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July 27, 2021 · 15 min read

Asynchronous Communication for Project Managers: A Tactical Guide to Getting More Done While Communicating Less

Asynchronous Communication for Project Managers

As a project manager, it’s your job to help shield your team from the constant communication, notifications, and meeting requests that threaten their daily tasks (and sanity). Asynchronous communication–when you send messages without expecting an immediate response–is probably the best tool you can use for this.

However, it’s also one of the hardest to implement properly.

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Most teams have been trained to value presence over productivity. On average, knowledge workers like designers, developers, and project managers check email and chat every 5 minutes. Simultaneously, tools like Slack boast that teams spend 9+ hours a day connected to their app.

Yes, there’s some ‘magic’ in having real-time conversations. It’s easier to feel inspired and creative when you’re riffing off your teammates. But how often have you come out of a typical brainstorming session only to realize later on that the ‘incredible’ idea you came up with… isn’t so incredible after all?

At Planio, we’ve worked almost entirely asynchronously for years. And while the initial transition phase was (somewhat) awkward, the benefits to focus, productivity, and output were well worth it. In our experience, asynchronous work has been the key element which made remote work across time zones work for us.

In this guide, we’ve distilled our years of experience as a remote, asynchronous team into an actionable guide to running projects without demanding constant presence from your team.

Asynchronous vs. ‘always-on’ communication: What’s the real difference?

The easiest way to understand the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication is to frame them around expectations.

Asynchronous communication is when you send a message–in any medium or format–and don’t immediately expect a response. For example, sending an email or adding an update to your project management tool and then going back to your task at hand until hours later when you get a response.

On the other hand, synchronous communication is when you expect an immediate response to your messages, emails, calls, or questions. Talking in-person is clearly synchronous, but so are the digital tools that mirror being in-person, such as chat.

And that’s where many teams get confused.

Just because tools like real-time chat can be synchronous doesn’t mean they need to be.

The tool you’re using doesn’t control whether your team is synchronous or asynchronous. It’s how you use it and the expectations you’ve set.

Especially with the rise of remote work (which can make it more challenging to see your team and understand what they’re working on), communication expectations need to be clearly set.

Asynchronous Communication in an issue

Another great example of asynchronous communication is open source work. Software developer or not, you may have seen open source projects with their many long and in-depth code and architecture discussions in their issues section, often related to individual commits and feature branches in the code.

Because most people work on open source projects "pro bono" in their spare time (evenings or weekends), communication automatically becomes asynchronous. The Redmine project (which Planio is proudly based upon) communicates exclusively in an asynchronous way.

The real risks of ‘always-on’ communication: distractions, burnout, and bad work

Let’s get something out of the way. While we’re going to push hard on asynchronous communication benefits, that doesn’t take away from the value you get from coming together and chatting.

For decades, synchronous, ‘always-on’ communication was the standard model for office workers. It worked mainly due to the buffers already in place: office doors to signal when you were busy. Lower expectations to respond instantly to emails or messages. Etc…

But today, pretty much all the buffers we once had between focused work and the onslaught of messages, requests, and interruptions are gone.

Open offices make it impossible to signal that you shouldn’t be disturbed. Real-time chat sets the expectations that you’re always around and available. While the ease of video chat makes last-minute meetings a regular occurrence.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that time spent on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% in the past two decades.

As the study’s authors write, at many companies, employees spend up to 80% of their day in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, “leaving little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

However, always-on communication doesn’t only fracture our focus. It also impacts output, team productivity, and personal well-being in several ways:

  1. Real-time communication prioritizes presence over productivity. Would you rather have a team that responds right when you send a message? Or one that knows it’s better to get work done before sending an update?
  2. Being ‘always on’ leads to constant interruptions and a lack of ‘flow.’ Flow is a state of deep focus that happens when you’re working on complex problems without distraction. By some accounts, it’s up to 500% more productive than when you’re constantly interrupted! Synchronous communication makes it more difficult to find flow by opening you up to small yet frequent interruptions throughout the day.
  3. Synchronous communication causes increased stress and overwork. Psychologists call this anticipatory stress–the anxiety of always assuming you’ll get a work-related email or message throughout the day. This stress makes it harder to detach from work and puts your team at risk of burnout.
  4. It produces worse decisions and suboptimal work. A study from Northeastern and Carnegie Mellon Universities found that teams who only communicate intermittently have a 24% increase in their performance at work compared to those who are ‘always on’.
  5. You end up creating ‘information silos’. When communication happens synchronously, you don’t make a record of what’s been discussed or decided. This means that only those at the meeting know what’s going on.
Always-on communication doesn’t only fracture our focus. It also impacts output, team productivity, and personal well-being.

