Any pandemic-era worker who was told to pack up their desk and start working from home remembers perfectly well what came next: the number of meetings exploded.
In a rush to replace face-to-face workplace gatherings, as well as all of the other real-time or “synchronous” forms of communication, videoconferencing usage expanded—as did the number of meetings. “People missed the human connections; they had FOMO,” says Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365 Collaboration. “They were afraid of missing the sort of information that they used to pick up from a hallway conversation.”
At the same time, people began to communicate more asynchronously—using email, chat, and corporate social media systems—without the expectation of an immediate response. For many, that combination of more meetings and more asynchronous communication was too much. In a Microsoft study of workers a year into the pandemic, 54 percent said they felt overworked, and 39 percent said they were exhausted.
But inbox overload preceded the pandemic (in 2017, France banned larger businesses from emailing employees after hours). And asynchronous communication tools are like meetings in one key respect: it can feel like we have too many of them.
It’s become increasingly clear that we all have to develop smarter strategies that take advantage of the flexibility of asynchronous tools without adding new burdens.
The pandemic accelerated the transformation from email to rich, collaborative experiences in which real-time meetings and calls are combined with asynchronous tools that everyone on a project can access at any time. We are learning that, when used intelligently, async can help make meetings more effective while simultaneously reducing how many meetings we need. It can also enable better ways to collaborate, breaking down the barriers of not just space but time. Here are a few things we’ve learned about how to make “async” more effective.
Reimagine meeting culture for a hybrid way of work
Meetings are a useful tool. Indeed, for certain tasks like brainstorming, they’re essential. “Synchronous collaboration is great for establishing a rapport and getting to know people,” says Jaime Teevan, chief scientist for Experiences and Devices at Microsoft. “It’s also great for converging on meaning if we have disagreements or need to arrive at a consensus.”
But there’s a reason the “this meeting could have been an email” meme is so powerful. Too many meetings inevitably lead to burnout. And meetings aren’t well-suited for consuming or sharing certain kinds of information.
As companies make a conscious cultural shift toward hybrid work, every worker will need clearly communicated guidelines, expectations, and best practices about what tool can best facilitate collaboration in what situation. It’s incumbent upon leaders to help everyone establish a better balance between time spent in video conferences and time spent collaborating asynchronously.
Teper and his team are striving to establish this balance. They standardized the practice of creating a written pre-read for meetings so everyone has a better sense of what will be covered and who actually needs to be present. “We also tried to make it culturally safe for people not to attend certain things. We made it clear that we weren't taking attendance,” he says.
Managers at Microsoft found that they could also fight the sense of FOMO by making sure all non-sensitive material covered in the meeting is shared with everyone in the organization. Those who run the meetings post the slides and notes in a Teams review channel. “That allows us to say, ‘hey, you really don’t have to be at this meeting, you can go get real work done,” Teper says. “And that approach trickles down in the organization.”
The aforementioned FOMO recedes once people are assured that real-time meetings can be turned into searchable, skimmable data that they can access at their own pace. “We’ve seen at Microsoft that the recording and transcribing of meetings has gone way up,” Teevan says. “In fact, meeting recordings are one of our fastest-growing content types internally.”
“The fact that we brought asynchronous and synchronous together in such a seamless way lets people get back more time to be more productive,” Teper says. “Instead of sitting in that meeting for an hour, I can get up to speed in five minutes.”
Level up real-time meetings with the power of asynchronous tools
Organizations can boost efficiency by developing a better sense of when real-time collaboration is essential and when it isn’t. For instance, the leadership group that Teper sits on used to go through multiple rounds of meetings to decide on business objectives for the next year. This year, they tried having one upfront meeting to frame top-level priorities, then let people collaborate in a shared doc, and then closed out the process with a final meeting. “We all had a chance to comment and digest the material in advance, and we went into the closure meeting knowing that, here are the three things we’re really debating,” Teper says.
A post-meeting document that everyone can access at any time can be just as valuable as a pre-meeting brainstorming document. “You can have a stream of consciousness back and forth between 10 people, and everyone walks out with their own spin on things,” Teper says. “There’s a power in writing things down, and having the one single source of truth so that everyone is literally on the same page.”
It’s incumbent upon leaders to help everyone establish a better balance between time spent in video conferences and time spent collaborating asynchronously.
Naturally, creating these asynchronous resources can mean extra work. “We’re adding things to Teams to help with meeting notes and summarization and chaptering of the meeting experience,” Teper says. The goal is to eventually use AI to create a summary and identify key takeaways.
But there are already many asynchronous tools that can be connected into the flow of work to further boost productivity. “In Teams, we support chats and documents with co-authoring features,” Teper says. “We also integrate decision-making tools like Power BI, task management tools like Planner, development tools like Azure DevOps, third-party things like Atlassian, Trello, and on and on.”
All of these tools can help make meetings more efficient and more useful. Sometimes, asynchronous communication can replace a meeting entirely—for instance, a status update can happen in a Teams channel instead of a video conference. It adds flexibility, and it creates a permanent searchable record.
Create norms that work best for your team
Every team will need to experiment to discover how to communicate and collaborate best, then create norms that support those discoveries. For instance, a “no emails allowed” mandate may not be effective company-wide, but if a team is expected to keep all of a project’s files, messages, and other collateral confined within a Microsoft Teams channel, workers are likely to continue to support those expectations when they see the benefit this coordination provides.
There’s also the question of delay. Just how asynchronous should asynchronous communication be? If someone’s at lunch and doesn’t respond to an email for an hour, a project can get held up and frustrations can arise as the other person feels they’re being ignored. Those issues are exacerbated when a team is spread around the globe. Time zone incompatibilities can introduce enormous lag into even the simplest of asynchronous discussions.
One simple product feature that is finding unexpected value in the hybrid age, says John Tang, principal researcher at Microsoft, is the ability to delay messages (a feature that will be generally available in Teams in the coming months). Microsoft Viva has even added a subtle nudge that asks if you want to auto-delay the delivery of messages sent outside of typical work times.
Why does this matter? Psychologically, if a worker receives a message from a co-worker or their boss after hours, they generally feel compelled to respond. Tang says if he wants to send a non-critical message from Seattle to a colleague who’s just finishing their workday in London, he’ll often set the message to go out later. “I don’t want to signal that I work really early or late hours to people, and I don’t want to obligate other people to respond to me,” he says. “Sometimes I think of text chat as a peri-synchronous mechanism. It’s nearly synchronous, but there’s a little more flexibility around it.”
Naturally, asynchronous communication may never become perfect, but Teevan is confident that it can get a whole lot better. “We can’t get rid of time zones. We can’t get rid of the fact that I’m a morning person and you’re an evening person,” she says. “But as we begin to think more intentionally about the temporal aspect of work, and as asynchronous tools get richer, we are going to unlock so many cool opportunities.”