Asynchronous communication at work


Asynchronous way of communication means you receive information from different sources but you check them at your convenience. They are not blocking you nor you have to process them at the time of arrival. In other words - they’re not distracting.

Those distractions are all around us, trying to damage our flow of work. distractions

Maybe it’s just the nature of our job but I believe not only at our profession there are kinds of work suffering from distractions very much. Multitasking is no longer considered a good way of working and yet we have troubles in focusing on one task at a time. And our work environment may be not helping either.

Co-workers

I would be probably very unhappy not seeing other people for longer time. Even considering the fact that I work 2 days from home I like coming to the office and having chit chats with my colleagues on topics ranging from software development to nonsense. And it’s perfectly ok… during breaks. I’m sitting in an open space which means I’m exposed to people talking about various things. I simply have to put my headphones to focus on what I’m doing.

headphones on do not disturb

But it’s still not in our culture to leave people wearing headphones alone. We can interact with each other near the coffee machine but not necessarily at our desks when we’re trying to find the flow.

I suggest to keep any synchronous communication during breaks. Tapping someone on the shoulder to talk is totally opposite to asynchronous communication.

Meetings

Nice alternative to work, you can eat donuts, point with a stick…

They can be really evil, especially in the middle of a day. You wait for them, checking time and feel exhausted and frustrated after an hour which didn’t take you anywhere close to finishing your personal tasks.

Even if you can’t ‘reject’ some of them - those unavoidable can be turned into productive if we adopt couple of rules:

  • Hold them at the end of the day

    I know that end of the day varies from person to person but having meetings at the beginning is even worse - people coming earlier will be waiting for it and get distracted even before they accomplish anything.

  • Have a clear agenda

    If you can’t plan what you’ll be discussing there is a chance you’ll waste just as much time as was planned for the meeting. Agenda helps you to stick to the plan, finish as soon as possible and return to asynchronous communication scheme.

  • Limit yourself - no more than 30 minutes

    This feels arbitrary - choose your own time box, let it be 15 minutes or an hour but time-box yourself, limit meeting time to go back to actual work as soon as possible.

  • Prepare to the meeting

    If everyone would be prepared to the meeting, if we got instructions from a person calling it what is expected to prepare - our meetings would be shorter and actually everyone could work on stuff whenever he or she feels the flow.

  • Make them optional

    A step further - try to prepare them in a way that people can contribute even not being present. Sounds like a challenge?

Note: I make a distinction between meeting and working together. There are times when you actually sit together and solve problem as a group. Those kinds of meetings can be much longer and they’ll probably be.

Instant Messaging

It’s an everending story. You log in and you’re exposed to bunch of people within your organisation to talk about literally anything. While it can be a pleasure to talk to those people - doesn’t do your work (sorry 😃).

My second problem with it is that it feels like “normal” conversation but it isn’t. I don’t know when to end, how to do it politely. And keeping talking to number of people simultanously - all that social etiquette is hard at least. It starts becoming almost synchronous communication.

Of course there are ways of blocking certain people, to set visibility and so on. But it’s not the most effective way of communicating for me.

It could be perfectly asynchronous though despite that sometimes it’s hard to stop waiting for someone’s response if we see “X is typing” in the window. If you can work this one out you can have asynchronous communication with co-workers and talk to them when you finish something or when you have some spare time.

So I’ll be testing HipChat in our team to see how this one helps. Those kind of programs which helps you communicate with a team on specific subject related to your work, not the whole universe about everything, can be very helpful.

Mail

I schedule time to read e-mail instead of having my client opened all day. I also time-box it and process with well established scheme. Goal here is to have Inbox-Zero after this short session.

mail

As I redirected couple of other Inboxes directly to e-mail - I need to be quite efficient with dealing with it. I try to use three sentences in e-mail (I write a lot of one-liners too) and I’m generally dropping social etiquette if I’m communicating with co-workers on a daily basis. I jump straight to the subject (or using only subject without body).

I try to be responsive even though I check e-mail at scheduled times so that nature of asynchronous communication that is working great for me is not blocking other people from doing their job.

Twitter

Twitter is in its nature asynchronous and forces you to be concise. It has also notion of @mention so you get your notifications in one place to process them later. I use it mostly for non-work purposes (“is there any work happening on Twitter?”) but it can be a perfect tool for exchanging links or… checking someone’s availability to talk synchronously as some people already recognized.

Internal distractions

I mentioned lot of external distractions but there are as much internal ones, no doubt about it. If you’re a bit worried about losing best ideas - just keep notepad aside and note everything as you work. You’ll return to it later. Maybe some ideas will appear not be so great after giving them another look. But this way you won’t be stopying what you’re actually doing and losing your flow.

And if you’re curious what’s happening on your favourite social media site - well, there are some techniques to get rid of this twitch, too.

Notifications

Maybe the most important ingridient to the above is that all my notifications are switched off. E-mail, Twitter, Text Messages, phone, everything. This really allows asynchronous style of communication to take its advantage. I can focus on what I’m doing at the moment. I can go deeply into my flow.

Whatever works for you

I know that this can be specifics of what I currently do but I’d like my environment to be supporting asynchronousity even more. Unfortunately distractions kill my productivity and I guess it’s not only me…

Don’t get me wrong - when I’m finished with what I do - I’d like to communicate with the whole world! I love people, I just prefer to communicate asynchronously when working.


Headphones image taken from: flickr licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Clock image taken from flickr licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.