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In 2020 Dictionary.com’s word of the year was “pandemic.” Since then, a few interesting work-related trends have enjoyed honorable mentions on the annual list — like “Zoom” in 2020, “great resignation” in 2021 and “quiet quitting” in 2022.
One term that has largely failed to enter the popular lexicon, despite the macro trends that should have propelled it into everyday vocabulary, is “asynchronous.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the term — which, evidently, many still are — Dictionary.com defines the adjective as “not occurring at the same time.”
Examples of asynchronous communication are everywhere, especially in the workplace, since the widespread transition to remote and hybrid work. Sending an email now that will be read later is an example of asynchronous communication. The same is true of voicemail, video messages, internal memos, podcasts and more.
In an increasingly remote and global workforce, many organizations and individuals would benefit from honing their asynchronous communication skills, as it enables better collaboration across physical workspaces and time zones. It’s the more practical alternative to late-night meetings with foreign markets or early morning all-hands with the CEO based a few time zones over.
Considering the mass transition to remote work in early 2020 and the ongoing globalization of work, one would think “asynchronous” would have been worthy of at least an honorable mention by this point, yet most remain unfamiliar with the term.
I believe there are two reasons why asynchronous collaboration hasn’t caught on in a meaningful way, at least not yet:
1. It is hard to offer context when communicating across time.
That is especially true with traditional asynchronous communication tools like Slack and email, which lack those subtle yet context-rich cues like vocal tone, facial expression and hand gestures. As a result, senders can’t help but fear the message won’t be received as intended.
2. It is hard to trust that the recipient will not only understand the message but respond promptly.
For example, if I schedule a live meeting for 10 a.m. tomorrow to get an update on our marketing strategy, I know that I will have the information I’m seeking by the end of the meeting. If I send a note with questions about our marketing strategy, however, I can’t be sure exactly when I will get the information I need to move forward, making it hard to plan accordingly.
The first problem is already well on its way to being solved. Today, tools like Bubbles can add context to asynchronous communications by allowing users to quickly and easily share videos accompanied by screen recordings, automatically generated transcripts, annotations and more.
The second problem remains unresolved, and I don’t believe asynchronous communication will achieve its potential until it is. As it currently stands, tools like Slack and email let you send asynchronous messages, but they don’t do a great job of helping you keep track of reminders, to-do lists and workflows. Instead, it is up to the individual to stay on top of what items they’ve requested from whom and when. They also need to determine how and when a follow-up “nudge” is appropriate, and they still likely won’t feel as confident that they will get the information they need when they need it as they would with real-time verbal confirmation.
This problem of not knowing if or when you’ll get a response ultimately keeps real-time interactions like in-person meetings and video conferences preferable to asynchronous communications — even in situations where some participants need to stay up late, wake up early or log on during their downtime.
I believe, however, that if participants could engage in asynchronous communications that are both context-rich and ensure the necessary follow-up actions are taken on a mutually agreeable timeline, they would feel more confident using them when appropriate. In the long run, incorporating more asynchronous communications would enable a more efficient, reliable and flexible working culture, especially in our increasingly remote and global workplace.
In the coming months, my company, Bubbles, will work towards solving this specific challenge. We hope that by this time next year, asynchronous becomes such a standard part of our everyday lexicon that it finds its rightful place among the words of the year.