Communicating in an asynchronous office 📫

If you are building a feature, how productive are you going to be when you are always getting pulled out of the flow by notification sounds and pop-up windows? You guessed it, NOT!

Communicating in an asynchronous office 📫

You are working on an issue and get stuck. The easiest way to get an answer is to open chat and send your question to your team's group chat or directly to a colleague. Since you can't walk over to the person desk, it will take some time to get an answer. And that is great!

Getting asked a question and writing an answer too often results in unnecessary distractions. There are not many people who will tell you to wait until tomorrow. People will often make time to answer your question because they'll feel uncomfortable with telling you no.

Many teams are still figuring out how to answer each other's questions, but also how to make time for some uninterrupted work.

Let's see how we can achieve that.

If it's not an emergency, it can wait.

Let's face it; people love instant answers. With voice assistants like Alexa, Google assistant, and Siri becoming more popular you no longer have to pull out your phone, open safari, google the question and look for the right search result. "Alexa, when is the next Apple Keynote" will give you an answer within a few seconds with very minimal effort.

But that doesn't mean that can expect the same response time from our team;

Maybe I'll do a book review later, but it was a perfect example

Let's set the first ground rule;

If it's not an emergency, it can wait. For even longer then 4 minutes, sometimes even a day.

Too often we think something is "urgent", while in reality, they aren't that urgent at all. If you disagree with me, do this the next time you think you have an urgent question;

  1. Get out of your chair
  2. Walk to the coffee machine
  3. Make a cup of coffee
  4. Drink the coffee
  5. Then ask yourself "Is the question/problem still urgent?"

Most of the time we are just a little stressed. I get it, you are stuck on something and worry about the deadline. But next time, walk away from your computer. When you get back chances are you;

  1. Think of a solution to the problem
  2. Think of the perfect question to Google
  3. Realize that it isn't that urgent and it can wait

Every team member needs to understand the difference between when they think they have an urgent question and when they actually have an urgent question.


First decide how to get the fastest response possible, when a question is actually urgent. Most of the time this is picking up the phone and calling the person who can most likely to answer your question or solve your problem. But this can differ per team and per situation, talk about it with each other and make a plan.

Asynchronous communication

So now on to the good part! You've got the plan in place for when someone has an emergency question, now let's see how we can communicate and value each others deep-work blocks.

“Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” - Cal Newport, Deep Work

The thing about remote teams is that communication, for the most part, is already asynchronous. Teams use tools like Slack, Twist or Basecamp to stay in touch with each other. As long as you are not replying to one another within split seconds, it's pretty much asynchronous.

Why is that important? Because asynchronous communication allows team members to do some deep work and turn off their distractions. It makes a huge difference in their productivity when they don't have to be on stand by all the time.

Make it okay to turn off notifications

Turning off your notification for a good chunk of the day should be okay.

If you are building a feature, how productive are you going to be when you are always getting pulled out of the flow by notification sounds and pop-up windows? You guessed it, NOT!

Try it out, turn your notifications off. What did you miss by the end of the day? Maybe someone sending you an extra question mark. That's it! You just enjoyed some hours of uninterrupted work, tastes like more doesn't it?

Make it okay to turn all the bells and whistles off.  If you are still not sure, try it out for a couple of weeks and benchmark the effects.

But that's great for the people who aren't stuck. What about the people that have the question? If you turn off the notifications, someone else is not productive for god knows how many hours..

Is this the only thing you can work on?

With asynchronous communication, you must expect some time before your question is going to be answered. This can't mean that someone must sit around doing nothing while waiting for an answer.

Nobody should be "stuck" on a question. Always make sure that everyone has enough work to do. Stuck with one task and need assistance? No problem. Ask the question and put that work aside. Start working on that other part of the design.

Is that meeting worth it?

Another synchronous office "thing" I would like you to think about is meetings. How many times did you walk out of thinking "what the hell was I doing there?".

Too often you have a meeting with the whole team about something that could be handled well enough over mail or a message board. Remember, if you just had an hour-long meeting with eight people, it cost you 8 hours. Probably even more, people didn't start something because of the planned meeting and often need a short break after.

Was that worth it?

Probably two or three from the eight people spoke, while the others just answered some questions. An excellent replacement for these kinds of meetings are daily check-ins, you can read more about that here.

I am not saying you should stop having meetings, but is every single meeting or group call worth all those hours? Think of some alternatives and keep the meetings for the fun sessions! Change everyone's mindset from "Another meeting...?" to "A meeting! :D"

Don't be afraid to ask questions

Let me be clear; this post isn't suggesting that you should not ask questions or not communicate at all cost. The opposite is true. I encourage everyone to ask as many questions as they possibly can and send fun gifs in the group chats. Just Take some responsibility.

Most of the time we turn to our co-workers to fast, grabbing their attention. If you have a question, send it, but don't demand an answer right away. Work on something else while you are waiting. Communicate more asynchronous.

So the next time you pick up the phone, open Skype or want to plan a meeting with eight people ask yourself; "is it really worth it to interrupt someone? Or can it wait for a few hours while I work on something else?".