The Five Virtues of Asynchronous Communication

They say patience is a virtue…

For those plunged into the great remote work experiment of 2020, there’s been a huge demand for patience. And, if you’re new to this remote working thing, one of the most frustrating aspects just might be asynchronous communication. When all you really want to do is have a conversation, sometimes all you can do is send a DM or email into the black hole of the Internet and wait…and wait…and… 

If you want to take your async interactions to the next level, be a stronger communicator for your remote team, or find a passive-aggressive way to tell a colleague to level-up, this article is at your service. Here’s a list of five virtues you’ll want to develop if you want to bring your A-game to the remote work world.

1) Courtesy

Common courtesy, it usually tells us to say hello and wave and exchange pleasantries before launching into the real motive behind our interactions. Well, I’m here to tell you that in the remote workplace, nothing could be further from the truth. 

What you and I usually think of as a courteous gesture in real life, can be a massive waste of someone’s time in the virtual world. My favorite resource on this subject is this simple website. (great for passive-aggressive sharing)

Here’s the gist of it. Saying hello, hi, how are you, etc., communicates nothing of value to the recipient. When you only say “hello” in a direct message or chat, one of two bad things happens.

  1. Your colleague waits expectantly while you form your question or comment. They’ve been interrupted from their work, and their productivity is held hostage to your WPM typing abilities. 
  2. Your colleague comes back to her desk after lunch and sees a simple message of “hello 🙋🏻‍♂️” was sent 42 minutes ago. She has no idea what she missed and can offer nothing helpful.

If I had a nickel for every “hello” DM I’ve received, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could probably buy lunch. 

2) Generosity

It’s better to give than to receive. Yeah, it’s hard to actually believe that statement, but when it comes to asynchronous communication, you have to give to get. Don’t miss this point. The better the information you can give, the more likely you are to receive the information you need in reply. 

Still a doubter? Try this out.

Instead of this:
You: “Are you available to have a meeting about [fill in the blank]?”

Colleague: “Yes”

You: “How about Wednesday?”
Colleague: “I’m booked on Wednesday”
You: “What about Thursday?”
Colleague: “Maybe, what time?”
You: “9:30 or 11:00”

Colleague: “For how long”

You: “30 minutes”

Colleague: “What timezone are you in?”

You: “Central”

Colleague: “11:00 works for me then”
You: “Thanks, I’ll send an invite”

Do this:
You: “Are you available to have a 30-minute meeting about [fill in the blank] on Wednesday or Thursday? I have openings on my calendar at 9:30 and 11:00 am Central Time both days. Let me know if that can work for you and I’ll send over a calendar invite.”
Colleague: “Sure, 11:00 on Thursday works for me. Talk to you then.”

Notice that by anticipating the information that your colleagues need to answer your question, you can reduce distractions, length of threads, and incomplete conversations. Our first example above only worked because both happened to be online at the same time. The second example works asynchronously because both parties have all the information they need to make a decision independent of their colleague’s presence.

3) Creativity

Remember the days when the only way to have a synchronous conversation was on the telephone? Well, they’re long gone, and so are the days when the only way to communicate asynchronously was via text-based platforms.

This is a great development because one of the biggest detractors of async sharing is how difficult it can be to concisely communicate complex messages via chat. Now you don’t have to wordsmith for 20 minutes when a 5-minute cloud-stored video will do a much better job.

Next time you’re working all alone and you want to communicate a complicated thought to a colleague before you sign off, simply go to your favorite web-based screen recording app and start recording. My favorite is Loom, you can try it out for yourself for free.

Be creative. Think outside the chat.

4) Efficiency

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

-Mark Twain

If you find your chat messages turning into Baconian Essays, there’s a strong chance that a couple of things are happening:

1. You’re using way too many words

2. Your reader isn’t reading all of them

In the same way that it takes more effort to write a concise distilled message than it does to write a rambling lengthy paragraph, it also takes more effort to read and comprehend a long-winded post than a DM that stays on point.

Think about some of the biggest brands in the world. They have all distilled their brand message down to a select few words that act as their tag line. I’m not suggesting that you put a 3 word limit on your DMs, however, it’s worth a second glance to see if you’re communicating efficiently. If your communication is just a stream of thoughts, then your reader is going to be skimming at best.

Here’s the takeaway, if you’re finding it extremely difficult to capture what you want to say in just a few (non-run-on) sentences, then you should probably spend a little more time developing virtue number 3.

5) Empathy

Everybody wants to talk about empathy these days like it’s a badge of enlightenment. In the context of asynchronous communication it really boils down to thinking about your audience, earth-shattering, I know. 

There’s a massive temptation to ditch asynchronous communication and just ask for a meeting whenever things get a little inconvenient. This happens all the time in your inbox or LinkedIn DMs. My inbox is constantly getting inbound requests for a real-time meeting from a BDR with something to sell or someone hoping to “pick” my brain. (Which sounds terrifying by the way, can’t we come up with a better term for one-sided networking interviews?) They’re trying to solve their own problem and they think some of your real-time undivided attention will help them get there.

Steven Pressfield sums it up in the title of his book: “Nobody wants to read your sh*t”. 

Translating that to the current conversation about asynchronous communication, “Nobody wants to have a meeting just for you.” 

In short, make sure that you’ve exercised all the avenues available to you before asking someone to block off time on their calendar for you. If this is a problem that can be solved in a timely manner without the need for a video call, then, by all means, skip the call.

Before you abandon the asynchronous ship, ask yourself, is this meeting really necessary? If you’re having trouble answering that question, you can reference this hand dandy yes/no chart from the good people at Doist. If you’re not motivated enough to check out that resource, you can always DM me asking for a meeting to explain it.

If you want your company to get better at remote stuff like async communication and virtual meetings, I’d love to have you follow along or drop me a line. Just don’t ask to pick my brains.

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