Default to async, not remote
Since the pandemic started I have spent quite a lot of time thinking and debating about remote work and my initial gut feeling has become a thought out stance that aligns with my values:
Remote work should always be an option in companies that can do it, but remain the exception, not the default.
There are so many pros and cons about this topic, that I’d have to write a book about it, but an excerpt of my points can be found in this tweet from me and all my other posts about this topic on this site.
Instead companies should focus on the real benefit people often and mistakenly associate with remote work: asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is sending a message without expecting an immediate response. Although its benefits are frequently mentioned in articles about remote work, most companies I hear of are struggling to actually work in that way (including diesdas). We work remotely and communicate synchronously… for now.
What is the reason synchronous communication remains, even though corona forced companies to work remotely?
My thesis is that each communication form has two major properties, that are mutually exclusive.
Asynchronous communication is formal and enables structure.
Synchronous communication is informal and enables closeness.
Benefits of synchronous communication
Synchronous communication doesn’t feel like work and is informal, because you write as you think. With the communication happening in real-time one can also make jokes, since humor relies to a big part on timing. And timing only exists when responses are fast like in chat for example.
Its second property is even more important. Real-time communication can create a feeling of closeness, because right in this moment somebody is with you. This kind of presence is something we only get outside of offices when people are replying quickly. I believe that this benefit is the main reason synchronous communication remains the default in most companies.
Despite all its flaws — the high level of noise, the unstructured thoughts it produces, its sense of urgency and the stress it causes — we happily deal with these problems for a short feeling of closeness.
As humans we long for connecting with other people, especially when we feel disconnected because of working remotely. Besides feeling disconnected from our colleagues, we are currently also disconnected from our friends and family due to isolating ourselves to stop the pandemic from worsening.
We choose being stressed over being lonely.
Problems of synchronous communication
One of many problems with this choice is that this stress is distributed unequally. People in managing roles spend more time communicating and therefore have to endure more stress if real-time chat is the main form of communication.
Another problem is that the feeling of presence created by the continuous flow of incoming messages is fake. The higher the stress level is, the lower one feels the positive aspects of this faked closeness. After a while of being in this situation one realizes that despite constantly communicating, one is still sitting alone at home in front of a computer.
Closeness gets reduced to availability, because everything the computer does is presenting you with a new demand from a different face on your screen every couple of minutes until you turn it off and are free again.
Why asynchronous communication is better
Instead of listing the huge amount of pros and the few cons of asynchronous communication myself, I recommend you the two best resources I could find on this topic:
- the fantastic post about asynchronous communication by Doist
- this great collection of arguments by Basecamp
I just need to add two important points missing in their posts:
Each form of communication perpetuates itself.
The more communication happens synchronously, the more information is shared in inaccessible ways, with lack of context and without structure. This leads to people asking each other follow-up questions and having clarification meetings, because information is locked in peoples’ minds.
The more communication happens asynchronously, the more information is shared in accessible ways, in context and in structured ways. This leads to people asking fewer follow-up questions and having fewer clarification meetings, because information is accessible without somebody else having to share it.
Asynchronous communication in offices is even better
Although remote work is a great fit for asynchronous communication, the transition to it doesn’t happen automatically when becoming a remote company. Plus it’s also not limited to remote work either.
Companies can choose to communicate asynchronously when working in an office too. It reduces the noise in the office due to fewer calls and chats, frees up meeting rooms since there are less meetings and it greatly improves the collaboration with and the experience of people working remotely.
All its benefits remain, while its downsides disappear when most people are in the same space: it’s easy to hash things out quickly, tackle red alerts, have fun and get a sense of belonging when you are in an office.