What the Evolution of Asynchronous Communication Tells Us About the Future of Work

When it comes to online asynchronous communication, the consumer world has got enterprise beat. It’s not strange to see dozens of people having a productive discussion about a topic on Reddit. But try to get five team members to collaborate on a project on Slack or email, and, in many cases, it begins to break down.

We’re in the awkward phase of embracing a new work medium. While some of us have been planning this move for a while, others were suddenly forced into it by COVID-19. Instead of looking for ways to make work work online, we force our synchronous, in-office expectations on new tools and contexts. And it’s not working.

The interesting thing about history is that it tends to repeat itself, just in a slightly different way. This isn’t the first time we’ve struggled to adapt to a new medium. And we’ve seen a thing or two when it comes to crafting technology to unleash our potential.

To understand what it takes to fully embrace online work in the present (and to map out its future), we need to look to the past.

Carrier Pigeons and Reddit: The Evolution of Asynchronous Communication

We’ve always aspired to communicate synchronously — in real-time — to whoever we want, whenever we want, no matter the distance. But it wasn’t until about 30 years ago that technology allowed us to do so.

Async Communication’s Beginnings Were Perilous

Communication began synchronously, with people speaking or signaling in the immediate vicinity or line of sight. Asynchronous communication — communication that doesn’t happen in real-time — didn’t come around until humans created cave paintings, pictograms, and written language.

These early forms of asynchronous communication allowed people to communicate over distance and time (we still puzzle over the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings today!). Yet, asynchronous communication came with its challenges.

When Athens needed Spartan troops to help them fight the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., they couldn’t call for help over a radio or send a fax. Word had to travel by foot. So, runner Pheidippides traveled about 150 sleepless, rugged miles to Sparta over two days to deliver the message. Then he ran all the way back with their response.

But that was the nature of asynchronous communication back then. To get word from one city to another took days, months, and years of perilous travel. Sometimes your message would barely make it, as was the case with the unknown messenger who ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens. He died soon after delivering news of their victory.

Even if your message made it to its intended destination, you were still limited in how much you could say. WWI troops fit battlefield updates and directives on thin slips of rolled paper small enough to attach to a carrier pigeon’s leg.

New Tech Eliminated Thousands of Years of Communication Challenges

Both synchronous and asynchronous communication improved over time with technological advancements.

People could reach out in real- and near-real-time with the invention of the telegraph, radio, fax machine, and telephone. Systemized postal operations made it easier and faster to send messages and goods over greater distances. Answering machines and voicemail made it possible to speak across oceans without the expectation of an immediate response.

These advancements changed the way we work, too. Businesses could place orders by phone, mail contracts, and expand their customer reach with mailers and radio and television ads.

Still, the way we work didn’t change. We could only communicate synchronously with one or two people at a time. Collaborating in real-time with a team still meant working from the same office.

Then the World Wide Web went public in 1991. And within just a few years, we eliminated thousands of years of communication challenges.

Internet Relay Chat like mIRC made it possible to communicate synchronously with many people all over the world.

Forums set a new standard for asynchronous communication. They evolved from the more technical, pared-down, pre-Internet bulletin boards (BBS) to more user-friendly, online forums like phpBB and Delphi.

Now our forums look more like Hacker News, Reddit, Quora, Facebook, and Twitter. We use smart chat clients like Slack with channels, emojis, and video conferencing capabilities. These new tools allow us to connect with people more easily than ever and, increasingly, work full-time online.

However, we’re discovering that these new communication capabilities come with new challenges.

Synchronous Communication: Not the Solution We Thought

Instead of re-envisioning work for the new Internet medium, teams are replicating their synchronous-first office environments online. And it isn’t translating well.

Too Much Synchronous Communication Can Hurt Productivity

Modern teams try to force in-office work behaviors and expectations onto new tools and contexts. They move their daily Scrum meetings to Zoom and find out that they’re suddenly more time-consuming, especially for larger teams.

Or they try to discuss detailed work matters in Slack but struggle to provide enough context using Slack’s short-form messaging style. It doesn’t take long for their conversation to disappear in a stream of real-time chatter.

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founding developer of WordPress, calls this the second level of the Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy.

“You’re probably able to access information from afar, you’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been canceled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity.” — Mullenweg

Companies in this level rely too much on synchronous communication. They expect their people to always be connected, always available, and doing most of their work by collaborating in real-time.

This over-reliance on synchronous communication actually makes people less productive.

When you’re always connected to company-wide chatter or called into regular meetings, you can’t carve out time to tackle complex responsibilities or think deeply about your work. Instead, you’re constantly switching between tasks and creating mental blocks that can hurt your productivity by up to 40%.

The “always-on” attitude towards work also doesn’t give people agency to decide what tasks they want to tackle when.

