Does Asynchronous Business Communication Create As Many Problems as it Solves?

According to this essay, it does.


Used correctly, asynchronous messaging is a blessing. It means that I can write and send off either an instruction, a question or a handover and then can forget about it. It won’t eat up any brain cycles until the answer comes back. And I don’t even have to deal with said answer, until I am ready to do so. So, switch off all alerts for email and instead set a reminder every 60 minutes or so to check your emails manually.

Permanent context switching is the bane of mental productivity, and asynchronous communication allows us to minimize this.

The caveat though: This needs to be done right. Set time boxes for when to check your emails, sort them into “deal with ASAP” and “deal with at next timeslot”. Also: Let your recipients know, when you expect an answer, and set realistic timeframes (maybe even add an explanation, why something is urgent).

If you need the answer right now or within 15 minutes, call or go in person. If you need in it 15 days, you better put it into an email!

Write your emails clearly - provide context where needed, keep it short enough that the gist and answer-timeframe is easily understandable. Write sentences that make sense.

If everyone would do this, emails are the best!

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I have really felt organisations that struggle with, like, meta-conversational overhead due to the nature of async conversation – combined with how people in general tend to use it. I have also experience from other groups of e-mail users, where the advantages that you mention are really great! But I find that use quite particular, and again not many people practice it. It’s hard and takes discipline, as you say.

Email is the number one way I communicate with people outside of meeting in person. This has been true now for more than 30 years. I greatly prefer it over phone calls. But then, I am not in an organization or company that requires I answer more than a hundred of them a day. I would go nuts with something like that.

I get what the author is saying about meetings and there is an irony to turning something asynchrounous into something resembling real time. Once I worked for a nonprofit that had what I regarded as an absurd amount of in-person office meetings. They would have been much better served by using email better. But that was a culture I could not influence.

A side aspect, but the article’s author seems to be completely oblivious to the blessings, historical significance and spread of the Rohrpost (pneumatic tube networks), describing the CIA’s system, as if it were special or unique. I felt really frustrated with that. The history of office communications is much more complex than the picture that is painted there.

I remember as a kid in 1950s New York going to my father’s office at Merrill Lynch and seeing a huge pneumatic tube system going all over the place.

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