Discover what asynchronous collaboration is, why you need it, the challenges, and how to it for greater productivity
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Only 38% of companies have an async-first policy.* But rethinking the way work happens, like collaborating async, has proven benefits that can improve productivity and employee wellbeing alike. For example, it gives you more time for focus work and the ability to take back control of your calendar—so you can move projects forward meaningfully.
However, you can’t understand async collaboration without understanding synchronous collaboration. It’s a balance between the two, like work/life balance. Leaders of highly collaborative teams need to be thoughtful about using both and train their teams in when and how to collaborate async. That way everyone can have fewer, better meetings and more time for focus work.
In this article, you'll learn what asynchronous collaboration is and why you need it. You’ll also understand the challenges and how async differs from working synchronously. Finally, we’ll cover how to improve async collaboration, including using Switchboard to stay aligned and be more productive async.
Do more with fewer meetings.
Switchboard's persistent rooms let everyone make progress in real time or async.
What is asynchronous collaboration?
Asynchronous collaboration is when people work on their own, completing tasks when it makes sense for them. They're still contributing to team goals, but they don't have to be in the same room or online at the same time as everyone else.
With async working, you can move work forward even when schedules or time zones don't overlap, letting everyone contribute without the need for immediate responses or interactions. This helps you minimize interruptions and enter a flow state.
Synchronous vs asynchronous collaboration
Unlike async collaboration, working synchronously relies on immediate feedback and responses, typically through instant messages, video calls, or face-to-face meetings.
Effectively using asynchronous communication is all about balance: You need to know when an email could be a meeting, when to hop on a call, and when to combine the two. For example, by sharing materials before a meeting so everyone can get up to speed before it starts. This lets you cancel more meetings and make the ones you do have more productive.
Why do you need asynchronous collaboration?
When people default to meetings to answer every question or make every decision, it can waste time and make it hard to focus. This is especially true considering it takes nearly 30 minutes to refocus after you get distracted.
Knowing what work can be done async frees up calendars and gives people more focus time and more control over their days.
Instead of waiting days to get everyone in a synchronous meeting, your project manager could share your product roadmap in your persistent Switchboard room. Team members can hop into the host-free room to check it out on their own schedule, or have Switchboard AI summarize it. Then, they can leave feedback on the upcoming product feature using sticky notes or a pre-recorded video.
What are the challenges of asynchronous collaboration?
Let's get into some of the challenges that come with working async, especially when it's not balanced with synchronous or hybrid approaches to collaboration.
- Sometimes, you still need to talk. Async collaboration isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, and sometimes you need to hop on a video call to reach a faster decision. If you eliminate all real-time collaboration, you could be less efficient. For example, knowing when to cut a Slack thread and simply jumping into a team huddle to save time and prevent notification overload.
- Keeping everyone aligned. When people work on their own time, it can be difficult to keep everyone connected and on the same page. This makes establishing clear communication channels that much more important.
- Information silos. When people work across tools, locations, and departments, there's the danger of documents and files being stored in different places or shared across various platforms. This can negatively affect productivity and cohesion, causing teams to work independently of each other without sharing information. Or, worse, duplicate work.
- Lack of spontaneity and connection. The lack of immediate, real-time responses can make it harder to share spontaneous ideas, casual conversations, and have impromptu discussions with your team. That's why it's crucial to create an asynchronous work culture that makes it easy to collaborate without being online at the same time.
- Information and notification overload. If people aren't clear on roles and task assignments, they can end up messaging everyone because they don't know who's supposed to answer. Too many tools can also lead to notification overload and, possibly, burnout.
7 ways to improve asynchronous collaboration
Now that you know the challenges of async collaboration, let's explore how to do it right. It's all about finding a dynamic that works for everyone and matching the channel with the content.
1. Know when to work async and when in real time
Striking the right balance between async and synchronous working depends on the nature of the task, team preferences, and the specific requirements of the situation. Synchronous working can be better for solving complex problems and quick decision-making. Collaborating async is great for sharing mass or non-urgent updates, meeting outcomes, or FYIs.
"You need to look at parts of your process that would work well asynchronously, like reviews and feedback sessions," says Startup Marketing Consultant Elliott Brown. "But you also need to know when to spontaneously hop on a phone call with each other to avoid back and forth on a Google Doc." You can also combine async working with real-time meetings by reviewing feedback async before the meeting to speed up decision-making.
When deciding between synchronous vs asynchronous collaboration, here's one rule of thumb that works wonders for our team at Switchboard:
- Share materials async in a persistent room, like docs, slides, or code
- Hop into the room on your own time to review them async, adding comments or make video walkthroughs
- Discuss and decide async or together, either via comment threads on items in the room or by meeting to talk
2. Create a culture of teamwork
Asynchronous work relies on creating a strong culture of collaboration. This means you need to establish strong shared values like empathy, trust, accountability, and ownership, so everyone can be a team player and move work forward whether they’re together or apart.
- Clearly communicate your mission, vision, and goals. Make sure every team member understands how their individual contributions and values align with the overall objectives of the company and team.
- Lead by example. Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone for teamwork. Demonstrate collaborative behavior, promote transparency, and showcase a commitment to working together. When leaders prioritize teamwork, it encourages others to do the same.
- Create cross-functional teams. This lets employees from different departments collaborate, share expertise, and learn from each other during shared projects or initiatives.
- Organize regular team-building activities. This can strengthen relationships and build trust among team members. These activities can be formal (i.e. team-building workshops) or informal (i.e. virtual games).
