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Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication in Virtual Teams



Tammy Bjelland shows how to improve the balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication, and make a positive impact on a team and business outcomes with a simple-to-use framework.


Tammy Bjelland is the Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a training company that improves remote and hybrid team effectiveness by developing the capabilities workers, managers, and executives need to succeed in distributed environments.

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QCon Plus is a virtual conference for senior software engineers and architects that covers the trends, best practices, and solutions leveraged by the world's most innovative software organizations.


Bjelland: I'm Tammy Bjelland. I'm the founder and CEO of Workplaceless. This session is on balancing synchronous and asynchronous communication in virtual teams. Workplaceless aims to positively impact both the supply and the demand of sustainable remote work opportunities. Translation, we make remote work better. We've been around since 2017, well before the pandemic. We know that now, because of the pandemic, so many more people have experience with remote work. Not all of that experience has been positive. As we look to a decidedly more remote and hybrid future, it's really important for me and my team that we address some of the biggest issues, the biggest negatives or complaints that we hear about remote work.

These are the most common complaints that we hear from remote and hybrid employees. A, too many video meetings, aka Zoom fatigue. B, getting interrupted all the time. C, feeling like you have to respond to everything as soon as possible. D, overworking. E, wasting time trying to find information.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

All of those struggles that you just saw, those are symptoms of an imbalance between synchronous communication and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is communication that happens simultaneously: a video call, a phone call, a face to face meeting. Asynchronous communication, or async, is communication that doesn't happen at the same time. An email, for instance. I send the email at a time that I want, and the recipient reads it and then responds on their own time. That's an example of async. The struggles that you saw and that you shared with the rest of the attendees that you are experiencing, those are symptoms of this imbalance of an over-reliance on synchronous communication, as opposed to an optimal balance between both types.

Why We Should Care

Why should we care about this imbalance of async and sync communication? Two primary reasons. We should care because time is our most precious resource, and we are wasting it on all of those issues that we saw. We are wasting our time dealing with interruptions. We are wasting our time trying to respond to everything immediately. We're wasting our time in live video meetings. Second reason is your well-being. All of those symptoms that we've been talking about, those are very likely to contribute overall to a sense of burnout, and just disengagement from your job. Your well-being and your time are really precious. All of those things that we're seeing as a result of that imbalance, those are negatively affecting these two very important things.

Why Companies Should Care

Why should companies care? Companies should care because unnecessary meetings are costly. All that time spent in synchronous meetings. It's a pretty simple calculation, actually, so think about all of the time you spend in meetings. Your annual salary. All the number of people that are in those meetings. You can pretty easily calculate how much all of those meetings are costing. If those meetings are not necessary, that's an unneeded expense that you're spending to get pretty much nothing done. Interruptions are also very costly. The average amount of time wasted on interruptions every day, is two and a half hours. This is a result of not just the amount of time that it takes to deal with them, but also the amount of time that it takes you to recover from those interruptions to truly focus on your work again. All of that impact is actually much greater than the actual time it takes you to deal with an interruption. It's never just a quick question. Also, disengagement is costly. According to Gallup, 17.2% of employees are actively disengaged. Those employees cost employers 34% of their annual salary. Disengaged employees are ones that are overworked, they're burnt out, and they have low levels of autonomy.

You can achieve a better sense of autonomy or higher levels of autonomy, if you improve that balance between sync and async. When we talk about async, it's not about 100% async all the time. You're probably hearing about it a lot these days. The reason that we're talking so much about it is because, too often, office based practices rely too heavily on synchronous communication, because it's easier. It is the default. It is a struggle, it's very challenging to get people to rethink how they accomplish work, and actually go the async route. We're talking about async because it's harder, and so more people need more examples and frameworks to get started and to improve their skills.

Remote Effectiveness Framework

When we think about improvement of this balance, I want you to think about it in the context of this framework. We talk about remote work effectiveness with three pillars. Mindset, the attitude that you need to adopt remote work, and more asynchronous communication. Infrastructure are the policies, processes and tools that you need to accomplish work remotely. Capability are the skills and behaviors that you need in order to accomplish your work in a hybrid or completely remote environment. Think about that as you're thinking about improving your async skills.

