Learn about asynchronous communication: why phone is bad and chat is good

by Markus Tacker

: Learn about asynchronous communication: why phone is bad and chat is good

This post tries to explain the rationale behind one of my recent tweets:

Everyone will work better if all understand the difference between sync and async communication: Phone is bad, Chat is good. #futureofwork


You can maximize your work output if you can use your work time in a way the suits your habits best. The more your work requires your undivided attention, which is true especially for creative and innovative work, the more your mind will submerge into something called flow, a state of mind that shuts out all exterior disturbances and focuses on the one task at hand. I call this the core working time, that part of the day which is dedicated to the work that you are best doing at.

flow needs an environment of self-determination and independence to happen

There are two important things to consider:
Flow can't be switched on just like that, you need the environment and the personal condition to activate it. It's a very individual condition that is entirely up to you and can't be determined by putting you in a cubicle from 9 to 5 with motivational posters around. You are in charge of picking the time of a day and the location that provide the best conditions for you to be able to do your best work possible.
It takes time for your brain to enter a higher state of concentration that enables you to see all the factors of a problem and understand patterns that emerge-only then will you be able to find a good solution to a given problem. It's a matter of hours and not minutes until you can focus all your senses on a problem.

If you work at an organization where innovation and creativity is key to your organization's success you want everyone to reach their flow at least once a day. But as I pointed out before, it can't be planned nor can it be mandated. flow needs an environment of self-determination and independence to happen.

Phone calls are poison in these environment

Every time you pick up your phone to call a colleague you have a very high probability of disturbing their flow and yanking them out of their core working time. Why is that? You will force their mind to step out of its current engagement and refocus on the question you need to have answered. Is your problem that important? I'd argued that it is not for most of the time. The same is true for walking up to someone's desk without invitation.

I'm an advocate of asynchronous communication, like chat, because it puts establishes a buffer in the communication that enables every participant to communication in their own time. They can decide when to read chat messages because they can turn of notification and find the time that fits them to answer questions there.

There is nothing wrong with using phone-calls or video-chats for planned meetings. It's essential for the wellbeing of an organization to hear your colleagues voices and synchronous communication should be your choice for all your recurring meetings like the daily, jour fixes or other sync-up style meetings.

So it's not the technology that is bad but the implications they bear: phone calls are expected to be answered immediately, that puts some pressure on the receiver. They are not bad per-se because the bandwidth depending on the topic can be higher compared to chat or email.

Make an escalation plan for communication

Phone calls might be an easy to use tool for the individual but bear a very unbalanced cost for the team. It shouldn't be your first choice of communication with your team.

Communication in a team needs to be well defined and agreed on organization wide. I propose that chat should be the default way of communication internally. You can replace email with a chat system that allows for private, topic based, and general messaging. Your project management tool is the place to assign work items. Email should be an interface only to clients and external contacts.

That leaves phone-calls for emergency situations. And you should handle them like this. If you pick up the phone to call someone it should be an emergency. You also should know which kind of problem qualifies for an emergency and which are better added to the bug tracker.

If you are on the receiving end of a phone-call and it's not an emergency you should know about the effect of immediately taking care of the issue. If you are in a state of focus just ask the caller to let you call them back so you can finish your current thought or bring your current work item to a state that enables you to easily pick it up later. Give them a time frame and essentially schedule a call with them.

Synchronous communication is expensive

… is the gist of this post. Separating myself voluntarily from my team by working out of a coworking space at least 3 days a week and reducing unplanned phone calls to a minimum is important for my personal happiness at work. I even try to cluster meetings around two days a week so I have the other three days for work that feels more productive to me-like coding.

I hope you have enough reasons to make your organization default to asynchronous communication if you have the power to do so.