In a truly connected organization, people can communicate effectively no matter where they are — and no matter when they work.
Any pandemic-era worker who was told to pack up their desk and start working from home remembers perfectly well what came next: the number of meetings exploded.
In a rush to replace face-to-face workplace gatherings, as well as all other real-time or “synchronous” forms of communication, videoconferencing usage expanded — as did the number of meetings. However, since the beggining of this pandemic, people are missing the human connections. They are afraid of missing the sort of information that they used to pick up from a hallway conversation.
At the same time, people began to communicate more asynchronously—using email, chat, and corporate social media systems—without the expectation of an immediate response. For many, that combination of more meetings and more asynchronous communication was too much. In a Microsoft study of workers a year into the pandemic, 54 percent said they felt overworked, and 39 percent said they were exhausted.
But inbox overload preceded the pandemic (in 2017 France banned r businesses from emailing employees after hours). And asynchronous communication tools are like meetings in one key respect: it can feel like we have too many of them.
It’s become increasingly clear that we all have to develop smarter strategies that take advantage of the flexibility of asynchronous tools without adding new burdens.
The pandemic accelerated the transformation from email to rich, collaborative experiences in which real-time meetings and calls are combined with asynchronous tools that everyone on a project can access at any time. We are learning that, when used intelligently, async can help make meetings more effective while simultaneously reducing how many meetings we need. It can also enable better ways to collaborate, breaking down the barriers of not just space but time.
Here are a few things we’ve learned about how to make “async” more effective:
Reimagine meeting culture for a hybrid way of work
Meetings are a useful tool. Indeed, for certain tasks like brainstorming, they’re essential. Synchronous collaboration is great for establishing a rapport and getting to know people. It’s also great for converging on meaning if we have disagreements or need to arrive at a consensus.
But there’s a reason the “this meeting could have been an email” meme is so powerful. Too many meetings inevitably lead to burnout. And meetings aren’t well-suited for consuming or sharing certain kinds of information.
As companies make a conscious cultural shift toward hybrid work, every worker will need clearly communicated guidelines, expectations, and best practices about what tool can best facilitate collaboration in what situation. It’s incumbent upon leaders to help everyone establish a better balance between time spent in video conferences and time spent collaborating asynchronously.
Organizations are striving to establish this balance. Part of this process is to standardize the practice of creating a written pre-read for meetings – so everyone has a better sense of what will be covered and who actually needs to be present – and to share all non-sensitive material covered in the meeting with everyone in the organization..
The goal is to ensure that real-time meetings can be turned into searchable, skimmable data that teams can access at their own pace and people can get back more time to be more productive,” Teper says. “Instead of sitting in that meeting for an hour, I can get up to speed in five minutes.”
Level up real-time meetings with the power of asynchronous tools
Organizations can boost efficiency by developing a better sense of when real-time collaboration is essential and when it isn’t.
It’s incumbent upon leaders to help everyone establish a better balance between time spent in video conferences and time spent collaborating asynchronously.
Naturally, creating these asynchronous resources can mean extra work, but the goal is to eventually use AI to create a summary and identify key takeaways.
There are already many asynchronous tools that can be connected into the flow of work to further boost productivity. All of these tools can help make meetings more efficient and more useful. Sometimes, asynchronous communication can replace a meeting entirely—for instance, a status update can happen in a Teams channel instead of a video conference. It adds flexibility, and it creates a permanent searchable record.
Create norms that work best for your team
Every team will need to experiment to discover how to communicate and collaborate best, then create norms that support those discoveries. For instance, a “no emails allowed” mandate may not be effective company-wide, but if a team is expected to keep all of a project’s files, messages, and other collateral confined within a Microsoft Teams channel, workers are likely to continue to support those expectations when they see the benefit this coordination provides.
There’s also the question of delay. Just how asynchronous should asynchronous communication be? If someone’s at lunch and doesn’t respond to an email for an hour, a project can get held up and frustrations can arise as the other person feels they’re being ignored. Those issues are exacerbated when a team is spread around the globe. Time zone incompatibilities can introduce enormous lag into even the simplest of asynchronous discussions.
Why does this matter? Psychologically, if a worker receives a message from a co-worker or their boss after hours, they generally feel compelled to respond.
Asynchronous communication may never become perfect. We can’t get rid of time zones, but as we begin to think more intentionally about the temporal aspect of work, it’s instrumental that asynchronous tools get richer, unlocking opportunities for organizations and individuals to reduce communication and cultural gaps, and establishing hybrid and virtual settings as their own entities, and not just a emergency replacement of a face-to-face setting.