How to Get Better at Asynchronous Communication

Allocating your time and creative juices on just whatever and whenever you feel like it can be great.

However, in most business dynamics, you can’t really escape the reality of having to sync over client meetings – as well as handle communications following requirements in different formats (such as video drips, email threads, screencasts). 

In the early days of my career, I worked multiple jobs at a time with more or less flexible hours. My second real full-time job was a promising venture at first – until I remained the only project lead on-site at the office. I worked as the tech lead in a global with executives and clients both overseas in different countries. Back then, I used to spend approximately three hours a day commuting.

Even as I tried to negotiate telecommuting or different working hours (we barely had 90min of overlap between my working hours and my bigger clients), it was not a viable option for the executives.

One day, I quit. I took control of my own free time, wake up only when I want to, work late night shifts (being a night owl). I scheduled a couple of breaks throughout the day to rejuvenate between working sessions – the scheduling was all great. 

But it was just a matter of time for growth to start happening and I had to get back to working with other people. This made alignment and compromise necessary – especially with working hours with tech leads in Australia and other accounts in the US.

When I bootstrapped my first company, we started as a remote team in order to accommodate our schedule as we kept growing, and gradually moved in-house to help more people, train more people, and collaborate more.

Now, I am juggling between several different work environments and collaborating with different teams both on-site and in remote setups. Thanks to my broad exposure to different business structures, I have learned the importance of being able to communicate asynchronously.

First – Synchronous Communication

Let us first define synchronous communication.

Synchronous communication is a type of communication that happens in real-time between the sender and the receiver of the message. The following are some examples of synchronous communication:

  • All sorts of phone calls
  • In-person meeting
  • Video conference such as Zoom meetings
  • Conversations or chats during break time

Basically, any conversation that is scheduled with several people expected to be present at the same time. That’s why it is synchronous.

Synchronous work at scale can cause anxiety, gives precedence to the louder voices in the room, limits the availability to react on more important matters, decreases overall daily capacity, and squeezes out your decision fatigue juices. While collaboration is paramount—you can easily cross the line, and many of the largest orgs have done that years ago.

A lot of people who are drawn to synchronous communication can end up having several hours of meetings within the day and sometimes when you have to learn, that means you can barely get outside because you need to finish the activity.  These cases are usually due to the fear that the more important activity is going to come out during a meeting and distract entirely or you may actually miss out on something that’s crucial.

Another negative aspect of synchronous communication is the limited time for reaction and lack of follow-ups. Not everyone can keep up in a conversation. You can’t refer to your meeting unless you are recording your entire duration and you can’t possibly clarify all the additional details in an asynchronous manner. 

That is why I advocate for asynchronous communication. 

What is Asynchronous Communication

In contrast to synchronous communication, asynchronous communications come real handy for people who are not necessarily spending 14 hours a day on a computer working in different time zones or bouncing between different things. This type of communication is for people who want to take part in a discourse wherein they do not have to respond right away to the sender of the message. Most conversations that take place in asynchronous communication are fragmented via email or chat.

Asynchronous communication allows me to elaborate and converse without the need to be present and travel at the same time. As far as I can recall in the old days, you have to wait for mails to arrive especially if you are trying to communicate with people, perhaps your parents, who are overseas. 

During those times, you had to be very thorough and smart in how they gather messages, write long letters, send photos, and even send gifts because a single message is so valuable that you really have to convey everything or otherwise you’re going to wait a couple of months until you could clarify something in the follow-up email. 

In a similar fashion, of course, aside from email, there are different kinds of communication such as recorded Zoom meetings or recorded live streams where people can gather information. Email is probably by far one of the most popular mediums. While a lot of people are banishing email due to both spam and newsletter subscriptions and lots of negative elements, email is still a great communication tool. You can still mimic instant messages by sending dozens of emails in and out. 

What About Slack?

Look, I am not against it, but I have had my fair share of hatred towards Slack. That is mostly related to the way that people are using this system and not because it sucks. Slack is a business communication platform that allows you to communicate in real-time as needed. You can stay connected with people through the notifications you receive. 