The benefits of asynchronous communication: Better work, more transparency, and deeper focus

The great thing about adopting asynchronous communication is that it pretty much solves all of those above problems.

When your team isn’t expected to be ‘always-on’, they feel less stressed and have more time to think deeply and come up with innovative solutions. They’re also more likely to share information widely throughout your organization.

Ultimately, the better you communicate, the less communication needs to happen.

But those aren’t the only reasons you should be moving away from non-stop communication.

Team chat open and also answering in an issue
Synchronous communication at its worst: poor Luc!

Here are some of the clear benefits your product team will get when you go asynchronous.

  1. Creates time zone equality. Asynchronous communication doesn’t punish teams for working remotely. When you don’t have to be at a meeting or on a call, you’re able to contribute and collaborate better.
  2. Gives your team more control over their workday. Different people work best at different times (thanks to our circadian rhythms!) Switching to asynchronous communication lets each person design their perfect workday.
  3. It emphasizes productivity and ‘deep work’. Instead of continuously checking chat or email every few minutes, asynchronous teams can focus on complex problems and make real progress.
  4. Allows for greater transparency and accountability. Asynchronous communication naturally creates documentation, which gives your entire team insight into decisions or lessons learned. (Note: this only works if you already have a culture of good writing and documentation.)
  5. Forces your team to prioritize and plan better (leading to less stress for everyone). When ‘quick’ requests and last-minute meetings aren’t an option, your team needs to prioritize their work correctly and plan better. Surprisingly, going async makes your team more in sync.

7 ways to build the perfect balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication

Despite asynchronous communication being the better option in almost every scenario, it’s not enough on its own.

Collaboration needs some level of real-time interaction to get the best results and build the connection and camaraderie that separates great teams from good ones.

7 ways to build the perfect balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication

Creating that balance between synchronous and async is what great team leaders do. They set clear guidelines and expectations, so everyone knows how, when, and where to communicate based on their needs.

Setting expectations is probably the most challenging aspect of the shift to asynchronous communication. But one that needs special attention if you’re going to nail it. Here are a few essential guidelines that will help you transition your team to working asynchronously.

1. Understand how your different teammates like to communicate

Communication is personal. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to picking a communication style for your team.

Finding a good compromise starts by understanding how different team members prefer to communicate. In most cases, this simply means making sure you’re spending enough time listening rather than speaking.

Start by having a synchronous 1-on-1 with each team member to talk through how they prefer to receive feedback and collaborate with the rest of the team.

Questions to ask:

These questions will help you gauge the type of communicator you’re dealing with and how you can build a culture that supports them individually. Plus, the more you can ask candid questions and build a relationship with your team, the more they’ll trust your decisions.

2. Set expectations using communication ‘runbooks’ for chat and email

Once you have a deeper understanding of your team’s communication preferences, it’s time to codify them into a set of expectations, rules, and workflows.

Status Hero founder Henry Poydar calls these a ‘communication runbook’.

A runbook is a living document that outlines how to deal with specific scenarios. In most cases, it’s used by IT or Ops teams for issues like adding a new admin account or swapping out an app server. However, you can just as easily create a runbook to help your project team understand how to handle communication issues. (Of course, the best place for a living runbook doc is in your Planio Wiki!)

So what should be in your communication runbook?

Essentially, it needs to answer one question: Do I need to be available/answer this right now?

There are several ways to answer that question (we’ll go through each more in-depth below):

  1. Create a ‘communication hierarchy’. What tools should you use for each situation?
  2. Map out where you’ll store critical information. What asynchronous communication tools will you use, and how will they help you share knowledge at scale?
  3. Set a reasonable response expectation for each communication medium. When should you expect to hear back about an email? What about a chat message?
  4. Define ‘office hours’ for synchronous communication. When do teammates need to be available for synchronous communication? And when can they be offline/asynchronous?
  5. Determine your team’s emergency contact and how to reach them. When something terrible happens, who needs to be available?

The reason most teams relapse to synchronous communication is that they haven’t set clear workflows and rules. Your runbook tells everyone how to handle scenarios and acts as a single source of truth for asynchronous communication.

3. Create a ‘hierarchy of communication’

One of the main parts of your asynchronous communication runbook will be defining when and where you’ll use each communication tool.

This ‘hierarchy’ helps you separate truly urgent situations from ones that can be handled asynchronously. It also acts as a quick ‘cheat sheet’ for your team when choosing what tool or communication style to use.

