Most people are accustomed to synchronous communication when working in an office. When they have a question, they could simply turn to a co-worker for a face-to-face conversation to get answers in real time. But the COVID-19 pandemic turned communications on its head as remote work forced employees to rely on video, chat, email and written documentation in our business workflows.
As remote work continues and organizations explore hybrid workplace setups, employee expectations around communication and the tools to facilitate collaboration have changed. In the book Effective Remote Work, published by The Pragmatic Programmers, author James Stanier explores common remote work pain points and offers best practices for individuals and teams, from a proper home office setup to remote team management.
In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Effective Remote Work, Stanier discusses the spectrum of synchronous and asynchronous communication, where communication tools fall on the spectrum and how to adjust to asynchronous communications for remote work.
The Spectrum of Synchronousness
On a typical workday, we communicate with each other in a dazzling variety of ways. We may use email, chat, video calls, pull requests, code, wikis, or recorded video. As you saw in our opening narrative, a particular format may carry with it certain expectations, advantages, limitations, and implications for the human being at the other end. No wonder it's easy to make mistakes and get frustrated while we work on complicated things.
What we really need to communicate better is a model, so we can make informed decisions about the time, location, and format that we use based on exactly what it is we're trying to communicate. This sounds complicated, but stick with us here; it's simpler than you think.
This is because our model is nothing more than a straight line with arrows at both ends. On the left of the line, is a label for synchronous communication. On the right of the line is a label for asynchronous. Then we plot on the spectrum the different ways in which you may communicate in a given day, as shown in the following diagram.
As you can see, one form of communication usually isn't uniquely synchronous or asynchronous. Often, it's somewhere in-between. Let's walk through each of the communication methods in the diagram:
- Video calls or face-to-face chats are completely synchronous. Everybody involved needs to be present at a specific time because the communication is typically happening via each individual's voice and body language.
- Chat is a written medium and is therefore less synchronous than a video call because it can be read later. However, information has a short half-life because a chat implicitly carries a temporal dependency. Are you catching up on a chat from a few hours ago? Sure, that probably makes sense. But are you reading through a chat from two months ago? It's probably now mostly irrelevant. You had to be there at the time.
- Recorded video can be viewed later and requires more preparation than a chat. But it usually serves as a mechanism to catch up on a missed meeting or as a way to more effectively present something visual rather than a long-term archival format. A recording of a meeting from a few weeks ago or a video updating everyone on the progress of an initiative probably won't be referred to repeatedly. Video also can't be indexed and searched.
- Email is where we start producing more permanent asynchronous artifacts. Email by nature is archival and searchable and is often used for important communications such as delivering an employment contract or confirming that a payment has been set up. Some people reply to email quickly, but some take many days to reply. However, that is to be expected.
- Written documents require some effort to produce and can be used as the cornerstone of a project or proposal. Typically, a well-written document can last forever. Most online document software allows collaborative editing and commenting, making this a compelling format for developing ideas.
- Wikis and README files are completely asynchronous and typically have no interaction between the author and the readers. If they are well-maintained, they can last, and be useful, indefinitely.
Now that we've listed them, you may be coming to terms with just how many choices we have to navigate when wishing to communicate. Briefly pause and reflect on your own experience in the following exercise. When you're done, we'll consider what approach to take to better support remote work.
Your Turn: Categorize Your Communications
You communicate in many different ways during a typical week. But it's likely that you do so mostly without thinking. So let's think about it:
- Using the different forms of communication in the previously described spectrum, work out what percentage of your time you spend on each of them during a typical week. Do you use specific methods for specific people or teams? If so, why?
- Which of the types of communication do you find the most fulfilling, and which do you find the most frustrating? Do you prefer speaking or writing to get your message across? Are you a strong speaker but a weak writer, or vice versa?
- For the mediums that you find frustrating, think about why that is. Is it because there's a mismatch between your preferred mediums and those of others? Or is it because you feel that those methods aren't being used correctly?
When we work together in an office, convenience and habit typically mean that we spend a lot of time on the left side of the spectrum: synchronousness. After all, when your colleagues are just across the room from your desk, it's natural to stand up and walk over to have a conversation in the moment.
When working remotely, we lose the ability to do this. But should this be a cause for concern? After all, engineers know that it's a pain to be interrupted midthought because the complex internal representation of a computer program in their brain immediately evaporates into thin air when somebody asks, "Have you got a minute?"
Additionally, a bias toward in-person interaction leaves out anybody who isn't physically there. One could argue that it isn't suitable for any company that has multiple offices because it severely limits the collaboration that can take place across multiple locations. And if everybody is remote, you have as many locations as you have people.
If you've worked in a large company, you've probably already seen the effects of synchronous communication as the default:
- Individuals are typically physically seated with their teams in the same office.
- Teams that collaborate frequently are often located in the same physical location.
- The weakest bonds among different parts of the organization often occur when there is a geographical divide among them.
Colocation can have a tangible and inconvenient effect on the software being created. Conway's Law, as discussed in the book The Mythical Man-Month [Bro95], states that any organization that designs a system will produce a design whose structure mirrors the organization's communication structure. It follows that when companies expand into different locations that opening an office and hiring new engineers might be an implicit design choice in how that company architects its software.
They just might not know it yet.
Changing Your Mindset for Remote Work
To fully embrace remote work, we need to shift our mindset and habits to the right of the spectrum. Instead of choosing the convenient option, we need to choose to communicate in a way that enables an equal level of contribution from anyone, regardless of where they are located in the world.
We need to shift right.
That's the habit that you need to promote within yourself and with your colleagues. Every time you communicate, can you purposefully shift further right along the spectrum?
For example, could you
- Turn a face-to-face conversation into an exchange in the team's chat channel, or even create an ephemeral chat channel around the topic? This way, more people have the opportunity to overhear what's being said and contribute to the discussion.
- Record a video call so that those who are unable to make it, or those who didn't know it was happening, are able to watch it later?
- Decide to stop a long chat exchange so that it can be written more thoughtfully and purposefully in an email?
- Take an email thread that is proposing an idea and turn it into a more detailed written document so that it can be read more easily in its entirety and then circulated for comment and consensus?
- Extract an agreed-upon design in a written document and turn it into a permanent wiki page that serves as the cornerstone of a whole project?
Every single interaction could be an opportunity to shift right, and by doing so you are having much more of a dramatic impact than you may think. Why is that?
It's because you're making your workplace more remote friendly. No more invisible exchanges in the corridor. You're giving more people the opportunity to discover what's going on and then have a route to contribute to the conversation. You're breaking down geographical silos and fighting the tide against Conway's Law.
All it takes is a shift right.