There is a possibility that messages on Slack lead to challenges such as lost institutional knowledge, poor documentation, poor project management and planning, people getting lazy because they can get together, and lack of thoughtfulness in crafting messages as well. 

So all things considered, Slack is actually the direct common tool people use oftentimes in an unlimited amount of time. I say this because I can actually put the number in my 2021 annual report from RescueTime. I’ve been heavily advocating against Slack forever, but seeing 1,000+ hours spent in the app over 2021 is a tragic reminder of how messed up the digital space is. Here’s a screenshot of that annual report:

RescueTime data

Slack is the typical depiction of the office space. Being present on Slack can account for work, considering how much offtopic and watercooler chat is going on across all channels. It forms an unhealthy habit of checking in Slack day in and night, impairing focus and efficiency, expecting responses in no time.

Considering the annual report, in a nutshell, I would do anything and everything in my power to triple down or even quadruple down on asynchronous communication as much as possible.

Here are the channels that have helped me streamline asynchronous communication better.

1. Email

Yes, yes, I know that email is for old people and is rarely user-friendly but email has actually been my go-to tool for about 20 years already. 

Did you know that the average person sends and receives about 121 business emails a day and 200 instant messages per week? The improper use of email can result in an alternative of instant messaging with people stuck in nonstop hyperresponsiveness, refreshing inboxes once every 6 minutes.

My Gmail account was signed up in 2004 and is now an adult capable of making decisions by itself! I streamline most of my communication in Gmail meaning that my subscriptions, client emails, my most important communications go there. It is simply my go-to to get things done, and that is why it is so useful. 

In addition to that, it is a great tool to use in an asynchronous manner. Email groups have practically been invented in an email environment. You can respond to messages and aggregate multiple inboxes in one place. It really is a tremendous tool. There is a great number of different opportunities to consolidate things together. I can make multiple calendars especially as an Android user myself, it is by far one of my favorite apps.

2. Project Management System

Especially when working with your team, a project management system is paramount. 

A reliable project management system enables you to add tasks, set due dates, and collaborate on responsibilities as needed. It is a great way to keep accountability and make sure that things are under control. 

When working with clients using the same system, oftentimes it is clearly inferred who is supposed to be working on a task, what is the current status, and when it is due. Otherwise, it is not really clear or we can just forget who is working on a task unless we have used a project management system. Whether it is Asana, Trello, Jira, Notion – gathering action items in one place for the team and other stakeholders is the best way to bring you on the same page.

This way, especially in a work environment, you can actually afford to create proper sprint planning and avoid all that dreadful day-to-day communication between the tasks.

A project management system may be perfect for collaboration with vendors, partners, and clients, but more importantly, it teaches people to better communicate and define goals, design tasks in a smart manner, making sure that the action is set in place—setting up “SMART” goals that are smart, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. 

The caveat with a similar system is… You need to design specific access protocols and invite every member or organization separately. It’s not a phone number you can just dial in, no questions asked. It requires initial setup, and it’s not always the best communications format to share with your parents or significant other, for example.

3. ZipMessage

I stumbled upon ZipMessage through a Twitter conversation with its founder. Brian Casel is a serial entrepreneur and I have used some of his products in the years – which is why I was excited to give this a shot.

Brian and I connected over ZipMessage and I’ve been using the tool in different scenarios. I picked his brain on the backstory of the tool:

“I started ZipMessage because I wanted an easy way to send anyone a link to start an async conversation.  I can send them my video (camera, screen, audio, text), and they can respond with theirs—nothing to download or install.  

Customers really loved the threaded back-and-forth conversational nature of ZipMessage, which really fits today’s remote work, asynchronous work style that we’re seeing everywhere.

What I love most about ZipMessage is it leads to even better outcomes than when we resort to live Zoom calls.”

The reason I like ZipMessage is it is both suitable and helpful for text, audio, and video which makes it suitable for both desktop and mobile. It’s not exclusive in the way people can get back to you.

Other users in the conversation can opt to respond to you via video, audio, or text. I have actually conducted several interviews this way. I kick this off with a ZipMessage conversation, asking a few questions, and the applicants can get back to me whenever they feel like it.

