In this guest post, leadership coach Sumit Gupta discusses how to combine asynchronous communication and remote work into one streamlined process. By doing so, managers can improve communication, harness the skills of employees, and create a better remote work culture.
If there is anything 2020 taught us, it’s that remote work is here to stay. Due to forced office closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, even companies that were against remote work were forced to go virtual.
Once they did so, it became clear to most organizations that remote work isn’t just day-to-day work done over screens and audio/video calls. Employees and employers alike have started to realize that remote work is inherently different. And it will require different ways of working, various tools to communicate, and other skills to excel at the virtual office.
A New and Different Context
Using the same old methods while working remotely will only lead to disappointment and poor results. If you keep doing what you have always done—but in a completely different context—it will produce different results, but not the ones you are used to. Context matters and working remotely is one huge context that shifts a lot of work practices right now.
One of the biggest shifts is how people communicate. Asynchronous and written communication are replacing real-time, spoken communication. While face-to-face spoken communication is an onsite work superpower, asynchronous written communication is perhaps the better choice for remote work.
What Is Asynchronous Communication?
Let me clarify. With asynchronous communication, a team member provides requests and information in written form, and the recipient sees and responds in their own time. So two things change here: team members send communication via text, video, or screenshots, while expectations (or requirement) for the receiver to respond immediately don’t exist.
How Is Asynchronous Communication Different?
Asynchronous communication was previously only used when communicating across time zones when you had no other option. However, times have changed. Asynchronous written communication is different from a chat where an instant reply is expected. With asynchronous communication, everyone has the flexibility to choose when to reply and respond (unless otherwise specified). That gives people time to think about their response. Responses in writing also allow people to formulate their thoughts properly while synchronous communication requires on-the-spot answers.
Asynchronous communication is also helpful to keep a log/history of the conversation. People can go back and refer to what they said earlier and discover how the conversation evolved. This flexibility is not available in face-to-face communication.
One change that remote work brings is that writing and reading (and understanding) become core skills. Just like you can’t thrive in a traditional workplace if you can’t speak with confidence and influence, written communication will become a skill for the future of remote.
While this may seem problematic for a current generation too eager to rely on emojis and instant gratification, it may benefit introverts and those who prefer the written word over the spoken word. A century ago, writing long letters was the norm. That skill might be making a comeback.
New Tools & Technology
Face-to-face communication is timeless. It requires nothing but our physical bodies and air to transmit the sound. But remote work is a totally different game. When we begin to talk and communicate as humans have never done before, new tools and technologies become a necessity.
More than that, tools and technology become crucial for remote work communication. If the tool and technology fail, communication fails and work suffers. Hence, selecting the right tools and ensuring they work without glitches is integral to daily work operations.
For example, Slack has become a popular interface that replaces basic online chats in most companies. Document sharing platforms like Google Drive and Microsoft 365 are on the rise. Even tools like Grammarly—which can correct typos on the fly—have suddenly become valuable. We have all seen the meteoric rise in the use of video-conferencing companies like Zoom and Bluejeans. Beyond these tools, companies will create new programs as the years roll by. With the advent of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality, who knows what the tools of the future would look like?
Why Video Calls Are Not The One-Size-Fits-All Solution
Everything that I shared above doesn’t claim that video conferencing and asynchronous communication are better than in-person chats. Personally, I think the new ways of communicating in the remote work age will complement and enhance our traditional ways of communicating—not replace them.
Take video-conferencing as an example. Only one person can talk at a time in a video conferencing for now (it is a technical limitation). But in regular communication, we can easily hear multiple voices.
Another challenge of video conferencing is that you can’t relax and it’s tiresome. The focus of the camera is always on your face, and you have fewer opportunities to wander around, stretch, and relax compared to a physical space. Side-talks in video conferencing tools become an impossibility—a key element of any face-to-face interaction.
What Asynchronous Communication Can’t Replace
Apart from the above points, asynchronous communication can’t replace the value of deep empathetic listening and the role it plays in forming deep connections based on trust. We interact with our whole bodies, emotions, and tone of voice.
And while the latest technology enables us to transmit our voice perfectly, it’s still difficult to convey body language and other subtle communication cues we all use in regular face-to-face communication. Having tough conversations, celebrating together, and engaging in off-the-topic chats which lead to friendships and bonds of camaraderie are still a challenge in the online world.
The Blend Between Asynchronous and Classic Communication
In the end, the solution is not either-or. It’s both. People need to adapt and master both spoken synchronous and written asynchronous communication to do their jobs well. It’s just that asynchronous communication is suddenly in the focus due to the shift to remote work.
In the long term though, both traditional and new ways of communicating will complement each other well and help us lead lives that are not just more productive, but also better for our health and overall wellbeing.
Sumit Gupta helps powerful people realize how powerful they are. He runs a leadership coaching program called “Deploy Yourself” to coach leaders and individuals to pursue their wildest dreams. He started out as a software geek but was soon thrown, unprepared, into the leadership world. After leading teams and making numerous mistakes, he now feels as comfortable talking about team building, leadership, and producing meaningful results as about machine learning and software programming.
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