How do we use asynchronous communication for better collaboration?

Is working from home just working from home, or is it more than that? Is there a solution to not spend 8 hours a day on video calls? We experimented extensively with asynchronous communication at the beginning of 2021, and are happy to share our learnings.

Wieni and working from home

Wieni has a tradition of experimenting with working from home. In 2013 all employees were obliged to work from home for 2 weeks. This resulted in the (pre-pandemic) policy of optionally working from home up to 3 days a week.

However, from March 2020 we were forced to work almost 100% from home. We transferred our physical ways of working to their online equivalents. Which in itself was not such a big transition, given our experience with working from home.

However, we noticed that the volume of video meetings put a lot of pressure on the productivity and energy level of the team. The rest of the world shared that view.

Google Trends graph about zoom fatigue between March 2020 and March 2021

The search term zoom fatigue - or the feeling that you are empty after a day of video calling - rose rapidly worldwide on Google Trends from March 2020 and remained popular in the following months. Also, note the correlation between the popularity of the search term and the 3 waves of measures in Europe and the United States.

In summary, we might have started working fully remote, but fundamentally nothing changed in the way we worked together.  

The challenge

How could we adapt our way of communicating within Wieni to change this?

It makes sense that we ran into this. In an internal survey on communication preferences, more specifically giving and receiving feedback, the face 2 face (video)meeting was the favourite of almost every Wieni.

But at the same time, we also wanted to find keys to emphasize the human part as much as possible within our system of communication. Valuable human contact, without drowning in 8 hours of video calls a day.

The experiment: defaulting to asynchronous

From research at companies with a long tradition in remote working, one common principle always comes into play: default to asynchronous as much as possible.

Asynchronous means that communication from A to B does not imply that B immediately communicates back to A. A text document, an email, a voicemail, but also written communication within online collaboration platforms are examples of asynchronous communication.  

At the other end of the spectrum is synchronous communication. When A communicates to B, A expects instant feedback from B. Both physical and remote video meetings belong to this category. But just as well a telephone call or an instant message with an accompanying notification expecting an immediate response.

"Only asynchronous internal communication based on long-form text or pre-recorded video, which goes against the tradition of synchronous verbal meetings, leads to the necessary reduction of meetings and video calls." - Wieni guide to internal communication

An important inspiration was how Basecamp applies remote working. Their guide “How we communicate” inspired us to create our Wieni guide to internal communication. Especially since we noticed that asynchronous collaboration only works if some basic rules are followed. Specifically, the guide consists of the following 10 principles:

  1. Asynchronous as the rule, synchronous as the exception. Synchronous communication is based on instant feedback. This is in contrast to asynchronous communication, where the receiver provides feedback at a different point in time. In other words, “my time” as default, “our time” if necessary.
  2. Only asynchronous internal communication based on long-form text or pre-recorded video, which goes against the tradition of synchronous verbal meetings, leads to the necessary reduction of meetings and video calls.
  3. Meetings are the last resort, not the first option.
  4. Who writes stays. Whoever talks only produces air that evaporates. If it's important, write it down.
  5. Talking helps the one who hears it. Writing helps everyone. Both people who couldn't be there, as well as future colleagues within 10 years.
  6. Do not expect anyone to respond immediately except in an emergency. The urge for immediate answers is toxic to productivity. ASAP is poison.
  7. Poor communication creates extra work.
  8. Provide factual and spatial context. Factual are things people should know. Spatial is where the communication takes place. Discuss a task below the task, not elsewhere.
  9. Communication has nothing to do with syncing calendars. Writing or another asynchronous communication is not held back by the availability of your colleagues.
  10. A good colleague is a good writer. Put time and effort into what you write, how you write it, and where you write it. The quality of what is written determines the quality of the work that follows.

Asynchronous Tools

Working asynchronously focuses on non-simultaneous writing instead of talking simultaneously. So, in the first place, you can go back to tools that support non-simultaneous writing such as Google Docs, Microsoft Teams, and just about every project management tool on the market. Virtual whiteboarding applications such as Miro and Mural are also very good at this.

asynchronous video using Loom

But there are also some other solutions that we started working with. Our biggest eye-opener was experimenting with asynchronous video. Instead of doing meetings synchronously via Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet, you can just as well record videos and send them to each other asynchronously. The easiest way is to use Photobooth or Quicktime on your Mac, then upload the video to YouTube and share the link. But you can also go a step further. A tool like Loom allows you to record your screen as well as your webcam and audio with one click via a simple browser plug-in.

You have to get out of your comfort zone and get used to the fact that you start communicating with each other in a kind of vlog mode, but you get used to it surprisingly quickly.

Examples of asynchronous communication

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You can divide internal communication into four categories based on 2 parameters:

  • Are there many or few participants?
  • Are you looking for a lot or little interaction?

Within category 1 (many participants, little interaction) are company-wide announcements. State of the Union communication. Where someone from the leadership wants to convey a message to the entire organization. In the synchronous world, this is a meeting where everyone is present at the same time. Not obvious, because you hijack - intentionally or unintentionally - the agenda of your entire organization. Which is very intrusive. The asynchronous alternative can be to send a document around. But that has some limitations as you cannot add the necessary nuance. The better asynchronous alternative is simple. You record a video - if necessary with the slides on screen - and send this to your entire organization. Anyone can process the information whenever he or she wants to. And he or she can review it to better process the information. Plus it is extremely interesting for future members of your organization.

But there is also a lot of potential for category 2 (few participants, little interaction) to improve asynchronous performance. We quickly schedule “just a moment” to transfer information to a smaller team. However, when people are part of different teams, it is precisely these meetings that create an overflowing agenda. So here as well you can get started with asynchronous alternatives in text and/or video.

