typically affect nearly every other aspect of the organization. They set the stakes, determine everyone’s focus, and decide what will be each team’s short- and long-term priorities. While it may be possible to hold some aspects of these asynchronously (such as pre-work), by and large they should be happening in real time.
7. Emotionally sensitive discussion
While this should come as no surprise, any sensitive topic is best discussed in real time — preferably over video call. Body language and tone of voice is a huge part of communication and can get lost or misconstrued if not handled properly.
8. Project kickoff
Like the quarterly goal planning, these types of meetings help set the tone for weeks, possibly months, of work. This makes it vital that everyone properly prioritizes them. Holding them in real time is a good way to send this message. (But just in case you disagree, we built a handy async project kick off template you can use.)
9. Team building activities
Love them or hate them, team-building activities won’t actually be team-building unless the whole team is there. Even though they couldn’t be more simple and low stakes, and are definitely not time sensitive in any way, they still require the verve and unpredictability of the present.
10. Overcoming roadblocks
Roadblocks can be challenging, complex, and time-sensitive. A deadline may be looming, or a critical error may need to be fixed. That said, unless every participant is well-informed, focused, and prepared to face it head on, this meeting may fall short. This makes it important to let everyone approach this type of meeting in the way they feel most comfortable.
All-hands meetings are typically called for a very specific reason. Perhaps the CEO needs to address a sensitive subject, or there is some important organization-wide news to share. Or maybe a few employees are getting recognized for their work. Regardless of the topic, like team-build activities, these are meant to bring everyone together in one physical (or digital) room.
Like the kickoffs, retrospectives are an essential aspect of successful projects. They give everyone the opportunity to gain important insights into what went well and what needs work, and helps the team create a useful roadmap for the future. While some of this could be accomplished ahead of time (see pre-work again), they likely work best in real time. (But if you do want to try an async retrospective, we built a template you can use.)
Say "bye, bye, bye" to unnecessary and unproductive meetings
Last NSYNC reference — promise!
It’s time for less Zoom calls and more completed tasks. If you’ve ever wished for more hours in the day, it’s time to adopt some asynchronous processes and free up your calendar.
👉 Ready to cancel those meetings? Run your own async exercise with our prebuilt Async Meeting Calculator to find out how your team can communicate more effectively. Or dive deeper into the ins and outs of making asynchronous communication work for your team by downloading our full Async Guide. 📖
Brianna is a storyteller at MURAL. When she's not writing about transforming teamwork, she enjoys swimming, cooking (& eating) Italian food, reading psychological thrillers, and playing with her two cats.