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The pandemic thrust office workers into back-to-back meetings, all day long—on a variety of video-conferencing platforms. Thankfully, these platforms replaced in-person conversations so that business could continue. At the time, there was no opportunity to think about how moving from in-person to remote work should change the nature of communication. 

However, now we know hybrid and remote work environments are here to stay. So it’s time to recognize that treating communication in remote teams as if we were still working in the same physical space is wildly inefficient. These inefficiencies are hijacking the ability of your team members to do their best work, and they are damaging  your company’s bottom line.

If you haven’t retooled your company communications since COVID, you’re overdue. Remote work requires new strategies for communication.  

 

Types Of Corporate Communication

Before we can dive into what type of communication is best for your organization and why, it’s important to define three main categories of corporate communication:

 

Unplanned Synchronous Communication

A corporate team

Synchronous communication happens when two or more parties engage in real-time conversation. 

Synchronous communication can be planned or unplanned, and the difference is important.

Before the pandemic, unplanned synchronous communication was quite common, and was even hailed by Steve Jobs as the type of communication that leads to innovation. Unplanned synchronous communication used to look like walking by a colleague’s desk and suddenly remembering that you’re waiting to receive that person’s feedback on a set of requirements you created. So you’d say, “Hey, did you see the email I sent?” and a conversation would begin.

Or, if you had a team of direct reports, your team members would frequently poke their heads into your office when they needed some help from you.  

After teams dispersed geographically, this type of unplanned synchronous communication continues, though the spontaneous interruptions and questions typically take place via chat or text.

 

Planned Synchronous Communication

a virtual corporate training session

 

Planned synchronous communication happens when two or more parties set an agreed upon time to have a discussion, ideally about a predetermined topic. Absent a pandemic, this takes the form of in-person meetings. People who don’t really need to attend are often invited to keep them “in the loop,” and often, there’s no real agenda, so meetings end up wasting too much time.

Since the start of COVID, we have transferred some or all of our meetings to video conferences, but too often, the same lax rules apply. We often invite too many people and fail to create or stick to an agenda. And worse, when we aren’t in the same physical space, often attendees are multitasking on their multiple monitors and are only partially present.

 

Asynchronous Communication

worker at conference table checks email on computer

Asynchronous communication is any form of conveying ideas that does not happen in real-time. Examples include:

  • Recording a voice memo and texting it to a colleague.
  • Making an informational screencast and sharing it via your team communication platform.
  • Producing a draft video and allowing viewers to click on the video to leave feedback for the creator.

Email is an asynchronous communication method that is too often treated as synchronous. We dash off a message and await a response within a few minutes or less. This is a serious drag on focus and productivity. In companies that expect people to respond instantly to important emails, workers have no choice but to continuously scan their emails. In doing so, their ability to focus deeply on their most important work is hijacked.

But the beauty of asynchronous communication, when done correctly, is that it allows each worker to complete tasks and communicate at the most convenient—and efficient—time. 

 

Why Companies Leaned Toward Synchronous

a productive team works together in the office

Before the pandemic, much of office communication was either planned or unplanned synchronous communication. There were two main reasons for this.

Synchronous communication pushes authority to the top.

When a manager is sitting close by, a direct report will often take the opportunity to check in with the manager for approval. After all, by securing the consent of the manager, the direct report can dodge responsibility if something goes wrong. (“The boss said it was ok.”)

As a result of this practice, managers are constantly interrupted by direct reports who want them to sign off on decisions large and small. In an effort to be “helpful,” the managers assume that it’s their job to make the final decisions or deliver the approval that their direct reports are requesting.

 

Most information isn’t readily accessible.

The other reason that synchronous information is the fallback for most organizations is because the information that knowledge workers need to complete their tasks is often held by someone else in the organization. 

If an analyst is working on a presentation about Q4 projections, there likely isn’t a convenient place to store and retrieve each of four salesperson’s numbers. So it seems the most convenient thing for the analyst to do is to send an email, addressed to the four salespeople, asking them to reply. Many will reply-all.

Worse, the email question is likely to spur additional questions, discussions, and excuses, exponentially increasing the volume of communication for each salesperson, as well as the analyst. This time spent on extraneous communications is time that the salespeople could otherwise spend selling. 

Also, in many organizations, the “knowledge bank” lives in a particular person’s head. For example, let’s say a company makes an app. A new employee discovers a bug in the app. The employee can’t continue with his work until the bug is fixed.

