The Asynchronous Present

With schools shut down, and with many people working from home, our culture has been thrust into the paradigm shift it has been resisting for years. We’re living in an asynchronous present, and we’re probably not going back.

Asynchronous communication has one basic tenet, “I’ll get to it when I’m able.” It’s not a free-for-all, tasks still have deadlines and keeping people “in the loop” is essential. But if people are functioning inside the boundaries of their responsibilities 1 they’re free to pursue their tasks according to their own schedules and workflows. Connections are maintained “out of sync 2.” Email chains 3, team chat apps like Slack or Ryver, and individual text messages 4 allow people remain in collaboration–but in a way which allows people to remain focused on their own goals.

There are four points about asynchronous communication over which many people tend to trip.

Asynchronous communication does not mean there will never face to face meetings. What it does mean, however, is all but essential realtime meetings are recognized as intrusions into productivity 5. This perception may not be reality, as face to face meetings can be a boon for collaborative efforts, but it means realtime communication should be treated with care. In order to reduce perceived intrusion, realtime meetings should be treated like a photograph. The framing needs to be attractive, and the focus on the subject should be sharp. Blurry and haphazard meetings, like an ugly and out of focus snapshot, will not inspire people to engage.

Asynchronous communication does not mean, “Ah whatever.” As stated above, clear goals and deadlines are essential in an asynchronous environment–they give people, and teams, the targets toward which their workflows need to progress. Nebulous goals and fuzzy timelines, which organizations excel at creating, give the impression a task is unimportant. The more sharp the focus is, and the more solid the finish line, the more engaged people will be. This is true in most situations. But in an asynchronous environment, when people are trusted to set their own priorities, it is crucial 6.

Asynchronous communication is not “just-in-time communication.” In a group project, the former means people are working toward the same goal but are taking steps in their own way. They still have to land at the goal near enough to complete a project, but if one part of the project takes longer because it’s more expansive than another that is OK. “Just-in-time” communication, however, demands attention and declares, “I need this now.” This happens most often when people have not kept folks “in the loop” through an organization’s communications avenues, and then hit a deadline which essential parties didn’t know existed. This leads to burn out, and makes it difficult to develop the trust needed to collaborate well.

The last point is the most important for maintaining mental health in an asynchronous environment, and it combines aspects of the previous points. It is ok to step away from work. Set goals to reach every day, and establish “on call” hours when the clueless “just-in-timers” are allowed to pester you with interruptions. Once your goals are met, and your “on call” hours have passed, your time is yours. Understand this–in an asynchronous environment the idea of a “full work day” needs to be measured in goals met, not in hours spent “on the job.” To set boundaries it can be helpful to set up an auto-responder for email, change your group chat status, or let “just in time” texters know when you’ll get to their request. When people meet clear boundaries, most will back off and respect them. It’s unfortunate, but there will always be a few who cross boundaries in order to establish dominance–this is one of the major pitfalls of living in an asynchronous environment.

This shift to asynchronous communication has been coming for decades. And now, thanks to a pandemic, it’s here. It’s a jarring shift for many, but in time we’ll adjust, and the previous way of doing things will seem like another world 7. Welcome to the asynchronous present.

  1. As well as things like “ethics,” and “workplace safety.” 
  2. Hence, the name. 
  3. I hate these as a rule, but the church I pastor is able to make them work. Go figure. 
  4. In general, group texts are evil. 
  5. I hate that word. I do. Please find me another. 
  6. After all, the old way of indicating a project’s importance by sheer volume of meetings, doesn’t exist anymore. 
  7. Because, it is.