Instead of prioritizing your most important work, you’re stuck tackling tasks as they come up. This doesn’t just hurt the quality of your work. It leaves us feeling powerless and overworked.

We’ve Been Here Before

Our bumpy transition to online work isn’t anything new. We’re simply in that in-between phase of embracing a new medium.

Mullenweg likens this to the awkward beginnings of radio drama in the 1920s. Back then, people dipped their toe into radio by broadcasting full, live-action plays. Eventually, they started adapting their broadcasts to fit the medium’s unique advantages. They experimented with audio-only scripts, shorter segments, sound effects, music, and timing.

The minds behind Lights Out, a popular horror radio program in 1934, took advantage of radio’s set schedules. They chose to air it at midnight to give late-night listeners something other than music to enjoy and to add to the program’s creepy allure.

We’ve been here before, and looking back at how previous generations handled these awkward transitions may help us get through this one.

What Online Forums Can Teach Us About Asynchronous Communication

Teams don’t need to search far to find a better way to communicate online. People have been using online forums to have focused, thoughtful discussions and collaborate on projects since the dawn of the Internet.

Online forums brought a whole new meaning and value to asynchronous communication. They provided structured places for people across the world to connect on any topic, no matter how niche.

No longer limited by who could participate (or how many), online forums allowed us to tap into a deeper well of knowledge and experience. Those perspectives and ideas led to a greater understanding of topics and better decision-making. They also gave people space to think through their messages and agency to contribute when it worked for them, leading to more thoughtful communication and deeper insights.

“One thing I was realizing was that it’s not atypical for me to see tens of people on Reddit or a forum having a productive discussion. But that’s such a rarity within the workplace.” — Rousseau Kazi, CEO and co-founder of Threads

Beyond diverse perspectives and thoughtful discussions, the asynchronous style of online forums has proven useful for getting work done as well.

Take open-source communities, for example.

These asynchronous communities bring together large teams of engineers (who’ve otherwise never met each other) to build incredible pieces of architecture entirely online. They rely on asynchronous online communication via forum, wiki, email, and other channels and have developed rules to clarify who can contribute and how

Enterprise teams use many of these projects to improve their work like the Rust programming language that Dropbox and Yelp both use, and Apache Hadoop, an open-source software library that Adobe, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and many others all use.

It’s no surprise that every major asynchronous communication platform over the past decade iterated toward the same core forum-like features like:

  1. Anchor content

  2. Nested replies

  3. Likes, comments, up- and down-votes

Only these features have proven that they can scale elegantly as more people enter the discussion.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: When to Use Both in the Modern Workplace

There’s a time, place, and purpose for both asynchronous and synchronous communication in modern work. The trick is knowing when to use one over the other.

To understand how teams should use asynchronous and synchronous communication, consider how software engineers handle code reviews and outages.

A code review begins when an engineer writes a bit of code and commits it for review. The review happens asynchronously — a bunch of other engineers read it in their own time and publish comments in a forum. They go back and forth, providing feedback and recommending changes before making a decision and committing the code to a repo.

What they don’t do is go into the same room and make everyone review the 200-some-odd lines of code together at the same time. Likewise, they don’t bring everyone onto a Zoom call or in-person meeting to suggest changes and make a decision.

The opposite is true when dealing with urgent matters like product outages. If a site or app goes down, the engineers don’t publish the issue and wait around for others to review and respond in their own time. They rely on synchronous communication — tagging those who need to know in an IRC tool like Slack for an immediate response.

When to Use Synchronous Communication

Synchronous communication is asking someone to give you their time and attention now. It’s best used for:

  1. Urgent or time-sensitive work like handling a site outage or letting someone know you’re running late for a meeting

  2. Transaction work like setting up a meeting or delivering a contract

  3. Emotional work like connecting with teammates, meeting someone new, and discussing more sensitive work matters (e.g., productivity or promotion)

Teams use two main channels to manage their synchronous communication: real-time messaging and meetings.

Real-time messaging on a smart chat platform like Slack works well for quick or casual communication. It’s lightweight and available across devices, so you can use it in the office, at home, or on the go. However, messages tend to disappear quickly in all the real-time chatter, making it difficult to refer to conversations held only an hour or two ago.

Slack is meant for synchronous work. While you can set it up as an asynchronous channel by being clever with your notifications settings, it’s best used for short-form, real-time communication.

Meetings work well for emotional communication. They’re great for getting to know the people you work with on weekly Zoom watercooler calls. That face-to-face connection, even virtual, helps teams forge stronger relationships.

Unlike messaging, meetings aren’t lightweight. Participants need to be in a quiet space and dedicate a chunk of time to attending a conversation that may not be entirely relevant to them. They’re often unstructured — vulnerable to tangents and distractions — and inaccessible — open only to the invited participants and not recorded for posterity.

