Signal vs. Noise: Communicating Effectively in a Remote Async Team
Communication is arguably the most important soft skill needed to succeed in many walks of life. But, effective communication can also get tricky in remote async teams, where most of communicating happens in written form and there are many moving parts to account for.
One way to look at it is that effective communication has a high signal-to-noise ratio. This means that the meaningful and significant messages (the signal) occur in greater strength and number than unclear messages or messages that don’t help your work (the noise).
Shouldn't all communication in any form have a high signal-to-noise ratio? Well, yes—but this is particularly important (and peculiarly challenging) in a remote async team.
The three Cs of effective communication in async teams
Let's define effective in the context of a remote async team:
Clear: Get your point across without ambiguity
Concise: Get to the point quickly
Conducive: Move the conversation forward
In a face-to-face meeting (in real life or on a video call), you have additional factors like body language, tone of voice, etc., aiding and enriching the conversation.
These supplemental traits are mainly absent with async communication, especially in written form. Hence the message is much more open to interpretation. Could the reader misinterpret the author's tone—or worse—their intent?
If you're writing a book, you have the luxury of your reader's time and can engage them cautiously, building up to the climax.
When responding to a request for comment on a technical proposal, however, you definitely shouldn't assume your readers have all day to read through a clever, slowly revealing narrative.
One of the disadvantages of async communication is that it takes longer to conduct and conclude a conversation. An advantage, then, would be that you get time to think about your response.
Value that time and use it to your benefit. Take the time to do more than commentate. Put forth concrete solutions, or make your suggestions actionable if possible. Always try to move the conversation forward, one message at a time.
7 tips to help you communicate more effectively
Being clear, concise, and conducive is a framework that enables good communications. But, there are also other things you can do to make collaboration even more effective. Here are seven tips:
1. Separate channels for short-lived vs. long-term conversations
A conversation on Zoom or a Slack chat within a team is rarely useful 48 hours later from a record-keeping or long-term retention point of view. While these channels are great for enabling day-to-day communication and collaboration, you should use more deliberate channels for extended conversations (i.e., things that need to be remembered and referenced months down the line).
For example, our engineering team uses Slack threads to discuss longer-term initiatives, process refinement proposals, etc. Threads are a great way to organize discussions and talk through topics in detail without cluttering the main channel. The wider team at Float uses Notion as our system of record. All of the evergreen information about our team members, departments, processes, onboarding, product specs, and project timelines live in Notion for easy access by anyone on the team.
2. Prevent knowledge segregation and connect the dots
How many channels of communication are too many? As always, it depends. It's okay to compartmentalize different kinds of conversations about the same overarching topic across various channels.
For example, while building a feature, it is natural for code reviews to happen on GitHub, QA reviews to occur over Asana, and product design feedback to arrive on Figma. However, when context needs to get carried over, make it easy for others to connect the dots. For instance, embedding Asana's QA ticket link in a GitHub PR can help inform stakeholders why your code does what it does. That's an important context, which will help move the conversation forward.
3. Leverage written, audio, and visual mediums
While written communication will often be your go-to medium, there are instances where talking about or showing something will be more impactful. For example, when our product team wants to demonstrate an upcoming feature to our customer success folks, they often leverage Loom and share a brief video demonstration. The same goes for when an engineer needs to share the performance impact of their code refactor with their teammates.
4. Err on the side of over-communication
Over-communicating is not about the length of a message; it's about the frequency and visibility. Async communication has a higher turnaround time—that’s by design. This means that if you miss an opportunity to communicate, either because you assumed people were on the same page or just forgot to, the silence is only amplified. When in doubt, ask. For example, if you've got a new production release coming up tomorrow, it's OK to drop a (perhaps redundant) reminder to everyone involved.
For improved visibility, use group chats when appropriate. It rarely hurts to have a public discussion if directed to a contained and relevant audience.
5. Carve out time to communicate
As teams scale, or as you take on more and more responsibility, you need to communicate with more people without losing any effectiveness. That takes time, effort, and conscious attention.
Carve out dedicated time from your day for communication. If anything urgent comes up, you have to be flexible enough to respond quickly, but most other day-to-day communications can be planned out. When working async, that means responding whenever it suits you best—first thing in the morning, last thing before the end of the day, or mid-day between blocks of deep work. Senior Dev Ops Engineer, Chris Nash, spreads his communication throughout the day. “I always start my day before the house wakes up. I catch up on chats in Slack, respond to easy questions, and flag the deeper thinking ones to come back to later in the day,” he says.
Regardless of when you decide to respond to messages or emails, making communication a recurring and deliberate task is a great way to stay sharp at it. Remember, communicating well about work can be just as important as the work itself!
6. Manage your notifications
The other challenge you'll face as you communicate with more people and across more channels is picking up the signals in growing noise and not missing any important messages. Most of the channels you use will allow you to configure both when and how you are notified. Use that wisely.
You might also set up filters and labels in your email inbox to group related conversations together and mark important conversations for faster response. This is a great way to focus your attention on the most important messages and helps you stay organized.
7. Know when to go synchronous
With all of that said, there are times when asynchronous communication is not a good fit. Maybe it's too slow for an urgent matter, or perhaps it's too challenging to gather a consensus on a complicated topic. In those instances, it’s perfectly fine to resort to a good old-fashioned meeting.
If getting multiple stakeholders in the same room (even a virtual room on Zoom) is the quickest and most straightforward way to break a deadlock, gain consensus, etc., then go ahead and do that. After all, effective communication means keeping your team aligned, informed, and always making progress—asynchronously or otherwise.
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