The time of the pandemic meant that a lot of us had to work remotely. For me it was nothing new, because I’ve been working this way for a decade. Nevertheless, the changes were very noticeable, especially in communication methods. Lot of people decided to move to online meetings and this has become the basis for many companies. Is it good? In my opinion and based on my experience, it depends. In many cases, especially if we talk about developers, it is not a good approach. Google example of a completely different solution is Basecamp: they have been using asynchronous communication for years and the company still exists without any issues. I also tried that and have to say, it works.
Synchronous vs asynchronous
First of all, we have to talk about differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication between people. It is very similar to communication in IT work: by synchronous we mean for example online meetings. Both sides can talk to each other, can discuss in real time, ask questions, get feedback and quickly make decisions. Asynchronous is a different approach, here emails are a good example: we do not know when exactly the receiver will read our message and will decide to send a response. It is something like a “fire-and-forget” rocket. We should not be interested in immediate action. It means asynchronous communication is slower, but also gives more time to both sides for reaction.
Focus – key to productivity
If we want to be productive, we should focus on important (and sometimes urgent) things. A lot of work needs deep focus, flow to be done in the right way. There is a problem with synchronous communication: in most cases it is like an interlude, distraction. With a lot of distractions – like smartphone notifications – focus work is not possible. Why? Many studies say that you can change your focus object just for a minute, but after that you will need more than 20 minutes to focus again on your previous work. Do you write a book, but decide to make a quick call with your friend? No problem, but you will need time to focus on your book again. Every time. The same is with “divisibility of attention” – some people say that they can do that, but studies do not confirm this. We can quickly switch context, but it does not mean that there is no price for that. Price is very high: we lose our concentration and cannot resolve complex problems.
As I mentioned above, in theory synchronous meetings are better, because we can discuss issues and make decisions immediately. Unfortunately, it is only a theory and a rare case, only for very simple things. If we have to consider more complex topics, like software architecture, business dependencies, impact of the change on the current state, we will need more time. In such scenarios, I often had planned meetings just to ask me some questions. It was not possible to answer them immediately, I had to check some things, gather more information and then prepare possible solutions and… plan a second meeting for that. The question here is: do we want to resolve issues, create something amazing, or just spend more and more time on meetings?
In effect, such meetings only created chaos and destroyed focus – imagine you have just one such meeting in the middle of the day. It will probably block you from completing some things before, and also you will have to spend more time after meeting to go back to your work. Better option here is asynchronous communication, definitely. First side can prepare questions, check them deeply and send them to the receiver. Then the second side will have more time to check them, prepare all required things and… no, not make a meeting, but also send info to the first side. Additional advantage: both sides can reserve some time to handle received items. We should not interrupt our current work and do new things immediately, because then we will lose all benefits.
Wrong approach to email
Different matter is email and how we think about that service. I remember that many years ago, before I worked on really interesting things, I liked browser extensions or desktop apps to check my email accounts and notify me about new messages. It was like an addiction, similar to the current situation with ex. likes on social media. New message = new notification = a bit of dopamine. Right now I do not use any desktop email client, and do not have notifications on mobile. It allowed me to resolve one issue, but second is how other people handle their emails. Some people are able to send email and… actively wait for an answer. If they do not receive an answer in a few minutes, they will use different communication channels to ask about the message. It is completely crazy – if you have urgent things to handle, do not use emails, simple.
Wrong approach to chats
Chats are similar, really. I remember times, when in Poland we used a local messaging app called “Gadu-Gadu”, it was in my school days and we used them only on computers because there were no smartphones. It was simple, because there was a clear “activity status” and we knew, when our friends were online. When smartphones started to be popular and developers created next and next messaging apps, things started to change. Right now, I often see people who think that chat should be synchronous. If I write to you, you should read that and respond as soon as possible. The question is: why? Who decided that? Did we sign any contract related to that? I really do not remember anything like that, so it is a bit strange for me. Such an approach can only bring a lot of frustration, especially for the sender: such a person will wait and lose a lot of time. Again, if things are super important and urgent (remember, most things are not!), just call, not write, because you do not know what the other side is doing at the same time.
Even if you are “in the middle of a discussion”, you should not expect immediate answers. I know some very impatient people, they can send you messages and after a few minutes send… question marks, or “hello?” or something similar. It is also crazy and please – if you do something like that, stop right now. You will not make any friends with such an approach. It is much better to treat chats, apps like Slack, Discord, Teams or even messaging apps like Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal etc. as an asynchronous tool. More comfortable, but still asynchronous. Remember, that second side can just disable notifications for such apps or not use them – for example I do not use any messaging app on my phone, only calls and standard text messages (sms).
When synchronous communication is better
Ok I wrote a lot about situations when synchronous communication is bad, but… we are people and synchronous communication is part of our life, so probably it also has advantages. Yes, definitely. It is the best choice if we want to collaborate, do the same thing at the same time. Real use-cases: product manager can work together with designer to create new layout or two architects can plan database schema and discuss required fields. In these scenarios real time discussion will be much better. Conclusion: use it when you want to work together, not to ask about very complex things, because probably it will require more time, more focus and some data gathering.
Also remember that not all people can handle asynchronous communication in a good way: it is not only a skill issue, but our personality. I think asynchronous with more focus time is better for introverts, and more direct communication will be better for extraverts. The key is to find the golden mean: we work in teams, so not only our product is important, but also our relations inside the team. If we forget about that, then we will work only asynchronously: alone, and it will be not fun.