“That could have been an email” is the damning verdict on many online meetings, as expressed in a flood of memes shared by frustrated workers.

They reflect a sense that there was no need to have gathered people for a real-time session to receive a status update, say, or a simple announcement. Someone could have written it down and emailed it out, for people to respond to when/if appropriate.

The real yearning behind these memes are for asynchronous communication, a fundamental building block of successful remote teams.

It’s defined by distributed-work exemplar Gitlab in its culture guide as “the art of communicating and moving projects forward without the need for additional stakeholders to be available at the same time your communique is sent. It also gives people a chance to express their opinions in the way that is best suited for them.”

Working asynchronously unlocks many powerful options for remote teams, such as the ability to hire and operate globally — even to leverage time-zone arbitrage to get things done around the clock. It also means people can work according to their own best rhythms, without packing their day with endless meetings or feeling a need to check and respond immediately to messaging, experts say.

Still, it requires a high level of psychological safety and trust within the team, as Matt Mullenweg from Automattic pointed out in a famous blog post, many years pre-pandemic. It also demands a management mindset shift to a results-based rather than activity-based means of measuring output.

“You can’t track when people work so you shift to judging on what they produce,” Mullenweg wrote. “This makes people assess meetings and realize that most meetings are terrible.”

Beyond email

During the pandemic, the volume of online video meetings could be attributed in part to the desire to promote a sense of closeness among colleagues and overcome virtual distance. It’s broadly acknowledged that live online meetings offer richer and more nuanced communications than reading a written message, because they convey tone of voice and a degree of body language, all of which may completely change the meaning of the message. (Although good, concise, unambiguous writing can help asynchronous communication, and is a hiring criterion for all roles at Automattic and many other long-term distributed enterprises.)

Still, despite the implied simplicity of the “should have been an email” message, there are many ways to communicate asynchronously that make use of the wide range of multimedia services available on smartphones and that many people use in their personal communications all the time.

For example, in the last few weeks, the messaging platform Slack launched “clips,” which enables users to upload or record video directly into a Slack channel or direct message.

Slack suggests that clips can be used to replace a standing meeting such as a daily stand-up — just have everyone record a quick update instead. The platform further advises that clips are a good way to ask for feedback by talking through what’s on your mind and combining camera video with screenshare as necessary to illustrate a point. Clips are also a way to share wins and kudos in a spontaneous way with colleagues, the company adds.

Clips can be audio-only. Meetings can also be audio-only, which give participants a break from screen fatigue. Slack is among many investors in the recent funding round for Yac.com — an app designed for audio-first collaboration, but which also offers an archive and message transcription (which can include screenshares and links).

Unlocking rich media for async

The ability to scan and skim rich media for relevant content, as well as to formally search it, can be limited with video and audio content on many platforms. Anyone who has missed a team meeting and been sent a 58-minute 3GB video file to review afterward will appreciate this constraint, and how difficult it is to find and respond to the part that’s relevant to them.

As machine learning in search technology improves generally, there may be further improvements in the ability to index and retrieve exact matches in rich media files like audio and video. For now, the pairing of a transcript with audio is a powerful combination.

To be sure, the difference between sync and async is not determined by the tool but in the way that is used, experts say. While messaging platforms like Slack may work well for asynchronous communication, the reality is that a lot of teams end up using them for real-time conversation instead, with people waiting for and expecting immediate replies.

As Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson described it in their 2018 book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work,” “With the proliferation of chat tools invading the workplace, more and more people are being asked to broadcast their real-time status all the time. They’re chained to the dot — green for available, red for away. But when everyone knows you’re ‘available,’ it’s an invitation to be interrupted.”

In his recent book “A World Without Email,” author Cal Newport described the way that Slack and other messaging conversations can easily become part of the “hive mind hydra,” promoting continuous workplace communications.

What really needs to change is the expectation of what sending a specific piece of communication actually invokes — and Newport prescribes a total structural overhaul of the way teams collaborate: centering relevant messaging around project materials themselves, meaningfully threaded, and available to the right people at the right time (when they’re engaging with that aspect of the work), instead of appearing in everyone’s feeds the moment they’re sent.

These commentators emphasize above all that it is the practice of each team, and the shared understanding regarding the use of asynchronous tools, that will shape an efficient culture of collaboration.

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