When to Use Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is giving others space to prepare their best thoughts and the agency to decide when, where, and how to respond. It’s best used for knowledge work like creative thinking and problem-solving.

This type of communication gives you space to sort tasks, helping you work more efficiently. You can sort by:

  1. Priority, postponing low-priority tasks and focusing instead on what’s most important

  2. Similarity, tackling similar tasks at once, so you don’t have to shift as much between brain states

  3. Mental effort, blocking out time for tasks that require more thought and a deeper level of work than others

Asynchronous communication is inclusive. It opens up conversations to more people, allowing them to share their ideas and perspectives, so you can make better decisions.

When people think of asynchronous communication, they think of email. This long-standing work staple is good for external and transactional communication, like setting up meetings. It’s lightweight and structured; you can get to your inbox across devices as well as sort and search your messages.

But it’s inaccessible. Only you can access your inbox, making it difficult to share insights with a group without creating a large, complicated chain of replies and forwarded emails. You can use a team email solution like Front to grant access to others. Even then, it’s better to pull those in-depth conversations out of the inbox and into something that resembles more of an online forum.

That’s where Threads comes in.

Threads takes the best features of forums and adapts them for online work. This asynchronous platform opens up conversations to your entire team, allowing everyone to add their ideas and perspectives. It gives everyone space to think deeply about topics, so your team can make more informed decisions. It also documents the thinking and story behind products, initiatives, and companies, giving you a space to build from on future projects and keeping the team aligned on your company’s history and values.

A forum-based platform like Threads is lightweight, structured, accessible, and scalable. It’s best used for important, inclusive, thoughtful communication.

The Future of Work Is Diverse, Distributed, and Asynchronous (And We Get to Define What That Looks Like)

Here’s what you need to know.

1. The future of work is diverse and distributed.

Teams are finally realizing they don’t need to be co-located to collaborate and communicate effectively. In fact, it’s in their interest to look outside their immediate area for new talent and perspectives and to meet workers’ increasing demand for flexibility.

2. Knowledge is the new capital. And you can’t do knowledge work synchronously.

Knowledge work is becoming more important as our world moves away from a transactional economy to a more creative economy. You can’t do knowledge work without inclusive, thoughtful asynchronous conversations.

3. Creative efficiency will be your competitive advantage.

We’re already working as many hours as possible without sacrificing other areas of our lives. Yet the demand to do more with our time only increases.

As the work becomes more creative, success will depend on how well you use asynchronous communication to maximize your team’s output while improving the quality of their contributions.

The Future of Asynchronous Communication Is Up to Us

Once again, technology limits the way we communicate. Our existing tools don’t yet unleash our full asynchronous potential. However, that means we’re all in a unique position to define what asynchronous communication means for work in the future.

Threads’ mission is to make work more inclusive. We believe we can accomplish this by iterating on the best features of online forums to overcome the challenges facing asynchronous work.

Challenge 1: Set new expectations for asynchronous communication.

When you tag someone in Slack, you expect them to get back to you in a timely manner. If you schedule a meeting with someone, you expect them to show up for it. Those same expectations don’t exist for asynchronous tools like forums, and that makes people uncomfortable.

We want to set new expectations for asynchronous communication — just because it’s asynchronous doesn’t mean it goes on forever.

Threads helps build trust in asynchronous work with our “Seen” and “Mark for follow-up” features. Our “Seen” states tell you when the people you want to communicate with see your message, so you know you’ve reached them. “Mark for follow up” means that they’ve not only seen your message but plan to get back to you soon.

We plan on taking those features even further by building the ability to say when you plan to follow up... whether it’s in a few hours, a day, or later in the week. This helps you set expectations and build trust that you will, in fact, get back to them in a timely manner.

Challenge 2: Let people define how and when they communicate.

Another challenge we’re passionate about overcoming is giving people even more agency in how and when they communicate.

We built Threads to make work communication more inclusive. But more inclusive shouldn’t mean overwhelming. Instead of throwing every conversation in your workplace at you, we targeted an opt-in approach.

While everything in Threads is available to you, you’re only notified if someone requests your feedback or if a change is made in a conversation you’re already engaged in. What’s more, Threads tracks all of your conversations for you in one place. That way, you can know, prioritize, and act on what’s in your queue when it makes sense for you.

Be Open to Changing the Way You Communicate

We’ve come so far, but in some ways, it’s only the beginning. With so much about the way we communicate at work changing in just the last 30 years, we can expect many more changes to come.

As teams start to rely more on asynchronous communication to get work done, we plan on adapting Threads to better meet their changing needs. You can get involved in shaping the future of work communication by reaching out on Twitter (@rousseaukazi) and sharing your challenges. What concerns do you have about switching from real-time collaboration? How would you design your team’s communication tools differently?

By learning from our collective experiences and being open to adapting the way we work, we can realize the real benefits of working online.