This article was first published on 12 May 2020 and has been updated with additional reporting.
The idea of remote work is not new. Nevertheless, COVID-19 and Singapore’s Circuit Breaker measures did accelerate the trend, giving businesses and employees a glimpse of how working from home can be like.
As much as we have struggled with strict safe distancing measures, 2020 has also opened our eyes to the benefits of remote work.
Many employees were tasked to work from home for the first time. As they did, many also realised that some meetings were unnecessary, and could have been emails or easily conducted online. Communications didn’t necessarily grind to a halt with technology able to keep everyone connected.
Perks didn’t just extend to work-related efficiencies. Many employees also enjoyed more nutritious home-cooked lunches, saved time on commuting and even got to spend more time with their children and keep fit by jogging after “office hours”.
If times were better, we’d even say that remote work has improved business productivity (for certain functions) and people’s lives.
For businesses considering to keep remote work (once this is all over), have you ever wondered why working from home is more productive? It’s not just the hours saved on commuting, the lack of office distractions or better quality of life it gives employees that have led to productivity boosts. Instead, one main reason is due to asynchronous communication, or simply non-instantaneous communication.
With synchronous communication, you respond immediately. That’s pretty much what is adopted in offices today. But with asynchronous communication, employees are given the time and space to respond.
Asynchronous communication is one of Automattic’s best practices. For those who don’t know, Automattic is the company that owns WordPress and has been operating remotely for more than 13 years now. Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of Automattic, describes: “When you ask a question in DM, do not expect that person to respond immediately, and ask your question upfront. Never write “got a sec?” and let it hang there.”
So, how does asynchronous communication make work better?
#1 More Time For Deep Work
Real-time communication is easy and accessible, so much so that it’s what modern workflows rely on. If your colleague needs something from you, he or she swings by your work desk for it. Even when it could have easily been done via a message.
But such interruptions have a productivity cost. It distracts us and pulls us out of our workflow. For most of us, work requires deep focus, such as writing, coding, or problem-solving. It takes some time for workers to get into the flow and having such disruptions prevent the brain from fully engaging the task at hand. Getting the brain to refocus after the interruptions also takes time, causing a dip in productivity.
Asynchronous communication, however, prizes long-term productivity over convenience. It gives employees longer periods to get stuff done. When we work from home, it eliminates disruptions like chatty colleagues, the noise from open-plan offices or the pressure to step away from work to join colleagues for lunch.
To apply this concept of asynchronous communication to your team, set expectations that it’s okay not to respond immediately to messages so your teammates can focus on their work unless it’s urgent and important. If you can communicate these requirements well, your team can ultimately benefit from having more time for deep work.
#2 Greater Control Over Workday
Being at our desk gives off the impression that we can be whisked away anytime by our colleagues or employees. At a managerial level, it’s common for your subordinates to pop by uninvited to talk to you. As much as it wreaks havoc on our schedules, you find it hard to say no.
Having a lack of control over your schedule can create stress; especially when your goals for the day are uncompleted. Such stress causes lower productivity, in turn potentially affects performance. Some of us might even attempt to work faster or longer in hopes of making up for lost time, but this only creates further anxiety and stress.
With remote work and asynchronous communication, you get to avoid all these pesky situations. Working from home is comfortable and convenient, you get greater autonomy over your schedules.
With asynchronous communication, people get to build their work around their life, not the other way around. Everyone benefits from being able to structure their days to maximise happiness and productivity, creating a sense of satisfaction at work that can’t be replicated with instantaneous communication.
Remote work also forces us to do thoughtful communication and have respect for each other’s time. It’s easy to turn around to speak to your colleague, but the inertia is much higher when we want to send a message online. With asynchronous communication, it forces us to consider if the reason for communication is urgent and think twice before we disrupt someone’s workflow.
#3 Higher Quality Responses
When companies choose synchronous communication, the speed of response is valued over its quality. Having your colleagues respond in real-time is preferred, even if the reply lacks much depth. With that as the default for the longest time, no one questions the flaws inherent in this system.
But when we prioritise asynchronous communication, employees get to have time before responding. Instead of feeling pressurised to throw out an answer immediately, you get the time to process the information, formulate ideas and construct a thoughtful and clear response.
While communication is now delayed, the trade-off we get is useful feedback and higher quality responses, compared to our employee’s first knee-jerk response. Such a compromise might not be that bad at all, considering that most of our interactions with teammates are hardly urgent.
Responses might even be more honest. When presented with a tough question, we might be inclined to respond with what is seemingly the right answer, instead of what we truly think. Perhaps you were clearly occupied with a task when your colleague asks your feedback on their project. We all have been guilty of giving half-hearted replies when we are busy, but if the pressure to reply immediately is removed, we have more time to consider our thoughts before crafting a genuine reply.
Re-Thinking Instantaneous Communication
Not all of us will be ready to adopt remote work as soon as office restrictions are removed. But a key takeaway from this remote work experiment is that asynchronous communication can lead to more productive and happier employees.
When used correctly, asynchronous communication can improve your team’s workflow and satisfaction. Knowing the right balance of both can help your company side-step issues with instantaneous communication but benefit from asynchronous communication.
In the current working environment, the government is also pouring resources into helping businesses onboard digital tools to facilitate remote work. Business can tap these online collaboration tools available on G Suite – Gmail Business email, real-time collaboration on Google Docs, Sheets and Slides across devices, Google Chat for team messaging, Google Meet for enterprise-grade video conferencing, Google Drive, security and management and more.
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