However, there is no written procedure for how to issue a change request to the IT department. The new employee needs to ask someone in IT how to submit the change request, and the IT worker answers the question based on their own institutional knowledge, which may have morphed a bit from the original directive. 

Over time, this one small inefficiency is repeated because the procedure is not written down and not accessible to everyone in the company.

These are just two examples with a small subset of employees. But they illustrate the productivity drain that decentralized, inaccessible information causes an organization. 

 

What’s Wrong With The Status Quo?

a man looks at phone, computer and tablet at same time

Synchronous communication—especially unplanned synchronous communication—by definition creates a distraction or interruption for at least two people. These constant interruptions prevent team members from being thoughtful about their work. In fact, after training thousands of teams in the past two decades, I can tell you that distractions are the most overlooked business challenge, likely costing your company millions.

It’s time to get intentional about the most efficient ways to communicate in a given circumstance—planned synchronous, unplanned synchronous, or asynchronous. Asynchronous communication is often the most efficient, and the most under-used option. Without it, distraction dominates your culture, sabotaging your team members’ ability to apply themselves fully in an undistracted way, and preventing them from unleashing their genius in service of achieving their most significant results.

 

5 Ways To Increase the Efficiency and Decrease the Volume of  Communication

Considering how you communicate personally and how communication flows through your organization can pay big dividends in terms of productivity gains. Here are steps you can take to get started:

 

1. Take the initiative.

Think twice before reaching out for a “quick question,” especially if you’re considering more than one recipient. You may inadvertently create a thread that quickly gets out of control. Are there any other ways for you to get the information you need without asking someone else? If not, can you move forward without the information you need right now and add it later?

 

2. Ask questions efficiently.

If you really need to ask someone else, consider an asynchronous message, like via email, which people can (at least in theory) answer at their convenience. If you ask the same question via chat, you’re more likely to create a distracting notification and communicate a sense of urgency which may not reflect the reality of the situation. 

When you ask a question, be specific as to when you need the information. Avoid phrases like “whenever you get a chance” or “as soon as you can,” as these make it hard for colleagues to prioritize. “By the end of the day” or “Thursday afternoon” are better examples.

 

3. Minimize meeting frequency and duration.

Think first about standing team meetings. If any part of this agenda is dedicated to status updates, can you track the project status somewhere else for people to review whenever they need it? If so, you can dedicate that meeting time to problem-solving and more efficient group activities, rather than just “bringing everyone up to speed.”

 

4. Identify and encourage asynchronous forms of communication.

If you bring people together to collect opinions, consider using survey tools instead of simply asking for feedback in a synchronous meeting. Or else share a document and invite colleagues to comment on the document. If you feel like a synchronous conversation is necessary because you need to “say it” instead of “write it,” consider making a voice recording on your phone, or making a recording of you narrating what’s on your computer screen (via Teams).

Any of these options can then be posted to a channel or sent via email, with a request to respond by a certain date. This asynchronous way of communicating frees up time, and gives everyone more control over their days, by minimizing both meeting time and unplanned interruptions.

 

5. Clearly define roles and decision-making authority.

If team members too often “run things by” the leader, it centralizes decision-making, creates bottlenecks, and unnecessarily increases the volume of communication. Sometimes it seems convenient to “just ask a quick question,” but think twice. The example of the analyst above shows how “quick questions” often aren’t “quick” at all, and create extra work for others. Get clear on the responsibilities of your job, and take the initiative to find answers on your own.

If you’re a leader, start using the phrase, “I trust your judgment.” This will make your team members feel more comfortable to take responsibility and make independent decisions. It will also minimize interruptions and decrease the volume of communication. Ensure that each member of your team understands their responsibilities, and crucially, their decision-making authority. What can and can’t they sign off on without your input? 

 

It’s Time For A Thoughtful Transition

Synchronous communication is important for team collaboration. But when it creates back-to-back meetings all day long, something’s got to change.

When individuals and leaders embrace more efficient methods of communicating and are thoughtful about the right approach, everyone has more time to move important work forward. This keeps projects on track and returns back to team members a feeling of control over their days.

The hybrid and remote workplaces are here to stay–at least for the foreseeable future. We all need to start thinking about how our communication affects others. And it’s time for leaders to consciously reflect on how their teams communicate. Taking steps to communicate more thoughtfully and efficiently will reduce distractions and inefficiencies, increase productivity, and shore up your bottom line.

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