They are also free to decide whether they want to respond back through a text recap, an audio message, or video. 

ZipMessage helps me conduct a series of interviews in parallel, respond back outside of business hours, and set a more comforting environment. If the applicants feel they don’t get the job or it’s not a good fit, we can part ways without the inconvenience of being present at the office and having to follow business etiquette.  

At work, especially after business meetings and client calls, I can recap the conversation in a screencast or a video and share the conversation with my team. They can pick this up in the morning or whenever they are available. And I can follow up while I am driving, commuting, or walking in the park.

4. Loom

Loom is another favorite tool of mine. The reason I do enjoy Loom is the fact it is really great with screen sharing. It works out of the box. it is a Chrome extension. If I am at work, if I am on my way to demonstrate and show something and I am not in a loud environment, I am usually resorting to Loom.  

Imagine giving back feedback to a designer. Well, it is really hard to just explain which components make the most sense. You can probably create a screenshot and point some arrows and explain something, but it is not really as efficient as I would like it to be. And with Loom, I can actually explain in-depth, run through multiple slides, replicate my user flow, and explain what exactly went wrong (by providing examples and alternatives on the go). 

So you can actually walk people through your thought process and point them in the right direction without doubt and ambiguity. And having gathered and documented a proper demo or walkthrough, you can educate a large group of individuals without having to find time to meet all of them simultaneously, and wait for over a week to get everyone on the same page. It’s easy to follow up after and rewatch for educational purposes. Even as training materials for future hires or people getting onboarded with a product.

5. Volley

Volley is a tool I discovered about a year ago and initially, I hated it. I hated it because it naturally translates to video and I was tired of the bitter taste of Zoom and Meet meetings.

But unlike other tools like Slack, Volley actually embraces asynchronous communication, meaning that it’s uniquely set up against real time communication.

Think about a video response that takes several minutes to compile, and then another minute to upload and process. It is almost inevitable to get an immediate response. As a result, before you knew it, It takes 20 minutes or so between messages – at best. It’s a great brainstorming medium, but a non-intrusive one at the same time.

Volley is great for clarifying an idea to someone else or sending feedback, and getting feedback on an initiative or a blocker whenever you are on the go. You do not have to write a super detailed message to elaborate. At the same time, you don’t have to postpone this for next week because you lack the time to draft a 3-page document refining the pros and cons of an idea.

With Volley, you can actually elaborate thoroughly to give feedback and just provide a natural link to Volley so that everyone can get back to you.

I’ve been using Loom and Volley heavily over the past few months whenever I can replace a meeting with an actual overview. Plus, working odd hours means it’s a lot more practical to think something through and deliver a better-refined walkthrough. Nowadays, I mix in ZipMessage – and love the mix altogether.

6. Threads 

Threads is another great tool we adopted as it allows us to create different communication flows and really helps in consolidating information into one place as a separate channel for high-level communications. 

This tool prides itself as “a modern forum for work where focused discussions and decisions take place” and true enough, it can be very helpful. The following are just some of the features of Threads:

  • Message Boards
  • Check-ins
  • Inline Commenting
  • Chat Integrations
  • Commenting + Replying
  • Flexible Privacy Model
  • Video Commenting
  • SOC2 Commenting 
  • SAML/SSO
  • Custom Notification Settings
  • Follow-ups/reminders/requests

Plus, you can easily integrate this tool with apps such as Asana, Jira, Trello, and Slack.

If you want to detach but do not want to miss out on important work news, you can set up your notification state. You can set it up in a way that allows you to refresh every day or two at most and make sure we get to some kind of high-level conversation. This can help you figure out what sort of office improvements are going to be interesting for the next few months. You can just keep it on radar, throw some notes every week to get to it. So, it is scheduled. 

It doesn’t necessarily come with a deadline. Everyone is better prepared and conversations happen a lot faster with the actual conclusions because everyone’s already familiar. We can set different forums with different topics. it is really like the old forum system, but with different notifications with mobile apps and getting control for follow-up with questions from multiple people. This allows you to keep your people or correspondents accountable.