Here’s an example:

Communication style Purpose Tools
Synchronous Emergencies Text or call
Team meetings & rapport building In-person or video meetings
Semi-asynchronous 1-on-1s and team meetings (for making complex decisions) Video meetings
Questions and updates on tasks (only during specific times of the day) Chat
Asynchronous Comments and questions about designs, code, copy, etc... Task management & other collaborative tools
Company-wide announcements, updates, and everything else! Blogs, wikis, and knowledge bases
IT questions, workflows, and documentation Internal knowledge management tools

You might even include an extra column for either response expectations or ‘office hours’ so everyone knows when they need to be available.

However, the last thing you want to do is spread your team across too many tools. In Planio, you get access to everything from video meetings and real-time chat to knowledge bases, issue comments, Wikis, and blogs.

Whether you’re working synchronously, asynchronously, or some hybrid of the two, everything exists in the same place.

4. Use custom fields and checklists to avoid unnecessary communication

Custom fields are an asynchronous team’s superweapon.

Custom fields and checklists show your team what information is expected of them when they submit work, create an issue, log a bug, or give feedback. Not only does this ensure you don’t end up with vague or misleading tasks, but it also helps you avoid unnecessary interruptions when you inevitably need to ask for clarification.

For example, all issues in Planio have to have a tracker assigned and you can set these up to include the project-specific custom fields you need. Add checklists for common next steps or acceptance criteria that can be crossed off the list or added easily.

Use trackers and checklists to avoid unnecessary communication

Using trackers with set custom fields as templates helps guide your team through your expectations and empowers them to find the answers themselves rather than always reaching out and interrupting a teammate’s flow.

5. Determine your team’s ‘office hours’ for chat and email

The only way to properly balance synchronous and asynchronous communication is to have exact times set aside for both of them.

In many cases, this means having a few hours of ‘overlap’ a day where your entire team is at least available for synchronous communication, real-time meetings, and questions. The rest of the day, you can be offline or turn off notifications.

It’s essential to set these expectations, even if you don’t end up using all this time for synchronous communication. When everyone knows when they need to be available, it helps avoid the anticipatory stress of being ‘always on’.

Office hours also help remote workers in different time zones find time to handle synchronous communication. Ideally, your office hours take into account when remote working hours overlap.

Pro tip: Create a list of ‘wait time tasks’–small tasks that can be completed in a short time without deep focus. A list like this ensures you’re not just sitting around waiting for other people to get back to you.

6. Use the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model for key decisions and emergencies

What do you do if an emergency happens when your team is ‘out of office?’ Or if a stakeholder wants an update in the middle of a sprint?

Use the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model

Rather than your entire team panicking, the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) model defines a single person who will take care of or be the point of contact for every project, goal, or team.

The DRI person doesn’t do all the work. They own the work, timeline, and results and are the point of contact for any emergencies or external questions.

Not only is this great for protecting the bulk of your team from getting sucked into issues or updates, but it also helps define your decision-making process in a big way.

Think about including this in your communication runbook or at least sharing it publicly with your company.

At Planio, we've taken this a step further by establishing rotating DRI shifts where one engineering team member is available for urgent customer support issues. What's great about this is that engineers who aren't on their DRI shift can concentrate on deep work knowing they won't be interrupted by a support issue.

7. Choose tools that promote asynchronous communication and transparency

Not every communication tool promotes a healthy culture of asynchronous communication and transparency.

A purely chat-focused tool like Slack can help your team collaborate in real-time but isn’t the best option for storing and sharing information or providing context to conversations. Alternatively, an internal knowledge base tool might help you store documentation but can get outdated quickly or feel lifeless without an active element.

In Planio, we’ve created an asynchronous-first model for communication that promotes context and depth of information over non-stop chat.

It’s not the tool you’re using that controls whether your team is synchronous or asynchronous. It’s how you use it.

Projects are based around issues and tasks that can include custom information, context, files, and even integrated code repositories. Using issues to communicate means you have all the information, files, and context you need to work.

Planio Issue being used for Communication

For company announcements, workflows, or lessons learned, Planio also includes a robust knowledge management system. Choose from customizable Wikis, blogs, or knowledge base articles to store information the way your team wants.

Then, when it’s time for office hours or a synchronous meeting, stay ‘in context’ by using Planio Team Chat or Planio Meet (video calls!)

Planio Meet in use

Planio provides all the different mediums you need to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously.