Placeless Taxonomy

Because we love frameworks at Workplaceless, we created this placeless taxonomy. This taxonomy categorizes the levels of work tasks that you have to accomplish. This goes in order of least to most difficult to accomplish asynchronously. The reason that this framework is helpful is to demonstrate that informing people is very easy to achieve asynchronously, and yet we are spending a disproportionate amount of time in synchronous communication informing. How many meetings have you been to where you just share updates? That is a complete waste of time because it is very easy to do that asynchronously. Whereas truly connecting with people, that is more challenging to accomplish asynchronously. You can do it, but it really benefits from having a mix of rich modes of communication like face to face communication. The problem is that we are spending so much time in these lower levels in synchronous communication, that we have no time or energy or bandwidth for those higher levels. That contributes to burnout. It contributes to low levels of productivity.

Improving the Balance of Sync and Async

How can you improve the balance of sync and async as an individual contributor and/or as a manager? For us at Workplaceless, it's very important to empower everyone. Every single individual at an organization has the ability to make improvements in their skills, in their mindset, and in the infrastructure needed to be effective as a remote or hybrid team member. Everyone has that ability to make incremental changes. That's what I want you to leave this session with. That sense of feeling empowered that you can make a difference in that balance of sync and async communication.

1: Reduce Time in Synchronous Meetings

First tip for you, reduce time in synchronous meetings. We are hearing it all over, back to back virtual meetings. How can you get yourself out of them? Wouldn't it be great if everyone could ask themselves, is a meeting the best way to accomplish our goal? Often, the response is no. Everyone can decline meetings that don't require your active participation. If you don't have a culture already of autonomy and being able to remove yourself from meetings, I'll go into some tips on that a few points down. Basically, if you are not actively participating in a meeting, or if it's just sharing updates, don't go to those meetings or talk about needing those meetings or whether you really need to be there.

Starting the conversation can actually get people thinking about, why are 20 people invited to this meeting, if only 3 people talk? Limit your number of weekly meetings. Let's say you limit yourself to six internal meetings, you're going to prioritize what you spend those meetings doing. If you set a limit, then you can be more conscientious about what meetings you're going to. Send recorded updates instead of sharing during a meeting. Hold others accountable by requesting agendas. That goes back to that first point. Even if you don't own any meetings, and you have no authority to change meeting structures, you can start the conversation about being intentional about that meeting time. Ask about who needs to be there and ask for agendas. Ask, what are we doing in this meeting? What's the intended outcome? Who really needs to participate?

Managers and meeting owners, identify the desired outcome of the meeting, then determine the series of actions needed to accomplish it. Don't schedule a meeting, and then determine what the desired outcome for that meeting is. It needs to happen the other way around. Start with the end in mind, and then walk backwards. I'm going to challenge everyone that owns meetings to change just one synchronous meeting to an asynchronous format. We have some frameworks on our blog, and they exist elsewhere too. You can absolutely share a synchronous meeting or change one to async. Set an agenda. Document decisions, takeaways, and action items. This is very important. Make sure that the documentation, the decisions, the takeaways and action items, make sure those are documented during the meeting. Everyone needs to confirm that they understand what is needed, who owns what. That way, you don't have to worry about sending minutes, because if you're taking that documentation during the meeting, you should ideally eliminate that need for extra work. Empower others to rethink their meeting mindset and take ownership of their time. Managers and meeting owners need to ask these questions about, who needs to be at meetings? Does this need to be a meeting? Ask those questions out loud, so that you can demonstrate to your team that you are challenging that status quo of having a meeting for every single task.

2: Document Everything

Second tip is document everything. Ask yourself, will anyone need this information in the future? If the answer is yes, it needs to be written down or documented in some form. Everyone can practice your writing skills and ask for feedback. Explicitly ask for feedback. It is possible that you're not working in a team that is used to giving feedback all the time, in which case it's going to rely on you to proactively ask for feedback on your writing. Clarify what the expectations are for documenting decisions. If there are no expectations for documentation, asking about them initiates that conversation so that those expectations can be explicitly documented.

Write summaries of decisions and resolutions. After sitting in on a meeting, or after being in a meeting, if you make a decision, write the context around that, and write a summary of the decision. Record action items immediately. In our team, we have a project management tool. I'm sure most of you use some project management tool or some way to document who needs to do what and when. Any time there's a decision made, or there's an action item, record it immediately in whatever system that you use. Don't wait around, record it immediately. Document your own processes and responses to frequently asked questions. If you don't own any single sources of truth or standard operating procedures, or any other team or organization wide documentation about work, you can still own your own running document on the tasks that you do, the frequently asked questions that come to you, so that you have all that documented. That can really help with accessing the information that you have. It limits or it reduces other people's need to constantly be interacting with you and getting your information from you.

