Six Tips for Getting Good at Asynchronous Communication

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

For those of us whose companies have gone largely remote this past year, communication has gotten a well-deserved second look.

Are we doing it well enough? Often enough? Are our audiences, whether they be our leaders, peers, teams, or clients, actually getting what they need out of these communications?

No matter how you’ve been answering these questions, one term that’s probably come up in your discussions is ‘asynchronous communication.’

A good definition of asynchronous communication from business publisher Holloway is ‘any information that can be exchanged independent of time and doesn’t require the recipient’s immediate attention.’

Hello emails, Google docs, internal wiki posts. Chances are, you’re probably already doing a lot of asynchronous communicating. But are you doing it as effectively as possible? And as inclusively as possible?

Asking these questions could not be more important for the future of your business, especially if your business, like so many today, is made up of teams spread over multiple time zones and work styles, from in-office to completely remote, to a hybrid of the two. Consider these two statistics:

In other words, now is the time to hone your asynchronous communications strategy. With more companies working remotely, you’ll likely be collaborating online as often as you will in a conference room ⁠ — if not more. Skilling up in asynchronous comms will be critical for driving results and making an impact.

First, take a good, hard look at your internal comms structure. Getting really good at asynchronous communications isn’t an excuse to bombard your teams with more information than they could possibly absorb. Once you’ve built a solid foundation, you’re ready to shift the communication discussion from ‘how often’ to ‘how.’

Here, six tips on how to make your asynchronous communication strategy best in class.

1. Meet your audience where they are.

The whole point of asynchronous communication is that it doesn’t matter when your audience consumes your message. Instead of scheduling a meeting with everyone you want to reach, draft a Slack message with the key details that you can put in a public team channel. Or record a quick video of yourself delivering your information that can be shared across several media, from Slack, to email, to internal newsletter.

Critically, though, good asynchronous communication isn’t just about variety, or about taking a ‘never meetings’ approach ⁠ — in-person meetings can, in fact, be critical for focused brainstorms and thoughtfully scheduled social time. It’s about choosing the right tool for your audience’s ideal ‘when’ and ‘how.’

‘When’ is key because if you’re leaning into communicating asynchronously, chances are you’re running a distributed team across multiple time zones. You don’t want to set the expectation that everyone needs to respond to communications right away ⁠ — it forces teammates to work longer, or off-hours, not to mention that this ‘always on’ precedent distracts employees from deep work even when they’re in the same time zone. It maybe goes without saying, but this is going to require you, no matter whether you’re a people manager or not, to get good at planning ahead, and thinking about how much time everyone on your team truly needs to complete a given project. Build in buffer time to solve for different time zones, and be clear with each other about your schedules, especially vacation time and regional days off.

‘How,’ is all about what works best for your team for maximum info absorption. Is it a long, complicated message that needs to be digested over time? Think about using an email, or a video message with subtitles, so team members have time to sit with the ideas and don’t feel pressured to respond quickly. Is it an important announcement you want everyone to see and take action off of? The giant group Slack channel may seem like a good idea at first, but will your colleagues working on a 12-hour time difference have a chance to see it before it gets lost under seven new messages?

A related thought: more does not equal better. Be thoughtful about where you place your message, and choose quality (aka maximum impact) over repeating the same communication over and over in additional channels at the same time with diminishing returns. In the next segment, I’ll talk about how this distracting noise is different from over-communicating, which is key to good asynchronous communication.

2. Ask for what you want.

The first step in executing any communication well is knowing who your audience is (and where they are, as we saw with #1). But the crucial second step, without which the rest is meaningless, is pinpointing what you want: 1) What do you want your audience to get out of your message? 2) What do you want your audience to do after they absorb your message? Both of those answers are going to determine how you craft whatever you’re about to write or say.

This is even more important in the case of asynchronous comms, as you’re not going to be there live to clarify or reiterate what you want your audience to do. Be thoughtful about making your message easy to understand, and if there’s a CTA in there, make sure to put it front and center. This is the key difference between over-communicating, which is good, and filling your teammates’ channels with distracting noise. When you over-communicate, you’re clear and up front about what you want, and you plan out subsequent communications based on the timeline and medium that works best for your audience.

Sometimes this might feel a little uncomfortable. Promoting a piece of content? Don’t just share the link. Ask your team to like it, leave claps for it, and of course share it (and make it easy for them by sending optional pre-drafted copy).

In other words, make the ask explicit and explain why the ask is important (more traffic, more inbound applications, etc.) and it’ll be clear to your teammates how they can (and why they should) support the effort.

3. Use all the tools in your toolbox.

Maybe you’re not using them yet, but many of the tools that are going to help you become an even better asynchronous communicator already exist. First, the obvious:

Zoom. It seems like Zoom would be a no-brainer in the “synchronous” communication column, but whenever you’re hosting a live meeting or event, there are steps you should take to make sure that you can transition seamlessly to asynchronous modes of communication afterward. Here are just a few:

Slack. In a strange way, Slack is a bit like the office now. With few other tools do you get as close to that pulse of activity ⁠ — big channels where multiple people are interacting, quick glances to see who’s online. And in this way, Slack becomes critical for asynchronous communication.

