Your Team Chat App Probably Isn't Asynchronous
Published July 27, 2023
Real-time messaging is everywhere in modern business. A ton of websites show an Intercom button in the bottom right corner. Almost every company has some sort of chat tool they use internally. I've even had people tell me they're looking for a company that uses Slack as one of their criteria for employment.
The common refrain goes that chat is drastically better than email and often better than offices because it's asynchronous. But the reality is a lot more complicated and important to tease out.
- Personal and cultural expectations have a lot to do with how teams use chat tools.
- Asynchronous communication has much more to do with how chat (and other) tools are actually used than how they can be used.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication is communication in which all participants aren't
expected to be attentive as the communication process unfolds.
The expectation piece is important. If a team's culture expects and heavily rewards an almost instantaneous response to emails, then despite how asynchronous email can be, email within the organization becomes synchronous. Everyone starts spending time waiting around for emails to arrive so they can respond immediately to them since that's what the team values.
Expectations and culture
You can't separate communication from expectations and culture. We're people, not programs, and because of that, our emotions can help us tease out what values our teams hold.
- Have you ever been annoyed because someone shows as available in chat, but doesn't respond immediately?
- Have you ever felt tension because someone shows up offline during work hours?
- Do you ever wait to send a message until someone is online?
- Do you ever feel like you need to respond immediately to messages from chat?
- Do you ever send multiple messages to keep a conversation moving, rather than writing out your full thoughts?
These are all symptoms of expecting synchronous communication with chat apps. Just because an app can be used asynchronously doesn't mean it is, and in most cases, teams use chat apps synchronously because they're fundamentally designed to be used synchronously and because it's more engaging to do so.
Most teams use chat more like a proxy for simulating in-person interactions. The chat platform is a weird virtual office where people are constantly tapping you on your shoulder and starting up conversations. And because there are no visual cues that you're already having another conversation, it's a place where multiple people are often talking over each other to you.
Synchronous communication has an important place. Teams need tools that let them communicate with each other with urgency and in real time. And when the need for synchronous communication arises, chat apps are outstanding.
When asynchronous communication and synchronous communication are both performed with the same tool, though, there's almost no way to know how urgent any given message is without reading them as they come through. You have to monitor chat because you might be needed.
When it's time to get heads down and get some focused work done, which everyone needs to do from time to time, it's ideal for team culture to support that. There need to be ways to contact someone that makes clear that the communication is urgent, but also ways to enqueue messages and let someone respond later.
Getting in sync
Rather than leaning into the virtual office metaphor, it's time for teams to change expectations around chat, and it's time for tools to support asynchronous communication.
- If your team is using chat for asynchronous communication, find a way to use something else for synchronous communication so that chat doesn't have to be constantly monitored.
- When something is urgent or ambiguous, be ok with grabbing some time with a voice, video, or face-to-face meeting. Use synchronous communication for clarity.
- Focus on getting team members unblocked without having to ask someone. Lean into writing documentation. Lean into using documentation.
We've got an obvious bias. We built Cardinal to scratch our itch for an asynchronous communication and knowledge management tool. We've felt for too long that most chat apps build cultures of FOMO and use growth hacks to sell more per-seat licenses, and we want to change that.
That said, we hope you'll find a healthy balance of async and sync communication tools, and build a team culture to help everyone stay sane and focused, regardless of what tools you use. We're rooting for you and are here to help however we can.
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