Category 3 is the most complex to tackle. But this applies to both the physical and the remote world. This includes the typical half-day workshops with 20 people. Those are already quite intense in a physical setting. But if you translate them 1 on 1 to remote workshops via video conferencing, they quickly become very tiring. Here our experience shows that spreading in time by alternating synchronously and asynchronously produces the best results. You can perfectly translate the context of a workshop into a video briefing, and have the participants perform the first assignment asynchronously. Then synchronously come together in a video meeting and discuss. And afterward, process the results again asynchronously. This allows you to drastically reduce the time spent on synchronous communication.

The question is whether category 4 can derive many benefits from asynchronous. It is very tempting to just go on a call with a few people and engage in plenty of interaction. Yet we also notice that even situations with 2 participants interacting, benefit from asynchronous. You can quickly put your ideas on video and share them with others. They can then reflect, review and give feedback. We even notice that the synchronous follow-up of the asynchronous preparation can often be canceled, simply because the solution is already there. It seems banal, but when you add everything up, these asynchronous interactions also cause a substantial decrease in death by meeting and a noticeably better result.

What did the Wieni team think of this?

In an in-between evaluation of the team, we assessed the influence of asynchronous working on autonomy, job satisfaction, and productivity.

Does asynchronous working give you more autonomy?

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Concerning autonomy, the majority experienced asynchronous as positive. Some quotes to clarify:

  • “I can plan better and more myself”
  • “I have control over my time”
  • “I better organize my day myself”
  • “I can better determine when I can or want to work focused”
  • “I can choose myself when I want to take in certain information”
  • “There is less pressure to be on time for meetings”

Do you notice a difference in “job satisfaction”? Do you think it's better this way or not?

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About job satisfaction, it was more nuanced.

  • “There is more social disconnection”
  • “It sometimes completely takes away the few moments of social contact”
  • “You have to remember which asynchronous communication you still have to process.”
  • “You have to keep an eye on your schedule if preparation is needed for certain meetings”
  • “Sometimes it goes up and down too much, instead of forward”
  • “You miss spontaneous hunches”
  • “You miss what is said between the lines and the non-verbal part of communication”

Do you notice a difference in productivity?

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Finally, opinions on productivity are strikingly similar.

  • “It's much more efficient”
  • “There is more time to continue working.”
  • “We switch less ad hoc, which is better for focus”
  • “Asynchronous communication enforces better preparation”
  • “The fact that something exists written or in video allows it to be re-read and re-watched. We need to repeat or inquire less often”
  • “The less volatile the information is, the longer it lingers, and the more accurate that information will be. Which ensures better mutual coordination in the short and medium-term”

What we have learned so far from experimenting with asynchronous

  1. Explicitly recognizing as management of an organization that there are too many meetings, and stating a vision of internal asynchronous communications to fix this, is well received within an organization. It shows respect for your team when you give them more control over their time and give them the chance to focus on what they do best. Not let them languish in a relentless stream of video calls.
  2. The timeless nature of asynchronous communication has advantages that you did not expect. The ability to reread or rethink what you would otherwise have to consume as very volatile information is a very powerful advantage.
  3. The preparation that asynchronous work entails has an immediate correlation with the quality of the work that results. If we are really honest, we often take it easy in synchronous working. Just throw some slides and an explanation to the team in a meeting, and they can move on. But if you are suddenly obliged to write down what it is really about, you are simultaneously obliged to put it much sharper and more correct. It's not surprising that at one point Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations from his board meetings, forcing everyone to write a 6-page memo in advance.
  4. It's not "or" but "and". The best results often come from a thoughtful combination of both synchronous and asynchronous practices. Especially for categories 3 and 4, where your process needs moments of synchronous interaction.
  5. Asynchronous requires extra attention to time- and project management. You cannot email the instruction video half an hour before a workshop. You have to prepare and plan that preparation well. At the same time, you ask people within the organization to be less reactive, but much more proactive. If they receive 5 videos a day, they should also be able to schedule that with their other work. But the advantage is that they gain control over that time, which is not the case in synchronous work.
  6. Although we mainly focus on asynchronous communication for internal communication, it also works wonderfully well when communicating with customers or other stakeholders outside your organization. You can easily replace a classic meeting to discuss designs with a short video that you send to the customer. The latter can in turn discuss the options internally and provide feedback. Which benefits the quality of that feedback. And you also show respect for your customer's time. They can now decide for themselves when they want to watch it. A fundamentally different way of working. Another interesting experiment is asynchronous video for job interviews. Especially in a second phase, for example in the context of a concrete assignment that you give to a potential colleague, video is very rewarding. You can easily share it internally to ask other colleagues for their opinion.

But what does that mean for working from home?

We believe this is not the right question. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a lot or little remote work. The question is rather: how do we ensure that our organizations remain efficient and effective in the changing context? And how do we ensure that the people within these organizations can do meaningful work and enter into meaningful relationships?

This experiment teaches Wieni that the key may lie in thinking about how we can work more and better asynchronously.

The advantage of that asynchronous thought is that it makes much less difference whether you work from home or at the office. Both are possible.

As far as Wieni is concerned, it is certainly not an either-or story. One of the Wienis sums it up very well:

“We shouldn't put too much emphasis on 'we are working asynchronously', but rather on 'we are implementing more asynchronicity', or 'we need to think asynchronously by default, but not purely'. Rather, it is an evolution that we will work more asynchronously, without rejecting or hating everything that is synchronous. It will be a challenging exercise to see and appreciate the real value of synchronicity.”

In other words, asynchronous if possible, synchronous if necessary. Every interaction where there is a need for instant human feedback must continue to be realtime and synchronous.