A Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration in a Remote Work Environment

Victoria Fiorini
6 mins
man working on laptop with headphones practices asynchronous collaboration

The COVID-19 pandemic permanently changed the way people work. Many companies moved to a hybrid or completely remote environment. And while companies generally adapted well, taking advantage of online messaging systems and video conferencing software, new problems soon emerged—like Zoom fatigue.

It turns out you can’t manage a remote team the exact same way you would an in-person team. Back-to-back video conferences, meetings, and brainstorming sessions can actually decrease productivity and increase employee burnout. And when remote employees are expected to respond to requests and messages immediately, they struggle to settle into a state of deep work and make real progress toward their priorities.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. Companies are increasingly adopting asynchronous collaboration tools, which allow employees to work as their schedule permits—striking the ideal balance between collaboration and independent work.

As companies continue to adapt to the new normal, asynchronous collaboration is likely to become—and remain—an essential tool in a company’s arsenal. Learn more about asynchronous collaboration, including pros, cons, and the best tools available, below.

What Is Asynchronous Collaboration?

Asynchronous collaboration is the exchange of knowledge or ideas that doesn’t happen in real time. Unlike in-person meetings, where everyone must attend at the same time, regardless of the time zone they’re in, asynchronous collaboration can happen at each employee’s convenience.

Examples of asynchronous collaboration can include:

  • Email threads
  • Updates, comments, and questions posted to a project management system
  • Videos, such as a screen recording or recorded meeting
  • Collaborative documents, such as shared files in Google Docs
  • Posts, questions, and answers in a knowledge management platform

In each of these examples, users don’t expect immediate action or responses. They access and provide information intermittently, as their schedules permit. Ultimately, this means that employees are free to work on their own priorities when they prefer, rather than forced to collaborate on one particular issue at the same time.

What Is Synchronous Collaboration?

Synchronous collaboration is just the opposite: collaboration that happens in real time. An obvious example is a meeting, whether in-person or remote, at a set time.

Other examples of synchronous collaboration include:

  • Brainstorming or whiteboarding sessions
  • Video conferences
  • Phone calls
  • Real-time online messages or chats (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams)

In these examples, employees are expected to provide immediate responses and real-time communication.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Asynchronous Collaboration?

In today’s work environment, asynchronous collaboration is essential, but most teams can’t work effectively on a solely asynchronous basis. Below, we explore some of the pros and cons of asynchronous collaboration.

Pros

Relieves the pressure to immediately respond: Companies that prioritize synchronous collaboration tend to develop a culture that encourages immediate responses. Even email—typically considered a type of asynchronous collaboration—can become synchronous if the sender expects the recipient to drop everything to respond within minutes. By adopting methods of asynchronous collaboration, companies can relieve that pressure and give their employees more flexibility to respond when it’s convenient for them. 

Fewer interruptions enable deep work and focus: Have you ever been deeply focused on a task, only to be interrupted with a phone call, text, or instant message? All of a sudden, you’re pulled from the task at hand and forced to switch gears to address a completely different issue. By the time you’re able to go back to your original task, you may be distracted and unfocused. Asynchronous collaboration reduces those interruptions so you can engage in deep work and concentrate on your top priorities.   

More control over the workday: Nearly everyone has experienced days of back-to-back meetings. By the time the workday ends, you feel exhausted—but even though you were busy, you didn’t actually get much work done. By replacing meetings with asynchronous collaboration, you can gain more control over the workday.

Easy communication across time zones: Requiring synchronous collaboration across time zones can cause some employees to work at unreasonable times and generally lengthen their workday. If someone on the West Coast needs to attend a meeting at 9 a.m. Eastern time, for example, their work day begins at 6 a.m.—and may not end until 5 p.m. local time. And that becomes even more of a problem if your team is spread out across the globe. Taking advantage of asynchronous collaboration methods and tools can make it easier for workers to communicate no matter where they are. 

Better planning: Asynchronous communication can help everyone plan more effectively. When employees’ calendars aren’t filled with meetings, they can intentionally carve out time to dedicate to their most important tasks. Plus, fewer meetings means that when you do need to schedule an important meeting, you will have an easier time finding a free time slot that works for everyone.   

