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DISTRIBUTED: Get in A-Synch

In our last blog, we discussed the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication. (Synchronous communication is a real-time conversation, such as a meeting or phone call, while asynchronous communication is a discussion that take place outside of real time, such as an email. Synchronous communication requires an immediate response; asynchronous doesn’t.)

If you read the last blog, you might have picked up on the fact that we at Intridea are big fans of asynchronous communication. That’s because teams fall into four major pitfalls when they rely on synchronous communication:

  • Pitfall #1: The demand for instant answers, which leads to hasty responses.
  • Pitfall #2: Increased pressure on employees.
  • Pitfall #3: Constant distractions, which forces employees to drop what they’re doing and shift their focus.
  • Pitfall #4: Ineffective conversations and meetings dominated by extroverts and chronic interrupters.

We believe that asynchronous communication solves each of these common pitfalls. Here’s how:

Solving Pitfall #1: The Power of Delayed Gratification

The first common pitfall of synchronous communication is the demand for abrupt answers. We all have an innate desire for instant gratification. It’s just human nature. We don’t want it later; we want it right now. The technological advances we’ve enjoyed in recent decades only feed this desire by meeting our demands for immediate fulfillment.

With the advent of DVR and VOD, instant messaging, video streaming, same-day delivery services and thousands of time-saving smartphone apps, many folks have lost the ability to wait for anything.

This demand for instant gratification doesn’t just apply to material objects; it also applies to answers. When it comes to running a fast-paced business, we want answers, and we want them now. But is this really the most effective approach? Sure, it may feel great to ask an employee a question and receive the answer instantly. But is that rushed response the correct answer, the best answer, the most insightful answer? Probably not. It’s almost always better to wait patiently for a well-prepared response than to demand a hasty answer.

Solving Pitfall #2: Release the Pressure

Because synchronous communication demands immediate answers, it often puts employees under intense pressure. Yet, some corporate leaders claim that employees hatch the most creative ideas when they are under a time crunch. According to research published in the Harvard Business review, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed,” write researchers Teresa M. Amabile, Constance N. Hadley and Steven J. Kramer. “Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.”

So when you don’t demand immediate responses from your team, it protects employees from unnecessary stress—and gives them elbow room to create ingenious work.

Solving Pitfall #3: Derailing Distractions

Synchronous communication also leads to constant disruptions. When you choose to communicate in real-time with your employees every single time you have a question or an issue, you are often distracting them from their work. On the other hand, asynchronous communication greatly reduces the number of disruptions in the workplace. When an employee is not expected to respond to every single question or issue immediately, they can focus on one task at a time, which will send their productivity levels soaring.

Research shows that even a three-second interruption can cause employees to make more mistakes. One Michigan State University study, in which 300 people performed a sequence-based procedure on a computer, found that interruptions of about three seconds doubled the error rate. In the workplace, the vast majority of these interruptions come in the form of phone calls, chit-chat and impromptu meetings.

When you create an environment where employees are not expected to respond to everything immediately, they can stay focused on their work and effectively manage their schedules. Some employees may prefer to respond to emails at specific times of the day or at specific intervals. Others may choose to reply to the “easy” emails more quickly but wait until later in the day to respond to messages that require more time and thought. Asynchronous communication allows for all of this.

Solving Pitfall #4: Don’t Interrupt

One of the most common forms of synchronous communication is the in-person meeting. Yet, these meetings are often wildly ineffective. Why? Because it’s virtually impossible to carry on a productive conversation when people are constantly interrupting each other.

And let’s face it: Some folks are chronic interrupters and terrible listeners. These talkative types tend to dominate in-person meetings, often talking over other contributors (that is, if anyone else can even get a word in edgewise). In this type of environment, the majority of participants never have an opportunity to present their ideas—and extremely introverted team members don’t stand a chance.

Asynchronous communication solves this common predicament. After all, you can’t interrupt someone in a chat message or email. When you choose to communicate via email or chat message, it's easier for all parties to get their thoughts across without stepping all over each other. You’re also more likely to hear from the more introverted participants, who might have something extremely valuable to contribute.

Asynch @Intridea

Why are we such huge advocates of asynchronous communication? Because we’ve experienced the effectiveness of this type of communication first-hand.

When we first founded Intridea, we worried that not being able to meet in-person would be a problem. But as it turned out, we actually freed ourselves from many standard operating procedures that tended to get in our way, allowing us to examine what was most important in our communication. Without having to meet in-person, we found ourselves optimizing communication methods, which in turn boosted our productivity.

For example, in the early days of our company, we held a daily phone call to discuss each of our projects. During this call, we talked about what we had worked on yesterday, what we were working on today, and if there was anything blocking our progress. In the software industry, these daily calls are often called “scrums.” (The term comes from the “scrimmage” formation in rugby, which is used to restart the game after an event that causes play to stop.)

At the beginning of a particularly time-crunched project, we decided to switch things up. We moved our daily scrum from an early-morning phone call to a mid-day check-in via our microblogging platform—and it was transformative. We found that using the online check-in, our developers had more time and inclination to go into greater depth about past and anticipated progress. They were also more likely to acknowledge any obstacles they were facing—including being blocked by other developers. It seemed like a fairly subtle change, but it allowed us to gain so much development velocity, we ended up launching the project early.

So we initially tried to replicate the standard way of communicating with a distributed team. When that didn’t work, we changed our approach. Obviously, technology has helped us solidify our communication process. Either way, we know what type of communication works best: Asynch all the way.

Of course, asynchronous communication is just one of many principles we value here at Intridea. Don’t miss our next blog on the importance of work-life balance.

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