Going Asynch

A work culture dominated by synchronous communications norms is suboptimal

There are a lot of essays that suggest that work chat tools — like Slack, Teams, or the like — are eating up huge amounts of time and mental energy. I like Jason Fried’s line:

Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

Rather than repeat the many, many, many observations about how synchronous communications — and the cultural shifts that come from adopting synch comms as the default (or required) mode of communications — are screwing us up, I’ll just share two pieces.

In Collaborative Overload, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant discuss their research on collaboration in the workplace:

Research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

But this “escalating citizenship,” as the University of Oklahoma professor Mark Bolino calls it, only further fuels the demands placed on top collaborators. We find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies. In fact, when we use network analysis to identify the strongest collaborators in organizations, leaders are typically surprised by at least half the names on their lists. In our quest to reap the rewards of collaboration, we have inadvertently created open markets for it without recognizing the costs.

So, the world is lopsided. A small proportion of people — 3% to 5% — are the source of much of the collaborative bang in any business. Logically we should protect their time so that they can make the most important contributions. The demands of a synchronous communications culture — where all are expected to respond to requests nearly instantaneously— will lead to the strongest collaborators burning out and disengaging.

The authors continue:

In studying employees at one Fortune 500 technology company, we found that although 60% wanted to spend less time responding to ad hoc collaboration requests, 40% wanted to spend more time training, coaching, and mentoring. After their contributions were shifted to those activities, employees were less prone to stress and disengagement.

To stem the tide of incoming requests, help seekers, too, must change their behavior. Resetting norms regarding when and how to initiate e-mail requests or meeting invitations can free up a great deal of wasted time. As a step in this direction, managers at Dropbox eliminated all recurring meetings for a two-week period. That forced employees to reassess the necessity of those gatherings and, after the hiatus, helped them become more vigilant about their calendars and making sure each meeting had an owner and an agenda. Rebecca Hinds and Bob Sutton, of Stanford, found that although the company tripled the number of employees at its headquarters over the next two years, its meetings were shorter and more productive.

Note that meetings are another form of synchronous communications, and even more demanding than Slack chat.

John Lacy discusses the negative impacts experienced in his PR/Marketing agency following the wholesale shift to remote work, and the increasing use of communications like email, Slack, and Zoom as though those media demanded synchronous response. This led to the fracturing of time so that deep work wasn't getting done, nibbled away by meetings and implicit demands for immediate response to all messages:

New Roles and New Rules

Once we had identified these issues, we began collaborating as a team to solve them. We ultimately settled on the following two-pronged approach:

  • We set new rules for communication. We defined a specific role for each of our communication tools. Slack and email, as well as our project management tool, Teamwork, would be used exclusively for asynchronous communication. A same-day or next-morning response would always be sufficient for these channels, and no one should expect a response sooner than that. If a manager needed a response within an hour or two, they were to send a text. If they needed an immediate response, they were to pick up the phone and call. No exceptions.

  • We divided our company’s workday into manager Hours and maker Hours. To empower our makers to get into the zone and stay there, we officially split the day into two parts: mornings would be maker Hours and afternoons would be manager Hours. This meant that managers were to only schedule Zoom meetings with makers after lunch. After a couple of months, we listened to feedback from our team and decided to shorten the morning maker time block slightly and to add a second, shorter block in the late afternoon. makers currently have a 150-minute uninterrupted time block in the morning and a 90-minute one in the afternoon.

Lacy’s approach is smart, but most importantly it explicitly identifies the synchronous communications trap as the root cause of attention fragmentation, not Slack, per se.

I have avoided meetings and calls in the morning hours for years, and for exactly the same reasoning: I need unbroken time for maker hours.

My suggestion is that the Lacy model, or something like it, is essential to avoid the collaborative overload that Cross and his fellow researchers warn us about.