Cons

Feelings of isolation: For some employees, working primarily through asynchronous collaboration can feel isolating. According to the 2020 State of Remote Work report, loneliness is the top struggle for remote workers, along with collaboration and communication. Without meetings, video conferences, or phone calls, employees may feel alone, rather than part of a team.

Lack of connection: Similar to experiencing feelings of isolation, remote employees who primarily use asynchronous collaboration methods may also feel a lack of connection to their co-workers and managers. Spontaneous collaboration, like brainstorming, can help you feel connected to and comfortable with your team—but a stream of emails and project updates can end up feeling cold and detached.

Less spontaneous brainstorming: During a meeting or phone call with your team, it’s easy to start bouncing ideas off of each other, brainstorming how you can address a particular problem. And often, that brainstorming can lead to highly creative ideas that you may not have otherwise generated. By focusing solely on asynchronous collaboration, however, you don’t often get those spontaneous brainstorming opportunities.

Responses take time: Asynchronous collaboration tools often require detailed responses, which take time to craft. Posting a detailed update in a project management system, for example, likely takes longer than hopping on a quick phone call to provide the same information.

Best Asynchronous Practices for Remote Teams

Understanding the pros and cons above can help you develop guidelines to help your team use a blend of real-time and asynchronous collaboration effectively. Consider these best practices for optimal asynchronous collaboration.

Proactively over-communicate information: Without a constant stream of meetings or phone calls, employees may worry that they’re missing out on important information. To combat that, err on the side of over-communicating. Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

Set reasonable response times: When employees are new to asynchronous collaboration, they may wrongly assume that they need to respond to messages, updates, and posts immediately. To address this, make sure to set clear expectations ahead of time. For example, you might ask that employees respond to a comment or request in a project management system within 24 hours.  

Provide resources: Just like any new software program or resource, your employees may not be familiar with how to use asynchronous collaboration tools for knowledge engagement. Be sure to provide plenty of resources, including training materials and videos, to equip your workers to use the tools most effectively.

Be transparent: Encourage your team to provide feedback about what is and isn’t working. Be transparent about what needs to be fixed, so you can collaboratively design a solution that works for everyone. 

Don’t turn asynchronous into synchronous: Don’t fall into the trap of expecting immediate responses through asynchronous channels. That defeats the entire point of an asynchronous collaboration tool!

Online Asynchronous Collaboration Tools

Interested in introducing asynchronous collaboration, but don’t know where to begin? Start by exploring the following tools.

Knowledge Management Platform  

Knowledge engagement, or knowledge management, platforms (such as Bloomfire) provide a centralized source of company knowledge. This allows you to house the most up-to-date information—from product information to training videos—within one system. With a robust knowledge management strategy and platform, employees can easily search for and access this information at any time, reducing the need for distracting phone calls and urgent IMs.   

Project Management Software

Project management systems, such as Asana, Monday.com, and ClickUp, allow you to manage every aspect of a multitude of projects. From this one system, you can manage your timeline (including scheduling and deadlines), budget, project owners and contributors, and resources. Everyone on the team can look at the system and see exactly where the project currently stands and what needs to be completed next.

Digital Whiteboards

While spontaneous brainstorming may be a type of synchronous collaboration, digital whiteboards provide a great asynchronous alternative. Platforms like Miro and Mural allow users to collaborate any time and from anywhere, as employees can add ideas at their convenience, rather than in real time. This type of tool can help your team feel connected and in sync.

Asynchronous Meeting Tools

Asynchronous meeting tools, such as Yac or Loom, can empower you to rethink traditional meetings. Instead of meeting at one set time, these tools allow you to share thoughts via voice recordings, screen recordings, and action items over the span of several hours or days. Essentially, everyone contributes to the meeting on their own time. You get the benefits of collaboration without the constraints of a meeting.

Today’s work environment doesn’t look like that of ten—or even two—years ago. To remain competitive and retain happy, engaged employees, companies must look to the future and adopt asynchronous collaboration tools.

January 12, 2022

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