Managers and other decision makers, model effective documentation practices. Raise your hand if you've ever had a manager that just didn't take notes, relied on anybody else to take notes, and eventually realized that nobody was taking notes and nothing happened. I'm going to raise my hand because I definitely had managers who left the documentation to other people, because they perceived a leadership role as not needing to document. That couldn't be further from the truth. Leaders have to model effective documentation practices. Ideally, what you're modeling is following exactly those expectations you've set for others. Transcribe live conversations. I have a little Otter here to symbolize Otter AI, which is a great transcription tool. This transcribes any live conversation. It is really helpful, so that people who aren't there and want to read through the transcript are able to do that.

Create single source of truth documents. This is a document that has everything, all of the answers, every single piece of information about a certain topic. Hold team members accountable for following documentation practices. Set the expectations for documentation, and then make sure you're modeling it, and hold other team members accountable for following those processes. Make expectations explicit and give feedback. That's part of accountability. If somebody doesn't follow through with the documentation procedures, you need to refer to those written expectations. Also, give very direct feedback about what was done well, what wasn't done well, and the reasons why there needs to be a change. Also, very good idea to praise those who do follow those documentation procedures well.

3: Stop Interrupting

Third tip is stop interrupting. Ask yourself, when is this information really needed? Everyone, confirm and follow expectations for responsiveness. Expectations should be set for how quickly you need to respond to different types of messages with different priority levels. If those expectations do not exist in any explicit form, asking about these expectations will initiate that conversation and hopefully lead to that documentation of those expectations. Document and update availability and preferences. If you will not take work calls after 5 p.m., make sure that your team members know that. Then, stick to what you say that you're going to do in terms of responsiveness. Block time for deep work, and make yourself uninterruptible by silencing notifications and answering your messages on a schedule. Of course, clarify and respect others availability and expectations. It's important for others to respect your boundaries, but you also have to respect others boundaries. You can't respect other boundaries, if you don't know what they are. Initiate those conversations so that those expectations are explicitly stated. It is very important to have that conversation so you know what people's boundaries are.

Managers and decision makers, set and follow expectations for responsiveness according to message priority. We have a million communication channels, they're not all the same. You shouldn't be responding to messages in Slack in the same way that you respond to emails. Write out exactly what those expectations are. We recommend a communication charter. Create a boundaries agreement and hold people accountable to respecting those boundaries. Single sources of truth, standard operating procedures and other documentation prevent interruptions by making information more accessible. Instead of having people interrupt people all day long to find out information, commit to that culture of documentation so that that information is recorded and accessible, and easy to find. All these things will help prevent interruptions.

Summary and Resources

To sum up, reduce time in synchronous meetings, document everything, and stop interrupting. I'd like for you to reflect, what is one tiny action, OTAs, you can do today to improve the balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication in your work?

If you want to learn more, we have a blog post on our website as well as a page on mastering asynchronous skills.

Questions and Answers

Hogbin: What are a few examples of what would be in a boundaries agreement?

Bjelland: In a boundaries agreement, you can include expectations for your working hours, and when you're available for meetings. We won't accept meetings after 5 p.m. If we get an email after working hours, we will wait to respond until the next day. Really just being clear about some of the things that we know that we should be doing, but we're not explicitly saying it and we're not coming to agreement with the rest of the team about what should happen if we don't follow through with that boundaries agreement. Because I know each of us here, I guarantee, we have all been guilty of not sticking with our boundaries. It's really important that we continue to make strides towards sticking with those boundaries that we set for ourselves and our team members.

Hogbin: One of the themes I felt around documentation was either too much or people don't review it, or it gets out of date. Where do you put it? Whether it ends up in Confluence, or next to the code? With that collection of questions that we had, do you feel there are some tips that you could share for what has been effective for some teams or with you?

Bjelland: It comes down to accountability. If team members feel that they don't have to read documentation because they can go to the meeting and hear about it again, they are going to continue to do that. We are creatures of habit. We are also trained by the expectations or lack of expectations and accountability in our environments, so setting accountability measures. That could be something like assigning tasks to make sure that people read and understand. You would hate to have to do this all the time. Internally, we try to make things a little bit fun when it comes to some documentation and agreements. We do quizzes. When we do have whole team meetings, we do try to get alignment on things. Confirming understanding of that can take many different forms, but providing different accountability measures and reminders as well. Then, sometimes it's just creating processes that make it easy to access that documentation. Because for some, it may just be easier to reach out to Emma, because Emma just knows everything and she'll get to the answer faster than I can search through the document. Emma, because you want to help out and because you do know the answer, you're going to respond. Really, the best situation there would be, that information is found in this document, and training ourselves, training each other to always refer back to that documentation. Because there's a reason it's there. It's a tool to make information accessible. We can't always rely on our colleagues to give us that information in the exact moment that we need it.

