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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Rise of Asynchronous Collaboration and What It Means for Development Teams

The Rise of Asynchronous Collaboration and What It Means for Development Teams

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Key Takeaways

  • Video conferencing, once meant to bring us closer together, has instead decreased our desire for collaboration and hindered our productivity
  • The side effects of "Zoom fatigue" have given rise to asynchronous collaboration tools like Miro, Trello, and others
  • These tools can help development teams collaborate on their own time and, in many cases, effectively take the place of traditional scrums, whiteboards, and other traditional practices
  • While asynchronous collaboration tools have many benefits, they’re not perfect - and aren’t appropriate for all situations
  • Like everything else, asynchronous collaboration will continue to evolve and be useful, even post-pandemic
     

The results we get from interacting with one another are as integral to the application development process as code writing. The ebb and flow that comes with an exchange of ideas and knowledge sharing, the excitement one gets by ideating with others on software projects, the satisfaction of working across teams to accomplish a sprint—all of these are essential to a development team’s work. When collaboration is easy and frictionless, we’re able to create great solutions and solve big problems, all while feeling more closely aligned with each other and our common objectives.

We lost some of that over the past year, though. Physical distance made it more difficult to do all of the little things that made collaborative development special. Daily "standups" that were once held in the same familiar location everyday suddenly became spread out virtually. In-person discussions were replaced by staring at faces on screens full of boxes. Lively interactions were replaced by utterings of "you’re on mute" and dogs fervently barking in the background.

At first, these video chats seemed like the solution to our socially distant challenges. Now, that feeling seems about as distant as live concerts and a Saturday night at the movies. Video conferencing can be exhausting and a drain on our valuable time. Interactions are frequent, but also more stilted. We’re on display, all the time, and our productivity is being killed by continuously context switching from one project to another. How can we break this cycle?

Asynchronous Collaboration Tools Can Relieve Some of the Pressure

We can start by turning our video cameras off, at least in some cases, and take back time by adopting and embracing asynchronous modes of collaboration. Asynchronous is another one of those terms that became popular in 2020, along with "athleisure" and "the new normal." It refers to two or more things that do not happen simultaneously.

Asynchronous collaboration and project management tools can serve as our panacea, an escape from the virtual spotlight and constant time-suck of video chats and conference calls. These tools offer us a respite by providing a means to collaborate very effectively through cards and boards filled with status updates, comments, files, and even visual workflows that can take the place (and, in some cases, improve upon) our beloved whiteboards. They can effectively take the place of non-productive meetings, allowing us to track our work, collaborate with our teammates, and achieve our objectives without the need for lights and cameras.

Here, I’ll share information about some of the asynchronous collaboration and project management tools I find most useful and how they’ve helped us maximize productivity and collaboration.

I must begin, though, with a couple of caveats. First, while the tools I’ll reference here are, on the whole, great, there are some drawbacks to asynchronous collaboration that you should be aware of, and I’ll go into detail about them a little further on. Second, these tools cannot and should not be considered permanent replacements for video calls. Rather, they should be considered complementary to those calls, allowing you to reserve those hour (or longer) conferences for brainstorming and true problem solving.

Different Asynchronous Options

There are a lot of different asynchronous tools available. All of them have their own unique benefits. What’s right for you depends on your needs. Aha!, for example, is ideal for building product roadmaps that everyone, not just developers, can easily understand and update. Jira is good for tracking projects and workflows.

Confluence, Atlassian’s wiki product, is great for collaboration, documenting practices, and keeping track of changes, all without the need for in-person meetings. You can have different sections for various projects that can be updated as needed, as well as pages devoted to specific releases. Whenever a change is made to content, participants are alerted and can comment on the changes as they see fit. When a project meets the definition of ready or definition of done, the entire team can be alerted, signaling it’s time to move onto the next phase.

Slack is excellent for real-time communications, but it can also be used asynchronously to respond to messages in context whenever time allows. The reminder tool and marking messages unread can keep you from letting messages drop into the ether if you wish to return to them. Keep in mind, communications in Slack aren’t necessarily tied directly to a project, so it can be difficult to correlate conversations with specific work tickets.

