Have you ever been in a meeting where the thought crossed your mind that “this meeting should have been an email.”
There are plenty of meetings that fit that description. So many in fact that a cottage industry has grown up offering swag to celebrate the fact. (This is an affiliate link. Since I didn’t come up with the idea of putting a snide comment on a coffee mug, I thought why not get something out of pointing everyone else to it.)
But in order for an email to effectively replace a meeting, people actually have to read and pay attention to the email you send out. Just like you’re reading and paying attention to this email right now.
The Communication Conundrum
This is a small part of the bigger communication conundrum that product people face. A key part of your job is interacting with several different people both inside and outside your organization.
There are a variety of effective ways that you can interact with all of those different people including talking to them face to face (live or virtually), email, chat tools such as Slack, or longer-form writing.
Each mechanism works great for some circumstances and is absolutely horrible for others.
Let’s take a look at a few “hypothetical” examples. I’ll let you decide if they were a proper use of the communication mechanism in question
- The introductory meeting about a new product that went from a conversation between a couple of people to a meeting with about 30 attendees.
- The developer that asked at least twice in the same conversation for the information contained in a backlog item that they were currently working on.
- The manager who yelled at their staff about not knowing what was going on a few minutes after pointing out they didn’t read the team’s updates. This manager also complained about having too many meetings and not wanting people to work remotely.
- The 30 message email chain full of questions and nonsequiturs
- The email follow-up to the Slack message sent 20 minutes before.
As I said, these examples are all “hypothetical.”
How can we improve communication?
Of course, I didn’t need to provide these examples to convince you that communication is broken. You probably already know that and have experienced situations similar to the ones above.
You’d like some fixes, some solutions. The one cure-all to fix all your communication ails.
You and me both.
There isn’t a silver bullet. But there are some things you can do to improve your communication issues.
It requires an appreciation of context, a lot of patience, and knowing when to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication.
To demonstrate why you need to appreciate context and have patience, take a look at this response from Adrian Howard to my question about replacing meetings with email:
Spend months repeatedly proving that you send useful relevant emails, reminding folk in other contexts that there is useful stuff in email X or that was covered in email Y, working to make sure that the emails that should have been other things sent by everybody else become meetings or whatever to start removing the fluff from everybody’s inbox, building context and indicators for “useful” emails (certain mailing lists, subject prefixes, etc.) if I cannot remove the “noise” in the orgs general email feed, etc. etc.
All this stuff “kinda” helped — but it’s hard coz there is rarely any organisational culture around doing email “right”, and people’s inboxes usually get streams of chaff that they mostly have to ignore, and breaking that habit is hard :-)”
Synchronous and asynchronous communication
Synchronous communication is real-time communication when people talk or exchange messages at the same time. A face to face conversation, phone call, or zoom chat are examples of synchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is when people communicate with each other without being engaged in the communication at the same exact moment in time. Exchanging email messages, commenting on a Google Doc, or (despite how some people act) exchanging chat messages in Slack are examples of asynchronous communication.
When used properly, asynchronous communication can greatly aid the effectiveness of communication, but you need to use it at the right time, and you’ll need the patience to help everyone else know when to use it as well.
An example of asynchronous communication
Here’s your chance to have a say in what Inside Product covers and to practice asynchronous feedback.
Please go to the contact page and let me know your thoughts on the following:
- Where do you work?
- What’s your role?
- What product do you work on?
- What topics would you like to see covered in Inside Product?
Also, let me know if you’d be open to a 30-minute conversation to discuss what you’d find helpful to becoming a more effective product person.
So to recap:
- Send a message via the contact page and answer the above questions
- Let me know if you’d like to chat
I look forward to hearing from you! I promise I read and pay attention to every reply I get.
More information about asynchronous communication
The culture in most organizations encourages a synchronous first style of communication, In these types of organizations, moving to asynchronous communication, even where it is clearly the better approach, can take a while.
There are some organizations that have intentionally adopted an asynchronous first approach to communication. These organizations have typically be completely remote from their founding and adopted an asynchronous approach when they started growing to multiple time zones.
You can learn some helpful hints from these organizations, but you need to remember that your mileage will vary and you have to read their experience with an eye toward thinking about what small actions you can adopt from them in your own organization.
With that in mind, here are some additional resources about asynchronous communication, including a couple of pieces from organizations that operate in an asynchronous first manner.
Asynchronous Communication Is The Future Of Work
Whether you fear its impersonal nature or thinks its the best thing since streaming television, asynchronous communication is here to stay
Remote work is rising and online education is becoming more accepted and commonplace, both due to changing attitudes and the pandemic. These factors are only going to increase the use of asynchronous communication to keep business, schools, and other organizations running smoothly when they no longer share the same space 100% of the time
How to embrace asynchronous communication for remote work
GitLab believes that all-remote is the future of work. The first steps to maximizing productive remote workflows include understanding and embracing asynchronous work.
Here is the page from GitLab’s handbook describing how they do asynchronous work. GitLab is a prime example of a company that operates in an asynchronous first manner.
What Happened When Buffer’s Team Switched to Only Asynchronous Meetings
With any team, there’s usually the need to sync up.
This usually takes the form of a meeting – or a video call, for remote teams. The mobile team at Buffer had a video meeting of about 45 minutes every week where they got face-time as a team, got on the same page about work, talked though blockers and challenges, made decisions, and updated each other.
This worked great for them – until one of their teammates spent some time in Taiwan, stretching their team timezones from the US and Europe to APAC. With time zone differences, it was impossible to find a time that worked well for everyone. Rather than leave anyone out, they decided to lean into asynchronous communication so everyone could participate.
The Art Of Asynchronous: Optimizing Efficiency In Remote Teams
Since the pandemic began, organizations have struggled to convert remote operations to a more sustainable model. A major contributing factor comes from a deep reliance on real-time, synchronous communication, compensating for lack of structure, visibility into work, and self-management skills. Synchronous communication may be getting in the way of your organization’s success may include calendars full of meetings, workforce burnout, long-hours worked across time zones, inefficiency, and decreased productivity. The most successful remote organizations are able to maneuver between asynchronous and synchronous communication and collaboration, optimizing for efficiency, inclusivity, and wellbeing.
Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others
Successful remote work is based on three core principles: communication, coordination, and culture. Broadly speaking, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal, and culture is a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement. In order for remote work to be successful, companies (and teams within them) must create clear processes that support each of these principles.
This CEO Lets His Employees Work Whenever They Want—From Wherever They Want
In this article from WSJ.com Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, talks about ‘asynchronous work’ and why he thinks hybrid models will die out. One of his main points to making asynchronous work is clarity in written communication.