It gets tough heading into a meeting ready to tackle a complicated topic, realizing 40 minutes in that it will take several additional syncs to unpack the bigger problem. Threads is a great way to tackle a problem from different angles over time, and meet to finally solve it once the general idea is clear, and everyone involved had the time to acquaint themselves with the different risks or opportunities.

7. Fellow

Fellow is traditionally a meeting, scheduling, and note-taking app. I discovered Fellow by looking for an app to create and maintain recurring agenda for meetings.

When connecting with the founder during the demo, I realized there’s a lot more that you can do with Fellow. And underlying practices within the tool – and the philosophy of the team behind it.

So, one of those internal models is “no agenda, no attenda”. Meaning that if you don’t have anything to discuss, the meeting simply doesn’t have to happen. You can embrace these practices well, especially as your company gets better and more optimal in communicating the process internally. 

One other thing that you can do is you can create recurring meetings in Fellow and actually gather information into the meeting agenda. And for many of those meetings, they either happen a lot faster or can be skipped entirely. Once you’ve gathered everything in one place (uploads, reports, documents, decks), it is just easier to follow during a quick sync or prior to that. 

You can experiment with a scheduled meeting with a deadline in the form of “We need this presentation on or before Friday”. Everyone can gather their thoughts and collaborate offline. When the time comes, you just open the agenda. If everything’s in one place, just cancel the meeting. So, it is kind of an asynchronous meeting. 

8. Otter.ai

Otter.ai is a less conventional tool but it is also one that I use every now and then in conveying encoded messages or generating transcripts for a blog post. As of the time I was creating this blog post, I had been walking in the park for the past hour, making sure to get my daily jog. In the meantime, I am recording my second blog post. 

Basically, Otter.ai lets you generate notes for your meetings, interviews, lectures, and other conversations. These notes and transcripts are shareable, searchable, accessible, and secure. With just the Basic plan, you can already enjoy a limited number of features for free, but if you need to take advantage of more services, they offer the following perks for their Business plan: 

  • Zoom cloud recording transcription
  • Live transcription for Zoom
  • Live closed captioning for Zoom
  • User management
  • Reporting and analytics
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Single sign-on (SSO)

In some cases when I want to get feedback, I can go to say Telegram, Instagram, Viber, or WhatsApp and send another message because they are instant messaging channels that are expected to catch immediate attention. So they’re very interruptive in nature. If they don’t get back on time, it means that the tools don’t provide a proper reminder. It is like you receive the WhatsApp message but send the files over 5 hours later. That is not how it works. You either need to speak right now, or you just forget about it because it is instant. 

Async Is About Efficiency

Exploring all those channels really allows me to be more efficient and to be more focused. Spend less time in being present, attend only 10% of meetings, and not have to take long hours in order to get ready for one.

Asynchronous communication frees up more of my time and allows me to be around for emergencies if they come up. In the meantime, I am catching up on their communications or rearranging my time in a way that makes more sense. For example, I am more active late at night meaning that I can actually block messages without waking people up at night or without taking responses from them. 

Asynchronous communication teaches you to be detailed, be unambiguous, and provide information that requires fewer follow-ups. It is a great way to document historical information like documentation of the data, as compared to throwing millions and millions of problematic messages that carry no value whatsoever in terms of institutional knowledge. People can not catch up with a Slack channel whatsoever but they can catch up with documentation for a task I produce and it can create a changelog for a product. 

With a much more efficient way of communicating, I am able to effectively plan and manage internal communications, feedback, meetings, interviews, project, reports, documentation, presentations, and lots and lots of data and information all throughout. I can do that over weekends, late-night, early in the morning, while driving, walking the dog, having a walk in the park, or cycling—this is making sure that I can take better care of my health and my well-being while also being able to deliver high value and extremely high return on investment and also being available for emergencies as they come in. This keeps my mind sharp as I ensure that I can set my priorities straight.

So, those are the different tools that can help you get better asynchronous communication. If you have any questions, please let me know and I would be happy to help you.

Your thoughts?