Miro and Trello: The Tools My Team Uses

While my team has always worked remotely, even before the pandemic, many of our clients only started working virtually early last year. As such, we looked for ways to replicate the traditional whiteboard experience so we could effectively work collaboratively and across teams.

At first, we all relied on video conferencing like many of our peers, but we quickly learned there were other solutions that we could use asynchronously that would allow us to save time and boost productivity. With these solutions, all team members could stay informed on the status of projects, post workflow updates and comments, and essentially keep on task without the distraction of a parade of Zoom calls.

Over the past year, members of my team have used a combination of different tools, including the ones previously mentioned. But Miro and Trello are the ones we use the most, for different reasons.

Miro: Virtual Whiteboarding

Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard solution, allows us to map out story ideas, user personas, and work through challenges, similar to what we would normally do in an in-person meeting.

We’ve used Miro for a number of different purposes, including story mapping, project scoping, feature building, and more. We arrange our projects in terms of themes, epics, and user stories, and prioritize them just as we would under normal circumstances. Anyone who works on a project can go in at their leisure and check on and update a project’s status.

We often use Miro for brainstorming, as well. We have been known to set up blank canvases for projects. Anyone can drop in ideas at their leisure. This process effectively takes the place of more formal synchronous brainstorm sessions that would typically be handled over the phone or on video. It saves time, but it also allows individuals to express their ideas without having to feel uncomfortable sharing them in front of their peers. Those peers can then iterate on the ideas in Miro, creating a fluid project that’s informed by the opinions and experience of the group writ large.

Here’s an example of a design studio template we created in Miro for coming up with new ideas for applications or features. Team members can go in whenever they need and upload their work for all to see and comment on without the need for real-time discussions. Everyone draws up their own ideas and illustrations individually before the team comes together to go over the concepts:

Here are a couple of other examples of the way we can asynchronously run projects with this tool. The first is a board we created to manage, map and define user personas, including users’ behaviors, needs, and interests. The second is a goal alignment board so everyone is on the same page with regards to objectives and outcomes.

While users can check in on these boards and add to them on their own time, the system also allows for synchronous collaboration if the need arises. For example, we will sometimes hold "Miro sessions," during which team members interact with each other in real-time. This is great for building out story maps, iterating on projects, and whenever there’s a need for instant feedback and workshopping. You don’t need to do this, but the option is there, and it offers a decent replacement for the in-person gatherings of "the before times."

Trello: Workflow and Documentation

While Miro provides a satisfactory representation of a whiteboard session in a virtual environment, Trello is a great logistical project management tool. Users can easily be assigned tasks and due dates, which can be displayed in simple to understand columns. Once a task is completed, it gets moved over to the next column. Anyone can add new ideas, post comments, view designs, assign tickets, and more.

While many teams use it to keep track of workflow, we also use Trello for documentation. Information tends to get lost in synchronous collaboration, whether on a video call or in-person. If I post a link in a chat, for example, only the people on that chat will be able to see it. Once the call is done, that information is gone. Likewise, if for some reason a person involved in a project isn’t able to make a Zoom call, they may miss out on some pertinent information.

Comments in Trello are easily documented and found, allowing for asynchronous discussions to be captured in one place. Anyone with access to the Trello board can go in at any time and see and respond to the ideas that others have left and learn from those ideas. It’s a centralized knowledge base with information that can be beneficial to both current and future projects.

Trello’s also very useful for asynchronous communications between my team and our clients. We can assign tickets to customers, who can, in turn, assign work amongst themselves. We use this process to kickstart every engagement, so we—and our customers—have a clear and shared understanding of expectations. Right at the outset, before engaging in a two-week sprint, we ask our clients to share design specifications, their technical architectures, and more.

All of this is documented in Trello and correlated directly to individual projects and collected in one location, so it’s easy to see how the information ties directly to specific tasks. There’s no need for manual notetaking, whiteboarding, or the usual synchronous tricks of the trade, and, unlike other tools (email, Slack, etc.) nothing gets lost.