Pro tip: Use Switchboard to build a company culture based on teamwork by uniting teams, tools, and projects in one place. Then, create a dedicated Switchboard room for team-building activities where you can have fun with your team async and in real time.
For instance, you might get together for a quick virtual escape room activity before your next sprint planning meeting to keep your energy high. Or you might play a game of "Guess Whose" by uploading pictures of your teams' pets and getting people to guess who they belong to.
3. Establish clear processes and guidelines
Without the right process and guidelines, any style of collaboration can be prone to information silos and bottlenecks. As mentioned earlier, you need to outline the types of tasks that are suitable for asynchronous work based on your needs and specify any deadlines or milestones.
You also need to create documentation that outlines the step-by-step process for common tasks and keep it all in one place. This will serve as a reference guide for team members when working on their own time. Make sure documentation includes detailed instructions, best practices, and any templates or tools that can help in the process. This can help reduce the bottlenecks that come with waiting for the right people to come online to answer your questions.
Then, clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each team member. Make sure everyone understands their individual contributions to the overall project or task. For this, you’ll need clear communication channels to gather feedback and get everyone aligned.
4. Train your team to work and communicate async
"The more leaders recognize that collaborating async is a team effort, the more they can create an environment where people are empowered to reach out and talk to people," says Brown. To create this type of environment, you need to train your team how to communicate effectively async.
- Establish communication guidelines. This includes how to write good emails and communicate well async, especially as tone and nuance can get lost in text. Then, set expectations for response times to make sure everyone knows when they need to take action.
- Encourage people to take control of their schedules. Knowing when to cancel a meeting or switch from an email to a meeting makes for more efficient working—and more focus time. This lets them make the right decisions for their workflow, instead of wasting time in unproductive meetings or endlessly going back and forth in Slack threads.
- Familiarize your team with the right tools. Provide training on internal collaboration tools, project management tools, communication platforms, document sharing, and any other tools in your async tech stack. Clearly define when to use email, project management tools, or other messaging platforms. For example, Slack for non-urgent synchronous updates; Switchboard for async project work.
5. When in doubt, over-communicate
Over-communicating helps make sure no one is left in the dark, regardless of their learning style, role, or involvement in a particular project or task. But it's important not to overwhelm—you need to tailor the level of detail to the audience. Clarity on roles and responsibilities will help here.
Also, consider the timing of your communication. Over-communicating doesn't necessarily mean bombarding people with information at all hours. Be mindful of when your team members are most likely to engage with and absorb the information. For example, if multiple people set an "away" status on Slack for focus work, it's not the right time to share an important update.
Remember how we said it's important to match the channel with the content? Well, you also need to choose appropriate communication channels for the type of information you're sharing. Some messages, like a company-wide announcement, may be better suited to email, while things like brainstorming may benefit from a video call.
6. Document everything
Async collaboration means you get the added benefit of documented processes and systems that can be repeated across the board. This means people can work autonomously and proceed with their work without having to rely on constant communication for guidance.
Use document collaboration tools like Notion or Google Docs to create a company intranet or knowledge base everyone can access.
Then, use Switchboard to keep all your relevant documents in one room, organized by project. Your team can catch up in real time or progress async with meeting recordings and voice notes. Also, with Switchboard AI, you can have all your tools talk to each other and process information from meetings or project work sessions without the manual work.
7. Monitor and fine-tune your process
To make async collaboration work for your business, set KPIs at the start so you can track whether it's making you more productive. If not, you may need to adjust your process.
Some KPIs you can track include:
- Quality of deliverables
- Task progress over time
- Use of collaboration tools
- Team engagement and participation
- Task dependencies and bottlenecks
Then, make sure you have feedback mechanisms to collect and understand employee input on their async workflow and performance. For example, you can set up an async poll in Switchboard asking everyone to rate their workload or level of satisfaction, and then address it during your next meeting. Or, create a survey on Google Forms to keep feedback anonymous.
Asynchronous collaboration: More productive teams without the meetings
It can take time for people to embrace new ways of communicating and working together. However, sticking with methods that are no longer fit for purpose–like defaulting to synchronous collaboration–isn't an option if you want happy, productive teams.
That's why you need to understand synchronous collaboration to understand asynchronous collaboration—and strike the right balance between the two.
You need to be thoughtful about using both and train your teams in when and how to collaborate async. Start by creating a culture of teamwork, establishing clear processes and guidelines, documenting everything, and training your team in async tools and communication. This lets you cancel more meetings and make the ones you do have more productive.
With Switchboard as your equivalent of the flat-screen phone, you’ll leave all those outdated flip tops standing. This is because you can organize everything–and everyone–by project in persistent rooms that save your work and make everything multiplayer. So you get true real time and async collaboration and 360o visibility of all your teams and projects.
Do more with fewer meetings.
Switchboard's persistent rooms let everyone make progress in real time or async.
Frequently asked questions about asynchronous collaboration
What is an example of asynchronous collaboration?
An example of asynchronous collaboration is using a virtual whiteboard in your Switchboard room to sketch your new product design in a remote work environment. New status updates in your room will trigger your co-workers' tasks to hop into the room and leave feedback async.
What is the key in asynchronous collaboration?
The key to asynchronous collaboration is having the right async communication tools and guidelines for team collaboration. This lets everyone move work forward across departments or different time zones.
To improve async collaboration, you need to:
- Know when to work async and when in real time
- Create a culture of teamwork
- Establish clear processes and guidelines
- Train your team to work and communicate async
- When in doubt, over-communicate
- Document everything
- Monitor and fine-tune your process