Meeting vs. E-mail: Remote Worker’s Guide to Asynchronous Communication

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Not every meeting can be an email, but definitely not every email should be a meeting and asynchronous communication, when implemented correctly, can be the key to create efficient remote teams.

Situations like the recent coronavirus outburst have forced many of us to lock down in our houses. This requires us to remain flexible. If you’re a freelancer or have been working online for a while, you know that online communication is much different in many aspects than standard face-to-face communication.  However, until now if you’ve been communicating with your colleagues mostly in your office or at the water cooler, being close with one another most of the time, adapting other means of communication can be challenging. Let’s see what you can do to save yourself (and others) some time and nerves.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication

Scared of technical terms, huh? No need. Let me put it simply:  Synchronous communication is the one that happens in real time. It requires each party to exchange information immediately. It can be a meeting (both online and offline), chat (private and group), more or less involving conversation at the famous water cooler, a phone call, and so on.

On the other hand, asynchronous communication is the less demanding and more relaxed one. While it supports the exchange of information, it doesn’t require any party to answer immediately. It can be an e-mail, a Google doc with notes and comments, a chat message that can be read later, etc.

One of the greatest advantages of working remotely or being a part of a remote team is flexibility, both when it comes to time management and ways to get tasks done. Asynchronous communication supports such flexibility and offers you way more independence. Thanks to it, very often you can be the master of your own time.

I’m sure you’ve attended at least one business meeting in your life that happened to be a complete waste of time. Perhaps there was no clear agenda and goals, people didn’t show up, or a person who called the meeting came up with a boring PowerPoint presentation… Attending an office meeting doesn’t necessarily equal productive work. Quite the contrary: Very often what could have been included in one brief email stretches to half an hour of a boring monologue or dialogue between people who could spend their valuable resource such as time elsewhere To be clear, I’m not entirely against synchronous communication as sometimes it’s a way more productive method (especially at the stage of brainstorming in a critical situation that requires urgent decision making), but… I also believe that asynchronous communication is the key to productive and independent work. How? Let’s see below. 

How to Make Asynchronous Communication in Remote Teams More Effective

Asynchronous communication in remote teams is a great way to work in a more thoughtful, flexible, and informed manner.

Write Things Down

While it might be tempting to use Slack messages or phone calls to get an answer quickly, very often it only brings more chaos and distractions. Not everyone can be available the same time you are, things that seem urgent to you may not seem urgent to others, and interrupting somebody often makes you lose time and patience, unnecessarily. 

When working remotely, make sure that you and your other team members write everything down to be able to organize your thoughts, be transparent with communication, and have everything documented just in case

Always use the main communication language of your company (even when exchanging private messages or emails with a team member that speaks your native language). You never know when a message or e-mail will need to be forwarded or include another person.

Organizing online meetings is sometimes necessary, but it’s possible that not everybody will be able to attend them (you know what I am talking about if you are a part of a global team with members working in different time zones). Even in such a situation writing things down is a great way to avoid F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out). Make sure your team has one person designated to prepare notes from your meeting in real time. These notes should be later easy to access and available to every person invited to the meet up. Big plus if they are able to add comments to them.

Make Written Communication Available to Everyone Involved

No matter how big or small your team is, lack of information causes confusion. When things are documented, transparency blooms, important questions are being quickly answered, and everybody does their work as they should. To make it more effective, it’s best to a few general rules:

Send as few private messages as possible. Instead, communicate through internal channels. This way, you might save other people’s time who have similar questions as you do or save time yourself by receiving an answer from a person you wouldn’t expect. However, remember to keep your message organized. Use proper channels or email subjects, never include two issues in the same message (to prevent complicating things), and be as straight to the point as you can.

Avoid exchanging locally stored files between your team members. Instead, make sure all written communication is easily accessible and stored online. While using Google Docs, always make sure everybody who should have access to the files can easily open, edit, and comment on them.

Instead of writing a private message with your sights or question to a cloud document owner, leave a comment with your thoughts. Such transparent communication will save other people’s time who very often have the same question as you.

Set Communication Boundaries and Execute Them

While working online gives you great flexibility when it comes to choosing your office hours and the place you work from, you need to know that it can also absorb you way too much.

Practice time blocking. Time after work is a time for you and nobody should expect from you that you will be available. You don’t have to answer emails in your free time nor should you expect anybody to answer them outside of regular office hours.

If you’re using Skype, Slack, or other internal communication channels, take advantage of the status feature. Let others know when you are Available, Away, or Out Of Office. If you’re planning to be unavailable for a longer period, make sure everybody knows about it and put your out of office dates into a company or team calendar. Setting up an autoresponder email when you are out also is a good option. 

Embrace Email Mastery

Email might seem to be a simple and transparent online communication tool, but it can bring more chaos than structure into remote teams if utilized without careful thought.

Pay attention to email subjects and make them as clear as possible. Avoid including information or questions on two different things in the same email as it may involve more people than required and cause information overload.

Always reply to all people included in the email. Everybody involved in the subject should be aware of the progress, additional information, and insights from other team members.

Don’t expect instant replays. Keep in mind that your team members may be currently unavailable or busy with different tasks. Emails are a great example of online asynchronous communication channels, but nobody should be required to answer them outside their office hours unless the situation is incredibly urgent.

While writing or answering an email, be as direct and specific as you can. Include all necessary details, such as deadlines, your expectations, updates on progress, etc. to avoid the question-answer infinite ping-pong game, so everybody can quickly adjust their work accordingly.

If you’re going to remember just one thing from this article, let it be this: ALWAYS reply to an email. ALWAYS. No matter if it’s just to confirm that you’ve received it or that you agree with the message. Your response will give the people on the other side a peace of mind that you are aware of the things they contacted you about. 

Bottom Line

In our modern, globalized world, working remotely, full time or not, is becoming a more and more preferable option in many companies. It gives teams more autonomy and flexibility, supports productivity and transparency, and makes it easier to avoid a domino of urgent situations caused by the lack of proper communication.

Not every meeting can be an email, but definitely not every email should be a meeting and asynchronous communication, when implemented correctly, can be the key to create efficient remote teams.

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