BONUS: Make (almost) everything public

Lastly, asynchronous communication relies on access to information. Rather than hiding away answers and data in personal emails, make documents, decisions, and work publicly accessible accross the company by using the Wiki, issues and Planio Storage.

Getting tactical: A guide to running projects with asynchronous communication

These guidelines will give you a headstart for setting expectations and shifting your team to a more asynchronous approach. However, they can quickly fall apart during the day-to-day running of an actual project.

So how do you adapt your project management process to take advantage of asynchronous communication?

As a project manager, it’s your job to create an environment for everyone to do their best work. That means organizing tasks, projects, feedback, and meetings in the least disruptive way possible.

Here’s our quick guide to making the most of Planio’s many communication features to keep your team productive without being constantly present.

Project and Sprint Planning

Whether you have a clearly defined product backlog or a messy list of tasks, planning sprints and entire projects can be done almost entirely asynchronously.

Whether you’re using traditional or agile project management, you’ll start by creating and organizing tasks as issues. Each issue should include enough information to give your team context to get started–a full description, priority, status and sprint/milestone if you need to.

Issue containing filled out fields

When it comes to organizing these tasks into a specific sprint, you can also do this asynchronously in Planio.

Sprint planning involves your entire team. Ensure everyone has time to go through the proposed work, leave comments on individual tasks, and clarify user stories. You can even run your sprint kickoff/retrospective meetings semi-asynchronously (which we’ll get into next!)

Sprint planning view

You can also view all your tasks from a sprint in the issue list then group or organize them how you need for the perfect overview. This way, when you’re doing a sprint review, you can easily see if each requirement has been completed and confirm everything is good to go.

Kickoffs, standups, and status meetings

Meetings are one of the few parts of the project management process that require some real-time collaboration. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be much more effective with a bit of special asynchronous sauce sprinkled on top.

One great example comes from the team at Zapier, who have been running distributed, semi-asynchronous meetings for almost a decade. Here’s their process you can borrow:

  1. Start with a pre-meeting ‘health check’. This could be a shared Wiki or Planio issue with some simple questions about the sprint/milestone/topic.
    • If you’re planning a sprint: Use a template to fill out specifics: Sprint goal, scope, timeline, etc…
    • If you’re running a stand-up or status meeting: Add updates on what you’re working on, where you’re blocked, and what’s next.
  2. Ask everyone to read through updates/the project plan before the meeting. At Zapier, they block out 10 minutes at the start of each meeting to read updates in real-time. You can comment and reply during this time, but no talking.
  3. Run the meeting! Using Planio Meet, connect with your team over video and propose topics to go over based on the updates you just read.
  4. Use your KPIs as a ‘gut check’ to make sure you’re focusing on what needs to get done. Not just what you want to.
  5. After the meeting, document discussions and outcomes. Create a Wiki page for the meeting notes to share the meeting details with anyone who couldn’t attend so they can give asynchronous feedback. Even better: log individual issues for each item that is a todo or follow-up.

The semi-asynchronous process of these meetings gives you the best of both worlds. You get documented results to share and reference, as well as the ‘magic’ of real-time discussions.

Collaborating, making decisions, and staying in scope

During a project, you need to collaborate regularly to stay on track. But instead of using constant real-time communication (that interrupts your flow and productivity), you can asynchronously give updates, check-in on progress, and adjust your goals.

Velocity Chart Example

Retrospectives and lessons learned

One of the best things about being an asynchronous-first team is that you’re automatically documenting your project as you work through it.

This is invaluable information for your team and can help as you plan any future projects. However, rather than leave it scattered across issues and tasks, bring it all together in clear lessons learned.

Lessons Learned Issue Editing

Custom fields are your best friend here. You can create a tracker in Planio for gathering your lessons learned with custom fields for impact, recommendations, category, and anything else!

What you can do as a project manager to build a better culture of asynchronous communication

A culture of asynchronous communication, deep work, and meaningful collaboration will only develop when your entire team is on board. And setting expectations around how and when to communicate is everyone’s job.

But as a team leader, you have a vital role to play. As you start to introduce more asynchronous elements to your team, make sure to:

Asynchronous communication means better work, more transparency, and deeper focus.

Shifting to an ‘asynchronous-first’ mindset isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.

With every app and tool out there vying for your attention, focus is a competitive advantage. Changing your team’s mindset from reaching out first to being empowered to find the answers themselves (or wait until office hours) gives everyone more time and energy to do their best work.

But asynchronous communication only works if you’re all on board. Give your team the tools they need, set the right expectations, and then lead by example. And if you’re worried that everyone’s gone silent, don’t. That just means you’re doing it right.