Asynchronous collaboration refers to teams advancing a project without communicating in real-time. They may send emails that will be read later by the recipients, not immediately, for example. That contrasts with synchronous collaboration, which involves meetings (in-person or virtual), conference calls, instant messaging or any other setting where information is exchanged in the moment.

Why is this distinction suddenly so important? In a word: COVID-19. Synchronous collaboration happens organically when people cluster in offices, but in the pandemic era, with millions of professionals working remotely, it only happens with advance planning — or not at all.

That’s been a culture shock for many managers, and your team may have suffered if you’ve tried to maintain a synchronous routine in an asynchronous world. That means practices like bombarding staff with instant messages you expect them to get right back to you on or scheduling video calls that fall outside of work hours for people in other time zones.

It's time to sideline these habits and embrace the power of asynchronous collaboration. Here are some of the advantages of this way of working, plus tips for finding the right balance between real-time and delayed communications.

Advantages of asynchronous collaboration

Professionals have long appreciated the advantages of working asynchronously. The invention of email, for example, made it easy to communicate with colleagues in different time zones.

But asynchronous collaboration isn't just a fallback option for when real-time communication is impossible or impracticable. Sometimes it's the best option, period. It can, for example:

  • Reduce stress — Technology makes it possible for employees to be "always on," but often at a cost to their work-life balance, productivity and morale. Your asynchronous collaboration culture should reward quality work over availability, incentivizing workers to take the downtime they need to maintain their sharpness.
  • Boost productivity — Most people have a daily window of two to three hours when they're highly productive and do their best work. In an asynchronous-friendly culture, workers feel free to schedule these "deep work" periods, and colleagues know not to distract them. Freed from the need to constantly multitask, workers make quick progress on their core projects and carve out more time in the day for real-time collaboration with colleagues who need their support — a win-win for productivity and team camaraderie.
  • Broaden participation — Some workers thrive during real-time collaboration, leading managers to underestimate the value of those who don't. Introverts, in particular, may hold back during meetings and instant messaging exchanges but shine when delayed responses are not only allowed but encouraged. And because it emphasizes writing over speaking, asynchronous collaboration also empowers people who write clear, unambiguous prose — a valuable skill all team members should hone.
  • Attract talent — Reducing your reliance on real-time communication allows you to recruit workers from different time zones and also those nearer who prioritize flexible schedules and the freedom to set their own hours — perks that align seamlessly with a culture of asynchronous collaboration.

5 tips for mastering this approach

Cloud-based platforms like Google Drive and Microsoft Teams have erased many of the practical barriers to asynchronous collaboration, but you can’t change your work culture through tech tools alone. Here are some simple ways to help your people develop an asynchronous mindset.

1. Build an accessible knowledge base

Help your team spend more time on deep work by reducing their time on “shallow work.” In many organizations, workers waste time chasing information they should have access to by default. If a software developer logging in for their evening shift needs permission to view a document and can’t get it until the following morning, your asynchronous collaboration culture has failed. Give everyone on your team easy and transparent access to whatever they need and repeat this process when onboarding new hires.

2. Empower workers to define their availability

Most people don’t think twice before clicking the “Yes” button when invited to a meeting by their boss. Tell your team that “Optional” really does mean optional from now on. Let them decide whether they will add value to a meeting or real-time chat session by attending.

3. Make your synchronous communications count

Not every meeting could have been an email. Regular team huddles are a chance to bounce ideas around, lift team morale during tough times and praise high-performing individuals in public. Use collaboration tools like online whiteboards, which can be updated in real-time during a meeting and then expanded on asynchronously by attendees and non-attendees alike. Share the meeting notes quickly and widely so that non-attendees can catch up with any insights or decisions in their own time.

4. Define a process for urgent issues

Emergencies happen. Therefore, every asynchronous collaboration workflow needs a process whereby urgent problems are quickly escalated to people who can solve them in real-time. For example, you could have an instant messaging channel strictly reserved for emergencies. Workers can then turn off notifications for every channel except that one.

5. Don’t forget email!

Used wisely, email remains a highly effective tool for asynchronous communication. It’s particularly good for announcements that are too important for instant messaging — a change in the company’s benefits policy, for example — but don’t merit interrupting peoples’ workdays for a real-time discussion. Keep emails short, unambiguous and with a subject line that makes it clear what the message is about.

If the early stages of the pandemic were about letting people choose where they work, the next phase will focus more closely on the when. Top performers increasingly want the freedom to set their own hours, while employers still need them to be productive and engaged. With an asynchronous collaboration culture, both goals are achievable.