Not only is it a way to broadcast your message to a large number of people (though you should tread carefully with full-blast techniques like @here), it’s a way to subtly communicate your availability/ activity/ state of mind to others. Have your head down writing this afternoon? Put a little writing emoji as your status. Having a busy day that’s keeping you away from your messages? A ‘slow to respond’ note next to your name (the snail emoji does in a pinch) makes it clear to your teammates what to expect if they have to send you a message. I’ve even seen teams use Slack statuses as a quick way to build psychological safety, using emoji statuses to indicate state of mind on a given day ⁠ — tired, productive, under the weather, etc. Asynchronous comms isn’t just about the big announcements ⁠ — it’s about finding ways to communicate (and get support for) things that might, in another setting, be obvious.

It must be said, though, that Slack and instant messaging apps like it, if used the wrong way, can easily become the enemy of asynchronous communication. Is the expectation on your team that people need to respond to messages as soon as they receive them? If so, you’re not using Slack asynchronously. Set expectations with teammates about acceptable time frames: responding within 24 hours, for example, gives people a chance to read the message and respond during normal work hours, no matter what timezone they’re in, and gets the asker a response in a timely enough manner that their work won’t be held up. If there are instances where you truly need ‘right away’ answers from your teammates, set up processes for that, too, and make it clear which tools are to be used for which.

Loom. Loom is a video messaging tool that puts an emphasis on sharing. Record yourself giving a talk, and you can send a recording of the slides (plus a thumbnail video of you speaking in the bottom corner, if you so choose) to your team. Using video like this is bread and butter from an asynchronous communication standpoint. You can record your talk at any time, and in turn, your team can watch it whenever’s convenient for them. Loom tracks views and viewers (if they have a Loom account), so you can see how much reach your video is getting.

I’ve seen this tool used in several different ways, from recording quick all-team PSAs to sending longer updates and messages to a group. Katie Burke, HubSpot’s Chief People Officer, sends a weekly Loom (~15 min) to the entire People Ops team with data, company updates, and personal thoughts. This highlights another reason video is such an important part of a good asynchronous communicator’s toolkit: personalization. Whether you work with Katie every day or not, you feel in tune with what’s top of mind for her, and hence, the team as a whole. The connection this builds is priceless. (Just don’t put pressure on yourself to make every video perfect — see tip #4, below).

These tools are just the beginning. Don’t use these particular ones? That’s fine. There are plenty of options out there that can help you achieve similar results. Just make sure to create a balanced ecosystem for your communications needs. A commstack, if you will.

4. Using video? Perfection is not the answer.

For us content creators, video’s been the vanguard for a while now. Finding ways to insert polished, shareable, easily digestible video content into our editorial calendars has become non-negotiable.

The advent of the hybrid workplace, though, has opened the door for a more flexible take on video’s powers. Kicking off a major new project with your team? Record a one minute video to go along with the launch materials, giving everyone a quick overview of what to expect (and what’s expected of them). Want to give regular updates to a global team without the burden of scheduling live meetings? Record a fifteen minute video that team members can watch on their own time.

Whenever you turn on the camera, there’s pressure to be polished, to look impeccable, to do multiple takes until you get everything right. But remember: in the internal communications of a hybrid workplace, video is not about polish. It’s two things: personal and informational. Some team project management apps like Asana are even introducing the ability to record video natively, pairing recorded explainers with assigned team tasks. So hit record, and take a deep breath: all you need is to relay the information clearly and concisely, and you’re doing just fine.

5. Make yourself available (and predictable).

If internal communications in a remote world can sometimes be a storm, you want to make yourself the lighthouse. As you build up your own asynchronous communications strategy, strive for predictability and stability.

On everything you author internally, include your preferred contact info. Be intentional about how you name things. Instead of just sharing a “book a meeting with me” link with your teammates, call it “office hours,” and schedule them on the same day of the week each month. This is especially important if you’re in a people leadership role, or if you’re say, like me, a content strategist supporting a large team. There’s no such thing as leaving the door to your office open anymore. Make it easy for your people to find you.

And if you’re launching a resource like office hours for the first time, don’t just take an ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach. Share the news wherever your team will be, with the help of those tools we talked about earlier (and more): pop a link to your calendar in a shared slack channel; record a quick Loom explaining why you’re introducing this resource. You get the idea.

6. Keep accessibility top of mind.

Making the way we communicate accessible should always be a priority. But before the pandemic, in the world of in-person events and packed-conference room meetings, that could sometimes be easier for those of us without accessibility needs to forget (just as sometimes the experience of remote employees could be misunderstood or overlooked in favor of the in-office experience).

First, though, let’s challenge that phrase “those of us without accessibility needs.” Who is that, really? Making a piece of communication as clear and helpful (and as accessible) as possible helps everyone. It’s that classic example of curb cuts in sidewalks ⁠ — they don’t just help someone using a wheelchair. Anyone pushing a baby carriage, rolling a suitcase behind them, or just prone to tripping over curbs (don’t look at me) is going to benefit from that simple dip in the concrete.

There are several online guides (like this one, from HubSpot) that can help get you started, and remind you of places you might have forgotten where accessibility decisions really matter. As a blog editor, I can personally attest to the importance of not skipping header levels when formatting a post: h1, h2, etc, in order to better aid screen readers. These are often simple steps, but they make a huge difference: take them.

If you’re looking to dig even deeper into the literature on asynchronous communication, this comprehensive guide from communication app Twist is a great place to start.

These tips are just the beginning, and they’re far from being prescriptive. Test out different methods. Ask for feedback from your team. In the end, you’re going to figure out the processes that work best for you, and you’re going to see just how powerful and effective distributed, diverse, hybrid teams that communicate well with each other can be. Here’s to your future ⁠ — after all, it’s already here.



Tech Content Strategist at HubSpot

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