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Shifting to Asynchronous Communication in Software Teams

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As some companies begin to go back to the office and embrace hybrid working, they are at risk of alienating those who wish to remain remote, which is looking to be a considerable number of workers in our industry. James Stanier suggests using more asynchronous means of communication and spending more time writing to each other rather than speaking in meetings.

Stanier spoke about shifting to asynchronous communication for remote working at Qcon Plus November 2021.

Stanier mentioned that if those working hybrid fall back into the old ways of offline chats and whiteboards and lunches and after work drinks, they exclude everyone who isn’t present in the office:

Those that are remote don’t have the same interfaces as others—or access to critical information—that those in the office are keeping in their heads and on their whiteboards.

Stanier proposed to make a concerted effort to use more asynchronous means of communication because it gives those who are remote—especially those working flexible hours or on different time zones—more chance to read, learn and interact with what’s going on at work.

It’s worth mentioning that asynchronous communication was being used pre-pandemic, Stanier said. Even teams that were collocated in the same office were using Slack to chat to each other. However, the intentionality of that asynchronous communication is what changes when you work fully remotely, or treat everyone in your company as remote, as stanier explained:

You become aware that you need to be clear, concise and intentional in the way you communicate. You spend more time writing to each other than you do speaking in meetings.

Stanier suggested treating everyone as remote, even when they aren’t:

Treating everyone as remote—such as having everyone join meetings with their own camera and microphone even if they are in the same location—greatly normalizes the experience for remote workers. It means that documentation and archives of decisions become clearly more important. It creates a shift in working patterns that gives hybrid working a greater chance of succeeding.

Stanier mentioned some of the challenges when teams adopt more asynchronous communication:

Some people aren’t the best writers. I’ve always believed that writing is a superpower in our industry—the written word can be clearer, go further, and last longer than any impact that you can have in a face-to-face meeting. This is hard for people that are communicating a language at work that isn’t their native tongue. It’s also hard for those that are used to forming their relationships and bonds in person.

Asynchronous communication may also open the way for new leaders to emerge, as Stanier pointed out:

There is a new wave of emerging leaders who may have been considered the meek and quiet ones in a more old fashioned workplace—now their time has come.

We need to ensure that we’re patient with each other as we intentionally shift to more asynchronous interactions, as it’s a skill that we’re only going to be relying on more in the future, Stanier concluded.

InfoQ interviewed James Stanier about asynchronous communication for remote working.

InfoQ: What are the biggest communication challenges when working remotely?

James Stanier: Many of us have spent decades with the office acting as the hub of communication. We sat with our teams, communicated in the moment with little forethought, and used meeting rooms and whiteboards to collaborate together. Working remotely completely changes how these interaction patterns work: we need to rely more on asynchronous written communication, we need to use digital—instead of physical—tools in order to collaborate, and we need to plan our interactions more carefully and explicitly.

InfoQ: Why should we shift to asynchronous communication for remote working?

Stanier: We shouldn’t shift all communication to asynchronous. But shifting to asynchronous communication leaves more artefacts behind, such as emails, chats and documents that persist way beyond the moment of interaction. Those artefacts are archivable, searchable, and most importantly, allow teams to create audit trails of what they’re thinking about, what they’re doing now, and where they’re going in the future.

InfoQ: What benefits do such audit trails bring?

Stainer: The biggest benefit is that an increase in asynchronous communication means an increase in artefacts being created that we can archive, discover and build upon in the future. A team that creates design documents for three years has an archive of every decision they’ve made and why: that’s an incredible resource for new employees. A company that records each company meeting and archives it is writing their own history book. Remote collaboration improves written documentation in a way that can improve it for external users as well: writing great API documentation becomes doubly impactful for yourselves but also your clients.

InfoQ: How does asynchronous communication differ from the way most teams are communicating currently?

Stanier: Using asynchronous communication you need to be clear, concise and intentional in the way you communicate. For example, you spend time proposing non-trivial changes to your codebase by pitching your high-level implementation strategy in design documents that others can comment on (there are templates available from Google). You spend the time on documentation for your code and features. This is because with a shift to remote and asynchronous communication, you realize that the interaction points can happen while you’re sleeping. This means your communication needs to convey your message in the least ambiguous, and most impactful way possible. It might be the difference between someone being blocked for a day or making progress.

InfoQ: How does the spectrum from synchronous to asynchronous communication look?

Stanier: I think this one’s easiest to answer with a diagram.

asyncronous communication

Going from left to right, we progress from fully synchronous to fully asynchronous. Teams that have always worked in offices spend way too much time on the far left of the diagram to support remote working. They need to consciously push to the right in order to shift their communication patterns to support remote working.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to distributed teams that want to improve the way they collaborate?

Stanier: Study the spectrum of synchronousness and run an experiment of shifting to the right one or two steps for most of your daily interactions. For example, you could start doing a daily standup asynchronously via writing, or you could turn a status meeting into a written update. You can also start by treating everyone as remote. See how it changes the way that you interact with each other. See how it changes the pace of work. See what kind of written documentation it leaves behind. I promise that you’ll be better off for it.

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