Drawbacks of Asynchronous Collaboration Tools

Asynchronous collaboration tools like Miro and Trello offer great advantages for teams that are burnt out from being on the Zoom treadmill, but they’re not perfect, for a few reasons:

  • Despite the benefits they bring, no virtual tool can truly take the place of an in-person meeting. There’s simply an energy to a daily scrum or workshop session that does not come across in an asynchronous work environment.
  • You’re still working through a screen, with the disadvantages that come from being tied to your computer. Emails pop up and distract. Eyes get tired. Asynchronous collaboration helps, because it allows you to break up work in chunks and when it’s most convenient for you. But some of the challenges involving screen time remain.
  • You’re likely to get an email whenever somebody posts, updates, or comments on something. Those notifications can be customized, but you must be judicious as to which notifications you want to see and which can be discarded. Otherwise, you’ll run into the same old distractions that you’re trying to get away from.
  • While these tools work great for internal communications, they can sometimes pose challenges for external partners. Access rights are constantly changing and being updated, and people from outside of your company may have trouble signing in or have to spend time getting new authorization to access the systems. That can cause headaches and completely upend asynchronous efforts.
  • Aysynchronous collaboration encourages the crowdsourcing of ideas and code, but that can pose its own challenges. People can sometimes go into a system and log their own thoughts and ideas without checking to see if someone has already done similar work. It’s important to diligently keep track of the work that’s being done—in a central repository, for instance—and encourage and remind your teammates to check before creating new content that could potentially be redundant.

What’s Next for Asynchronous Collaboration?

All in all, however, asynchronous collaboration and communication tools are a balm for those of us who wish to better control our time and enhance our productivity—and they will undoubtedly continue to improve. And while I’m excited to see how the already solid offerings I’ve mentioned here will be enhanced, I’m even more interested in new frontiers for asynchronous video communications.

For example, the ability to send and store individual videos and compile everyone’s recordings and comments in a searchable, topic-driven interface, could provide the best of video conferencing without the impediments to productivity. Think of being able to watch a colleague explain their reasoning behind the creation of a feature set in a short five-minute blast, and recording your response and recommendations to that video, with everything archived for the rest of the team to see.

Even if and when teams go back to the office, I believe that asynchronous collaboration and project management tools will continue to be a fundamental part of our team’s toolkit. Because even though they cannot completely replace the feel of a in-person work session, their digital nature makes it easy for people from all over the world to sign in and add their two cents.

This can be great for someone who may not feel entirely comfortable voicing their opinions in a group setting, or for whenever a person has a spur of the moment idea they absolutely must share. In this way, asynchronous collaboration tools open the doors for increased feedback. People can create their own templates and open source them so others can benefit, much as we did with our Miro boards.

Could the tools eventually take the place of daily standup meetings? Yes, at least in some cases. At the beginning of a project, when a team and its various personalities are coming together (the "forming" and "storming" phase), those meetings are essential—you need them to understand who is best suited for what project or feature. But once everyone’s strengths and interests are established, the meetings become less and less important. They can be replaced by asynchronous collaboration.

Meetings will still be with us, of course, but they can be reserved for absolutely essential discussions, and only involve the people who need to be there. Other information can be discussed, delivered, and captured asynchronously. Everyone can gain a significant amount of time back in their days and stay ultra-productive while staying off camera.

About the Authors

Drew Falkman is Director, Strategy at Modus Create. He has been providing product and technical direction to companies from startups to Fortune 500s for over 20 years. He is a published tech author, trainer and speaker and has a never-sated passion for technology. In his spare time, he loves to write stories/blogs, build stuff, cook stuff, play music, enjoy his family and make wine.

Jay Garcia is co-founder and managing partner of Modus Create. Jay is a US Air Force veteran and brings distinct technical know-how and 20 years of experience in technology and consulting to Modus. He is a thought leader in the JavaScript world, has authored books and is a frequent contributor to open source projects. He’s co-organizer of the NoVa.JS and NYC.JS meetups, and is actively involved in the software communities that provide business frameworks and technologies, which enable rich mobile and desktop web experiences.

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