The Evolution of Asynchronous Communication

This article outlines the progression of asynchronous communication, from the carrier pigeon to email and video messaging.

Zight | August 10, 2022 | 3 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 11, 2023

The Evolution of Asynchronous Communication

For thousands of years, humankind has been making strides toward asynchronous communication. 

We have progressed.

A Brief History of Async

Early humans had it rough; their best option for async communication was a stone tablet and a chisel. A difficult prospect. Now it’s a viable way to conduct business, talk to each other and interact in meaningful ways. History through this lens shows us the invention of written language, the printing press, the telegraph, fax machine, and telephone were steps toward usable asynchronous communication.

With every leap forward in asynchronous communication came the need to adapt to the limitations of the mode of communication. For example:

  • During World War II carrier pigeons were limited to the size of the paper that could be strapped to their feet.
  • In the early 1900s telephones were limited by locality (the first Transatlantic call didn’t happen until 1926!).
  • Twitter has a 280-character limit.

Async Evolving Into Sync

When it comes to these limitations, we see that the mode affects the message. The truth is over time the asynchronous part has begun to fade. Async messages can now be seen instantaneously. They are becoming more and more like real-time text conversations.

Think of read receipts: You know exactly when a person sees your async message. That person knows you know, and they feel compelled to answer. Right away.

Asynchronous communication is now used to closely replicate the feeling of synchronous conversation. But that’s not what we’re proposing it should be used for.

The asynchronous adaptation phase has been complicated by a rapid shift into remote work environments. We’re in the midst of a new era of changes in the workplace, and it’s making us ask questions:

  • Should we use our asynchronous channels to replicate in-office work behaviors?
  • Or do they need to become new communication modes, in and of themselves?

We’re in a moment of time in which we’re working remotely, but still relying on synchronous communication, such as daily Zoom meetings and back-to-back conversations happening over direct messaging like Slack. But, this combination between remote environments and in-office expectations may not be the best long-term solution for a dispersed workforce.

A remote worker who’s getting pulled away from concentrating can experience up to a 40% decrease in productivity. By needing to immediately respond to message notifications or pause a task to attend a meeting, it’s easy for employees to lose focus and become overwhelmed.

Using Async By Design

The key to balancing asynchronous and synchronous communication lies in understanding which channels should be used for which types of conversation, and asking questions like:

  1. Do we need this conversation to be a live meeting, or can we communicate this message over a video recording or email?
  2. Should we discuss this over chat messages, or do we need to arrange a quick brainstorming call?
  3. How can we ensure that we communicate effectively with employees, without pulling them away from their daily tasks?

Async As The Future of Work

The biggest mistake most ‘remote’ companies make is that they’re either using office principles remotely or simply recreating the office experience remotely.

We need to redesign the experience for a remote-first future, not simply copy-paste it digitally. We need to re-imagine the future of work, our communication infrastructure with asynchronous communication. It’s time to go from a crawl to a walk!

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