Asynchronous communication is key to unlocking your team’s ability to focus & succeed. Here’s how to do it right.
If you’re interested in personal productivity at all, you almost certainly know that being interrupted in your work has huge costs to your ability to create high quality and timely results in any field. While a lot of interruptions are self-created, more than half of the interruptions in someone’s average workday are caused by others. Email, Slack, meetings, texts, task reminders, social chats, and so on are all likely cause of external interruptions. Managing the flow of interruptions in your workday and in your teams’ workdays is a crucial skill to keep everyone working better together.
Interruptions aren’t always bad. If you’re staring at a chalkboard and trying to solve a complex issue and someone pops in to help you solve that problem, that’s a positive interruption and a good experience for both you and the person who helped you out. But if you’re wearing headphones and working on a complicated problem and someone DMs you on Slack because they want to know your opinion about a project that you’re not really involved in, that’s a destructive interruption. You’ve lost the thread of what you were pursuing and it can take you from 5 minutes to an hour to get back into the flow of things.
It’s the same for every team member. So before you ping @channel on Slack or drive by a team member’s desk to get their opinion on the new t-shirt design that came from marketing, consider the effect of that interruption on everyone in your team.
Good news! It’s an easy 3 step process to make you a more considerate team communicator. If you’re good about spreading these rules around, you’ll find that everyone in your team—you included!—can get more done each day.
Step 1: Decide which kind of communication you need to make: synchronous or asynchronous
Here’s basically the first key rule: divide your message/questions / what have yous into three categories: urgent, important, and all the rest.
- Urgent topics are both important and time sensitive. They relate to something that people are working on right now or will be working on today.
- Important topics require accountability & that someone is responsible for them.
- All of the rest of the topics are, by their definition, not yet crucial to your team’s work.
That “not yet crucial” is a key distinction to make, since a lot of topics don’t start out as something important or urgent, but end up producing topics which are crucial to your teams’ work later.
Step 2: Decide which kind of channel is appropriate for what kind of topic.
There are fundamentally 2 kinds of communication in the workforce. Real-time and synchronous.
- Real-time: meetings, ask someone live, video conference, phone call, cubical drive-by, chat
- Synchronous: chat, email, tasks/tickets, internal newsletter, company wiki, and so on
You’ll notice that I consider “chat” both a real-time and an asynchronous tool. That’s because depending on how you use it can fall in both categories. If you’re pinging someone in Slack via a DM, there’s usually a certain expectation of an instant response. They’ll get a notification usually. If you’re just posting in a channel or chatroom, someone can go back and consume the chat’s content when they’re free.
Chat tools have a super super low barrier to entry for interruption. Worse, they’re almost always destructive interruptions at that. Chat tools are radioactive. They have a fantastic power to drive team collaboration, but they can also poison everything around and kill productivity entirely. Just like a nuclear engineer handling plutonium, you should treat Slack or HipChat very carefully.
So what kind of channel is appropriate for what kind of topic?
You should only interrupt people for something which is truly urgent. Someone working on a new database may need to urgently be updated on a new requirement for the scalability because it could affect his or her early design choices. But does that same person need an urgent update that there’s one more row which needs to be added to the db? Probably not. That’s more like an important issue: something that needs to be tracked and assigned, but not something that needs to interrupt what someone is doing. Important issues need to be tracked and assigned to people, and the easiest way to keep tabs on that is to create a task and assign it to someone. Here’s the big secret that we’ve learned helping thousands of companies work better together:
Tasks are the magic that powers smart asynchronous communication.
The goal of any urgent or important topic should be to get a task or several assigned from it and then handed off to the right person. Urgent topics can definitely be followed up with some kind of interruption to make sure that the person who needs to work on the task is aware of it right now, but they also need to have it tracked so that when it’s done they can get back to what they were doing before.
But there are definitely times when you want to collaborate together on a problem but it’s not super urgent to need a fix right now. That’s when scheduling an interruption is a good idea and gives people a chance for a positive interruption: a chance to work together on a problem that everyone thinks is valuable. Meetings should always be scheduled at least a day in advance if they’re “important”, because by definition anything that’s scheduled less than a day in advance is something that’s urgent and needs to be addressed before whatever was planned for the day.
Finally there are all of the communications that don’t have work resulting from them: “what’s for lunch”, “did you see that cool movie last night”, or “I need help with this task.”
Here’s how we break down our communication hierarchy here at Unito:
- Urgent issues: Slack DM or mentions, in-person drive-bys + tasks
- After hours, we sometimes add texts / video calls into the mix.
- Important issues
- Slack channel updates + task / email + Task
- Meetings & lunch socials
- All the rest
- Async comms exclusively: slack channels (#lunch, #random, #projectName, etc.), Email
Step 3: Double down on tasks, ease up on chat & email
Fundamentally, when you’re having a work communication, it should probably result in a task. Someone should be responsible for each action which needs to be taken after the discussion is done. Further, if you have a task to be done which doesn’t require any real discussion, just create the task and assign it to the person directly or their backlog, depending on your workflow. That’s the ultimate async communication because most teams do a weekly grooming session, so the task probably won’t even come up for discussion until then. 🙂
Likewise, when you can, ease up on chat and on email. Give your team 4+ hours a day where they don’t expect to hear from you or from anyone else so that they can get into the flow of their task and knock things out quickly and peacefully.