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A split image with a woman at her desk working on her computer on one side and a man on a laptop, somewhere else, talking with a drink in front of him.

The case for remote synchronous communication

Companies moving from in-person work to either hybrid or full-time remote setups are turning to remote work veterans for direction on where to begin. There is a lot of good advice out there but I want to address one of the foundational, and most troubling ideas of traditional remote work advocates; the idealization of asynchronous communication. Asynchronous means that communications are not done in real time. Talking with someone is synchronous. Sending Slack messages and email is asynchronous. The sender should not expect a timely response. Everything gets written down. Jason Fried and DHH sum it up in their Guide to Internal Communication, the Basecamp Way. I’ve selected a few relevant items (numbering from their doc):

2: Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.

3: Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

7: Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn’t make it, or future employees who join years from now.

Reducing meetings and interruptions is a noble goal. But a team’s most important goal is achieving its mission. A team should use the best tools and communication methods available to get their work done. Written long form pre-reads are becoming more and more popular because receiving context and background in advance allows constituents the chance to think more deeply, derive alternatives, and enhance ideas. They can be a great asynchronous tool to organize discussion. But talking things out reveals nuances and delicacies. Refines clumsy, coarse grained arguments. Spawns rapid evolution of original ideas. Makes our ideas stronger and builds consensus. It makes the pre-read better and speeds along resolution. There is nothing wrong with gathering in real time around an idea and taking about it.

I worked at Apple where innovation happened in hallways, around whiteboards, and while gathered around monitors. After sharing my first extensive, long form marketing requirements document for Mac OS X with my partners in engineering I realized that nobody read these things. I didn’t write more of them. Decisions happened in informal conversations scattered throughout the organization and in email. Formal meetings allowed team members to hear everything in the open, provided an opportunity to raise final objections, and then agree as a group to ratify the decisions and hold each other accountable for the result. Verbal communication is the cornerstone of innovation at Apple.

Verbal communication is the cornerstone of innovation at Apple.

Asynchronous channels can cause confusion without synchronous clarity

Here is a very memorable example where asynchronous channels caused confusion and tension without the clarity of synchronous conversations. A couple of months after we got started building With, my co-founder Laurent and I found ourselves in a vigorous discussion on Telegram. After a long day he suggested that we should just get in a With room and talk it out, but I persisted in trying to hash it out in text messages. The more I typed, the more frustrated and anxious I grew. Terse phrasing led to misunderstanding. Contention rose. It was exhausting. And in the end — nearly ninety minutes later — I realized there really wasn’t a disagreement after all. The lack of tone, humor, and non-verbal queues of a real time conversation made it feel that way. Ten minutes in a regular conversation was all we really needed.

The kind of delayed, asynchronous interaction that caused this difficult conversation lies at the heart of many of today’s team tools like Slack, Gmail, and Telegram. These tools are good complements to team workflows but they were not designed to provide the kind of high-bandwidth, core interactions that are imperative to the success of high performing teams. We need synchronous communication to achieve greatness together.

Communication is much more than just the words we say. The qualities of a person’s voice like intonation, pitch, timbre, rhythm, and tempo, combined with our facial expressions and body language, impart meaning beyond the uttered words. The way we think and process when talking is different than when writing. Sarcasm, irony, satire; suggestion, recommendation, command; their nuances are critical to truly understanding meaning and intent.

Contentious discussion like the one between Laurent and myself occur everyday, in every team setting around the world. The cumulative negative productivity impact of eschewing real-time synchronous conversations is devastating. Synchronous communication is the best way to conduct one-on-ones, stand-ups, rapid responses, war rooms, workshops, brainstorms, happy hours, and most importantly, the serendipitous conversations that build the kind of trust and camaraderie that produce high performing, happy teams.

Meeting overload leads to zoom fatigue

It’s true that most meeting hygiene is poor. If a problem or idea arises your first response shouldn’t be to get everyone together in a room. The rush to work from home amplified the problem because the knee jerk instinct to have a meeting for everything resulted in days full of back-to-back, heads-up Zoom calls. It didn’t take long for people to grow tired of the digital grind and lay blame on the meeting. But let’s not throw out verbal communication because we misuse meetings. Humans default to talking to each other for a reason. Do we really think getting rid of that instinct is the right thing? We need to have a better structure for talking to each other when we work remotely. One that translates what was great about collaborating in person to the digital world. I have an idea 😉 It is doable without adopting a radical approach of only talking to our teammates through computing APIs.

…let’s not throw out verbal communication because we misuse meetings.

Today if you aren’t in a conversation you won’t know what happened. In digital spaces this problem is already being addressed through smart transcription and summarization services that can replay the finer points of conversations for those that weren’t around. Written form will have no advantage in the long run. I’m not sure this is really a weakness of verbal conversation anyway since we usually make great efforts to include stakeholders. Why talk if the key people aren’t there to talk to? What about future employees you might hire in three years? They aren’t going to read it anyway. Hardly a point for optimization.

Remote teams need to maintain connection

I think there is another more alarming issue with treating all communication asynchronously. The great work from home experiment has had many pluses but one big issue we need to address. People, particularly younger, less senior employees, feel isolated and distant from their teams. Generally people like to work with other people. It gives them energy, motivation, and support when striving for greatness. So how does an asynchronous focused policy effect workers? For argument’s sake let’s reduce personality to two categories, the introverts and the extroverts.

I think there is another more alarming issue with treating all communication asynchronously. The great work from home experiment has had many pluses but one big issue we need to address. People, particularly younger, less senior employees, feel isolated and distant from their teams. Generally people like to work with other people. It gives them energy, motivation, and support when striving for greatness. So how does an asynchronous focused policy effect workers? For argument’s sake let’s reduce personality to two categories, the introverts and the extroverts.

Asynchronous is demoralizing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum the extrovert gains energy with each interaction. It’s not hard to see how institutionalized asynchronous communication — shackled to nothing but a keyboard and alone with their thoughts — ruins their motivation. These people need to build their networks, grow their support systems, and increase their daily interactions. Asynchronous is demoralizing.

And what of the derogatory reference to “verbal tradition.” It has worked pretty well since literally the advent of verbal communication. Why do we need to get rid of it? Is work a special circumstance that warrants rejecting one of the most important traditions of humankind? The written form is great but so are the special nuanced characteristics of verbal communication. It’s real time nature is fast and efficient. Parsing intention is enhanced through tone. We can add personality, character, and humor to our communication. Talking to our colleagues makes our ideas better. It builds trust and camaraderie. It makes us accountable to each other. Let’s do a better job of respecting the time and attention of our colleagues when it comes to meetings, but rejecting verbal communication is not the right path.

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