Hogbin: I think that's exactly one of the questions that Bennett had as well. How often do you come across a situation where someone has sent an email or message for information, but if you wait a few minutes, they tend to find the answer themselves. They're suggesting waiting a few minutes before answering a question typically reduces the amount of time in the conversation, which is pretty much exactly, point them back to where they could have found the information themselves.

I do have a question in here for what your personal preference is for a project management tool. Everyone loves a tool. Of course, there's no right answer. Which one do you use?

Bjelland: We use ClickUp internally. We really enjoy that tool for a couple reasons. One big reason is that we keep our standard operating procedures and single source of truth in ClickUp documents, because you can actually create tasks directly from the document there. That helps us keep the action items very closely tied to the discussions that we're having, and our standard procedures. That's the tool that we love and use.

Hogbin: How would you approach introducing some of the things without having sudden process overload or too much change all at once and actually make the change sustainable?

Bjelland: I like to always talk about tiny actions. What's the one thing that you can get on board with today, and that you could get even just one more team member to be on board with? You can really make a significant difference in how you view communication and how you are interacting with team members, and can really make a big impact on just how you are feeling at work, and productivity too. A tiny action is way easier to handle than, "I need to completely restructure meetings in my organization." We're going to be real and say that you also have work to do. There's just not enough time and resources, especially if you have other responsibilities to completely overhaul. Hopefully, I gave enough suggestions for tiny things that you can do, so that anyone with any ownership of meetings and documentation can take it and run with it.

Hogbin: How do you handle random pings saying, 'do you have a minute for a quick call,' when you're actually in the middle of something?

I'm going to jump in with how our team deals with it. We have a daily standup, and so, is this really an appropriate point for a meeting? We find it's really helpful to have a time and date every business day where people know they can get their questions answered. Is it necessary as a meeting? Maybe not, but it does, I think, mean fewer interruptions during the day.

What are some of the other ways that you handle that random ping during the day?

Bjelland: The random ping I always ask for context, because I want to know what it's about. What is the intended outcome for this conversation? I am a manager. I'm also the owner of the business. There's lots of things that come to my attention. If it's a team member who is struggling with something, and they really have a mental block, then I will absolutely drop what I need to drop and get in touch with that team member. Because for me, taking care of employees and taking care of my team members is the most important thing. That's that connection at the top of that pyramid. If somebody is struggling with something that might be related to that, I will absolutely drop what I am doing, if possible, and address that. If it's asking for feedback or something like that, then I will suggest scheduling a one to one talk, if that is needed. If I can provide asynchronous feedback, then I can do that as well. It's really asking for more information about what is needed and why that's needed, always gives me a better idea of how we can actually address the issue that's coming up without having to meet asynchronously.

Sometimes somebody might ping me and I'm literally not available, so I won't respond. We have a very clear communication charter internally, and so people know that if they need an answer immediately, we need to have the keyword urgent, and then we get a notification. Then, if it's a true emergency, like something is beyond what we have planned for, then that's when a phone call is needed. I know that if I'm taking a phone call from a team member during the day, it's because it's a true emergency, and not something just wasn't working for them that day.

Hogbin: When you make sure that everything is documented and there is a reduced need for synchronous communications, how do you actually maintain good relationships with those individuals, if you have less time in a Zoom call or face to face? We are face to face, but not really.

Bjelland: We are. The wonderful thing about improving async for those lower order tasks is that you have more time for sync conversations or sync time for connecting, and for really developing those relationships. Only once a month do we meet as an entire team, and we're a small team. We're only 10 people. Because we do a lot of async, we only meet as a whole team once a month. Really, the primary goal of that meeting is to connect with one another. It's mostly team building, and conversations and getting to know one another, and sometimes some fun. We just had our retreat, and the whole theme was play. We just played games. That really did a lot to connect us. We were able to do that because the work was still happening, but we weren't spending that Zoom time getting the work done. We were spending that Zoom time really learning about one another and connecting as humans.

Hogbin: Are there any other resources or things that people can go and look at, or that you want to point them to on the internet?

Bjelland: Yes, if you head to the Workplaceless website, we have lots of content there. We are really focusing a lot on async communication. Be on the lookout for additional resources. We're actually launching a new learning experience soon that is focused on tiny actions you can take for async communication. I am always available. If you would like to send me an email, I will respond according to the priority level of the message. I love connecting with other people, and especially those who are interested in any of these topics. Definitely check out the Workplaceless website, and you can find all my information there.


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Recorded at:

Oct 09, 2021

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