The Future of Work

Is Asynchronous Communication The Answer To Employee Burnout?

7 min read • Sep 30, 2020

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By Kritika Narula

Kritika Narula is an independent journalist and communications consultant based in India, with a remote-working experience of over 5 years. She has worked with organizations like MIT, University of Glasgow, IndigoBlue Magazine, IJNet.

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Releasing ourselves from the constant symphony of pings and buzzes might just be the answer to over-managed, and over-stressed employees.

As remote working models grow from fringe to ubiquitous, it is worth looking at the factors that make flexible working arrangements successful. Over the years, various studies have shown that remote workers are more productive than their office-going counterparts. This productivity boost is often attributed to the elimination of commute-gridlocks and office distractions, less idle time, and healthier lifestyles. All of these benefits are undergirded by the flexibility and autonomy made possible by the employees’ schedules. 

The benefits amplify when this flexibility percolates through the communication patterns in the organization. How? It’s true that remote work is largely made possible by the plethora of chat & communication tools available, but it is equally important to use these tools as more than real-time status indicators or availability broadcasts.

In tandem with this thought, plenty of remote teams are now embracing the idea of asynchronous communication, that favors the following:

  • Quality of responses over their immediacy, and 
  • Deep work routines over constant firefighting with a sense of false urgency.

Communicating asynchronously simply means you rid yourself of the expectation that you’ll receive an immediate response to your message. Instant replies are then substituted by well-thought-out responses unless it’s an emergency. 

Why choose asynchronous communication? 

In their book, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, Basecamp partners Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson point out that the time crunch in today’s workplaces exists not because of heavier workloads, but because of the lack of uninterrupted, dedicated time to do the work. So many working hours are withered away by inefficient communication practices. The answer, according to Fried and Heinemeier, lies in promoting “far fewer distractions, less always-on anxiety, and avoiding stress.”

Their point – and the point of many effective organizations like Doist, Buffer, Mural, Toggl, and others that are following and flourishing under an asynchronous system of communication – is that real-time messaging apps quickly turn into constant distractions and interruptions, they derail the priority of employees from productivity to connectivity, incentivize reactive work over proactive initiatives, and most importantly, don’t utilize the space for focused work.

Collaborating asynchronously is no oxymoron

Punching through a day’s worth of deliverables often hinges on our ability to manage multiple priorities at a time – especially in innovative tech environments. There’s always a new feature to launch, a new project to brainstorm, a new campaign to execute. Team members end up trying to squeeze important tasks into the interstices they find between meetings. Chalk in the sweeping time zone differences and the meetings could extend throughout the day. Ironically, what’s supposed to be a “collaborative” mode of working becomes counterproductive for everyone.  

In his influential book Deep Work, Georgetown University professor and author Cal Newport explains how hyper-connectedness is chipping away at our capacity for concentration, a prerequisite for cognitively demanding work. Deep work – like working on new designs, strategizing, ideating, writing, and possibly reaching breakthroughs – requires long, uninterrupted chunks of time for meaningful progress to be made. If we keep hearing the pings and buzzes of our devices, it’s impossible to focus on the task at hand. A study from Stanford University corroborates that heavy, chronic media multitaskers – who get inundated with frequent notifications – end up with dwindling attention, deteriorating memory, and an impaired ability to move from one task to another. 

If you’re constantly dodging balls being thrown at you, you’ll barely get the time to do focused work. Recovering from interruptions is not only a time-consuming exercise but attempting to do so hastily can also increase errors. Productivity isn’t the only variable that suffers under the expectation of constant availability, however. Over-connectedness is also detrimental to wellbeing. Constant interruptions at work – for example, in the form of a barrage of intermittent emails – have been found to trigger anxiety and annoyance. If real-time communication is the norm, employees try to be online constantly to combat FOMO, creating the perfect storm for a massive burnout. 

Suki Bassi from Happy Maven describes this phenomenon, “You may not reply immediately, but the ping of a notification is enough to trigger a cortisol response, leading to anxiety. 24/7 accessibility to these tools on mobile devices does not help. When we create an artificial sense of urgency and keep our employees on their toes constantly...we are setting them up to fail.” A 2008 joint study by the University of California and Humboldt University substantiates Bassi’s point succinctly: to make up for interrupted workflows, employees attempt to accelerate their work and by extension, their stress and frustration. 

Trust Is The Magic Ingredient

In light of burgeoning evidence on the benefits of adopting asynchronous communication, how can organizations begin to pivot? The answer lies in one word: trust. You’ve hired the best people for the job, now you have to trust them. This could manifest as:

  • Substitution of micromanagement with the communication of clear expectations
  • Planning ahead for crucial events/campaigns
  • Having solid documentation of processes to deal with emergencies
  • Elimination of stressors like hard deadlines, short turnover times, immediate follow-ups

As Fried and Hansson put it, “The expectation of an immediate response is the ember that ignites so many fires at work. In almost every situation, the expectation of an immediate response is an unreasonable expectation.” That’s because such an expectation defies trust, the bedrock of any healthy organizational culture. It alludes to a culture of micromanagement, distrust, and techno-stress.

Becky Kane, Editor at Doist shares more insight into this, “The root cause of a lot of stress and burnout in the workplace is a lack of control. If you start every workday not knowing what email chain or urgent text ping you’ll get pulled into, you cannot plan out your workday in advance, nor can you ensure you have the focused time to accomplish what you need to do. That’s super stressful. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in an async environment. The way you deal with urgent issues in an async environment is to preempt requests and not have urgent issues in the first place.”

How can organizations inculcate a culture of trust? Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, the creator of WordPress explains, “You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together.”

When sincere employees are not forced to respond immediately, leaders see the following benefits: 

  • A feeling of empowerment, commitment, and ownership among employees
  • Fewer knee-jerk decisions or quick-fixes, more deliberate & proactive efforts
  • More transparency and autonomy
  • Better documentation of processes
  • Higher productivity levels

Kane confirms the democratization of decision-making that happens as a result of async communication, “Async communication makes micromanaging and centralized, top-down decision-making really hard. If you embrace async, you’re also going to have to embrace empowering your employees to take proactive ownership of their work and give them real decision-making power. It’s extremely motivating.”

A culture of trust, therefore, also implies that being able to switch off from work, or being able to switch off in order to work – shouldn’t be permissive but rather modeled and encouraged by the organizations. Async communication is both a cause and consequence of this culture of trust in any organization.

Kritika Narula

By Kritika Narula