Asynchronous: The New Trend in Collaboration

New wave of tools gives teams a different way to stay in sync

A couple of weeks ago, as part of its latest update, Slack announced it was adding new asynchronous collaboration features, allowing customers to create voice, video and screen recordings, which can then be shared in a Slack channel. These new capabilities tap into an emerging trend that seeks to address some of the problems with today’s collaboration tools, particularly as we enter a new phase of hybrid and flexible working.

A more balanced — and sustainable — approach to collaboration

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve become irreversibly dependent on technology to work together. This is shown by the sharp growth in collaboration tools being used — particularly with online meeting tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which became a lifeline and replacement for in-person conversation, as so many remained confined to their homes during global lockdowns. Even as offices start to reopen again, it seems certain that remote work is here to stay, cementing collaboration technology’s place in the future of work.

However, there’s no doubt that many are feeling the strain of the “always on” nature of the current wave of collaboration tools. We’ve seen the growth of “Zoom fatigue” as a result of people spending hours every day on draining video calls. Meetings overload has long been a problem for knowledge workers, but somehow it’s so much more noticeable when those meetings are all online, and it’s fuelling employee frustration and burnout.

And although many businesses have embraced chat-based team collaboration tools to help employees stay connected and productive, these too can add to the strain of being always on, creating a sense of unreasonable urgency and the need to be constantly available to respond to work requests. There’s a growing recognition that a healthy approach to hybrid working demands a better balance between synchronous collaboration, where teams work on the same thing at the same time, and asynchronous collaboration, where individuals can contribute to a shared project or group discussion at a time that suits them.

Targeting productivity, inclusivity and employee well-being

There are many reasons for improving how tools support asynchronous working. Teams with members in different time zones will already be very familiar with the concept, with one party working on their contribution while the other is offline, and vice versa. Similarly, people working on many projects at once need to juggle their time between different commitments, and so can’t always contribute to a collaborative task in real time. But now, as businesses embrace more flexible workstyles, allowing employees to not just work from anywhere but at times that are best for them, asynchronous working must become part of the picture for all organizations and teams.

There are other advantages too. Asynchronous interactions provide a better platform for introverts who are less willing to jump into a lively group discussion, or people who take a little longer to gather their thoughts, helping improve inclusivity. And a shift away from a real-time response culture also gives more space for focus time, something that many have struggled with while working remotely throughout the pandemic.

A wave of technology innovation

The concept of asynchronous collaboration technology is of course not new — let’s face it, e-mail is a type of asynchronous communication, though it has many, well-documented flaws. But the term has become increasingly popular among start-ups and pure-play collaboration tool providers like Notion, Miro and Trello, which have all seen their profiles rise significantly in the last year or so as businesses grappled with distributed working. However, Slack’s announcement and others like it show that we’re entering a new phase of asynchronous collaboration, with video communication — typically seen as a real-time collaboration tool for businesses — now brought into an asynchronous context.

Currently in pilot and due to roll out to customers in the coming months, Slack’s video messaging features are intended to allow users to share information and communicate their thoughts more expressively and with greater nuance than through text-based chat. This allows for more non-verbal communication and brings the interaction closer to what you might get through in-person discussions in an office environment, without the need for another online meeting. Built-in live captions and transcripts will help improve accessibility and inclusivity, and users can comment on the video message in the Slack channel, continuing the blend of video and chat communications.

Slack may be the most high-profile, but it’s not the only company targeting this capability for business collaboration. There are a host of start-ups in this area, including Loom, Claap, Acapela and Voodle, all of which have secured funding within the past few months.

Embracing technological and cultural change

As Voodle points out in its blog, video-based messaging is more efficient than text chat because most of us talk much faster than we type. We also process visual content much faster than text, and remember it better too. And although the concept of informal voice or video messaging might seem unfamiliar in a business context, apart from leaving someone a voicemail, it’s becoming increasingly common in the non-business world, particularly among younger generations.

Video messages will certainly bring a new dimension to how teams interact every day and, in a Slack context, it will help messages stand out better, something that remains a challenge for team collaboration tools as their usage grows within organizations. Of course, the more people who create video messages, the more they risk adding to the information overload, though Slack’s transcription feature does at least allow them to be searchable.

However, although we absolutely need tools to support asynchronous collaboration, the biggest challenge is changing workplace behaviours and expectations to encourage a more balanced approach. As we embark on this next stage in the future of work, armed with our experiences of online working throughout this long and challenging pandemic, it’s vital that business leaders put employees first. We must be thoughtful about what’s necessary for employees’ effectiveness and well-being, and to encourage trusting, grown-up working relationships. Technology plays an increasingly central role in the future of work, but, as ever, cultural change is at the heart of its success.

A version of this article was first published by CMSWire on 8 July 2021.

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