Rethinking asynchronous communication in remote work

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Most people are used to synchronous communication when working in an office. When they have a question, they can simply turn to a colleague for a face-to-face conversation to get real-time answers. But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended communications, as remote work has forced employees to rely on video, chat, email, and written documentation in our workflows.

As remote work continues and organizations explore hybrid workplace setups, employee expectations for communication and the tools to facilitate collaboration have changed. In the book Effective remote workPublished by The Pragmatic Programmers, author James Stanier explores common remote work pain points and offers best practices for individuals and teams, from a proper home office setup to remote team management.

In this excerpt from chapter 4 of Effective remote workStanier discusses the spectrum of synchronous and asynchronous communication, where communication tools fit into the spectrum, and how to adapt to asynchronous communications for remote work.

The spectrum of synchronicity

During a typical work day, we communicate with each other in a dazzling variety of ways. We may use email, chat, video calls, pull requests, code, wikis, or recorded video. As you saw in our opening story, a particular format can have certain expectations, benefits, limitations, and implications for the human being on the other end. No wonder it’s easy to make mistakes and get frustrated while we’re working on complicated things.

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Effective remote work.

What we really need to communicate better is a model, so we can make informed decisions about when, where and what format we use based on exactly what we’re trying to communicate. It sounds complicated, but stick with us here; it’s easier than you think.

Indeed, our model is nothing more than a straight line with arrows at both ends. On the left of the row is a label for synchronous communication. To the right of the row is a label for asynchronous. Next, we plot on the spectrum the different ways you can communicate in any given day, as shown in the following diagram.

The Spectrum of Communications Synchronicity

As you can see, a form of communication is usually not only synchronous or asynchronous. Often it’s somewhere in between. Let’s review each of the communication methods in the diagram:

  • Face-to-face video calls or chats are completely synchronous. Everyone involved must be present at a specific time, as communication is usually done through each individual’s voice and body language.
  • Discuss is a written medium and is therefore less synchronous than a video call because it can be read later. However, the information has a short half-life because a cat implicitly carries a time dependency. Are you catching up on a conversation from a few hours ago? Of course, that probably makes sense. But are you reading a conversation from two months ago? That’s probably now almost irrelevant. You had to be there at that time.
  • Recorded video can be accessed later and requires more preparation than a chat. But it usually serves as a mechanism to catch up on a missed meeting or a way to more effectively present something visual rather than a long-term archival format. A recording of a meeting from a few weeks ago or a video updating everyone on the progress of an initiative probably won’t be mentioned repeatedly. The video also cannot be indexed and searched.
  • E-mail This is where we start to produce more permanent asynchronous artifacts. By nature, email is archival and searchable and is often used for important communications such as issuing an employment contract or confirming that a payment has been established. Some people respond to emails quickly, but others take days to respond. However, this is to be expected.
  • Written documents require some production effort and can be used as the cornerstone of a project or proposal. As a general rule, a well-written document can last forever. Most online document software allows for collaborative editing and commenting, making it a compelling format for developing ideas.
  • Wikis and READMEs are completely asynchronous and generally have no interaction between author and readers. If properly cared for, they can last and be useful indefinitely.

Now that we’ve listed them, you might understand how many choices we have to navigate when we want to communicate. Pause briefly and reflect on your own experience in the following exercise. When you’re done, we’ll think about how to best support remote working.

Right shift

When we work together in an office, convenience and habit usually mean we spend a lot of time on the left side of the spectrum: synchronicity. After all, when your colleagues are right in front of your desk, it’s only natural to get up and walk around to have a conversation in the moment.

When we work remotely, we lose the ability to do so. But should that be a cause for concern? After all, engineers know it’s painful to be interrupted mid-thinking because the complex internal representation of a computer program in their brain immediately evaporates when someone asks, “Do you have a minute?”

Additionally, a bias towards in-person interaction excludes anyone who is not physically present. You could say that it is not suitable for any company that has multiple offices because it severely limits the collaboration that can take place across multiple locations. And if everyone is far away, you have as many places as people.

If you have worked in a large company, you have probably already seen the effects of synchronous communication by default:

  • Individuals are usually physically seated with their teams in the same office.
  • Teams that collaborate frequently are often located in the same physical location.
  • The weakest ties between different parts of the organization often occur when there is a geographic divide between them.

Colocation can have a tangible and inconvenient effect on the software being created. Conway’s law, as discussed in the book The month of the mythical man [Bro95], states that any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure mirrors the communication structure of the organization. It follows that as companies expand into different locations, opening an office and hiring new engineers may be an implicit design choice in how that company designs its software.

They may not know it yet.

Changing your mindset for remote work

To fully embrace remote work, we need to shift our mindset and habits to the right of the spectrum. Instead of choosing the practical option, we must choose to communicate in a way that allows an equal level of contribution from everyone, regardless of where they are in the world.

We have to turn right.

It is the habit that you must promote in yourself and with your colleagues. Whenever you communicate, can you deliberately move further down the spectrum?

For example, could you

  • Turn a face to face conversation in an exchange in the team’s chat channel, or even create an ephemeral chat channel around the subject? This way, more people have the opportunity to hear what is being said and contribute to the discussion.
  • Save a video call so that those who can’t make it, or those who didn’t know it was happening, can watch it later?
  • Decide to stop for a long time discuss exchange so that it can be written more thoughtfully and purposefully in an email?
  • Take a E-mail thread that proposes an idea and turn it into a more detailed written document so that it can more easily be read in its entirety and then circulated for comment and consensus?
  • Extract an agreed design into a written document and turn it into a permanent wiki page that serves as the cornerstone of an entire project?

Every interaction can be an opportunity to swing right, and in doing so, you have a much more dramatic impact than you might think. Why is that?

It’s because you’re making your workplace more remote-friendly. No more invisible exchanges in the hallway. You give more people the opportunity to find out what’s going on and then have a way to contribute to the conversation. You break down geographic silos and fight the tide against Conway’s Law.

All it takes is a right turn.

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