October 19, 2021

Async or Swim: Your Guide to Implementing Effective Asynchronous Communication

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By deciding which meetings can be done asynchronously, you’ll save your team time — and sanity. Here’s how to do it.  

Let’s face it, we’re all swimming in meetings. 

Take a look at your work calendar. If you could cancel half of your meetings this week, would you? Think of what you could accomplish with all that time back. Less screen time, more coffee runs.

According to Harvard Business Review, 71 percent of senior managers across a range of industries said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. That’s probably because most of the topics covered in those meetings could’ve been covered asynchronously. 

What is asynchronous communication?

Async communication (not to be confused with the popular boy band) is any type of communication where the involved parties contribute at different times.


This style of communication is meant to accommodate team members’ productivity by not requiring them to interact at the same time (aka with meetings). Examples of async communication include email, chat, comments on a document, recorded video presentations, etc. 

So why do we default to “let’s schedule a meeting” when we can get the same work done on our own time? Effective meetings foster great collaboration, enable innovation, and are key to making important decisions and providing clarity. However, too many meetings are scheduled for the sole purpose of having them (I’m talking to you, “weekly standup”). But the reality is, 49 percent of employees admit that they do other unrelated work during meetings instead of paying attention to the meeting agenda. 

We’re not saying cancel all your meetings. There are some topics and decisions that absolutely need to be addressed with everyone at the same time. But by identifying what work can be done asynchronously, and building out a process for it, you’re giving your team some breathing room to actually get work done … and done well!

The benefits of going async 

Boosts flexibility

If your team has adopted a hybrid work structure but attends more meetings than ever, you’re doing it all wrong. Hybrid is all about encouraging more flexibility, not less. Async promotes this flexibility across your team by allowing the members of your team to contribute on their own time. 

Promotes inclusivity

Do you have someone on your team who never speaks up in meetings? It’s not because they have nothing to contribute. 

Research done by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that in a typical meeting, three people do 70 percent of the talking. With async collaboration, you’re giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute their ideas in their own way.  

Fosters creativity  

Meetings are limiting. Attendees are constrained to share their ideas in a specific way. When team members are given time and the right tools (like MURAL) to visualize and express their ideas — creativity and imagination shines. 

Want to see async in action? Check out how collaboration expert Sabrina Goerlich of Designsprintstudio is pioneering new ways to ignite team imagination asynchronously.


When to go async 

There are a few things to consider when evaluating what should be done asynchronously vs. synchronously. 


  1. Simple vs. complex: How difficult is it to explain? Can you provide clarity easily without a discussion? 
  2. Low-stakes vs. high-stakes decisions: How important are these decisions? Who will they impact? 
  3. Few vs. many people involved: Who needs to be involved? Is it a cross-functional task? 
  4. Time-sensitive: Is this urgent? Is it a bottleneck for other tasks?


We put together an Async Cheat Sheet, which you can reference below if you’re looking for recommendations on what meetings you can take async. As you can see, the factors that help determine how to best communicate are a spectrum — meaning they vary depending on the topic and the team. 

A good way of looking at it is if all the pins line up to the left, you can probably take it async. If they’re all to the right, it’s probably best to keep that meeting on your calendar. For example, feedback can most likely be done asynchronously while a one-on-one is probably best done together. 

There are exceptions to this rule. Team building activities, for example, are generally fairly simple, don’t involve important decisions, and aren’t time sensitive. But if you aren’t doing them together … it kind of defeats the purpose. 

I’ll say it again for the people in the back: async is not meant to replace all meetings. Async debt can lead you down a vast black hole of emails and instant messages. Knowing how to identify when async works — and when it doesn’t — is the key to your team’s success. 



Async cheat sheet

1. Process documentation

A graphic showing where process documentation falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous

2. Brainstorming

A graphic showing where brainstorming falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

3. Gathering feedback

A graphic showing where gathering feedback falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

4. Status updates / weekly standup

A graphic showing where status update meetings fall on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous

 

5. One-on-one

A graphic showing where one-on-one meetings fall on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Synchronous

6. Quarterly goal planning

A graphic showing where quarterly planning alls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Synchronous

7. Emotionally sensitive discussion

A graphic showing where challenging or emotionally sensitive work conversations falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Synchronous

8. Project kickoff

A graphic showing where project kickoff meetings fall on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Synchronous

9. Meeting about a meeting

A graphic showing where "meeting about a meeting" falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

10. Team building activities

A graphic showing where team building falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive



Verdict: Synchronous

11. Overcoming roadblocks

A graphic showing where overcoming roadblocks falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

12. All-hands

A graphic showing where all-hands meetings fall on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Synchronous

13. Team recognition / celebration

A graphic showing where team recognition and celebrations fall son the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

14. Welcoming new team members

A graphic showing where welcoming new team members falls on the following scales: simple to complex, low-stakes decisions to high-stakes decisions, few people involved to many people involved, and not time sensitive to time sensitive


Verdict: Asynchronous 

15. Retrospectives


Verdict: Synchronous

Say bye, bye, bye to meetings 

Last NSYNC reference — promise!

It’s time for less Zoom calls and more completed tasks. If you’ve ever wished for more hours in the day, it’s time to adopt some asynchronous processes and free up your calendar. 


👉  Ready to cancel those meetings? Run your own async exercise with our prebuilt Async Meeting Calculator to find out how your team can communicate more effectively. 



Brianna Hansen

Brianna is a storyteller at MURAL. When she's not writing about transforming teamwork, she enjoys swimming, cooking (& eating) Italian food, reading psychological thrillers, and playing with her two cats.

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