How much time do you spend every day checking messages just in case something comes up? In our 24/7 world, there’s often an unwritten expectation that we’re always available. After all, checking in takes moments—and reduces the chance that you might miss out. The average American checks their smartphone at least once every 12 minutes.
But at what cost? As companies recognize the impact of being constantly available and distributed teams increasingly stretch across time zones, a growing number of leaders are slowing down by embracing asynchronous communication—a traditional, even old fashioned, expectation that responses may be delayed. That people will respond when it works best for them.
Staying on top of communication can cost more than you think
In a survey by RescueTime, knowledge workers estimated that 29 percent of their day went toward email and instant messages (IM). But actual data from RescueTime’s time tracking app puts that commitment much higher. In fact, when you factor in messaging through collaboration tools, 76 percent of the day is typically impacted by messages.
Multiply that across your whole team and you can see why distraction is such a big problem.
Another expensive weight comes from high expectations. The same survey found that 63.5 percent of people expect a response to the messages they send within an hour. Small wonder that just one in 10 people feels like they’re in control of their day.
Responsiveness can drag down productivity
Being tethered to our inboxes has a measurable impact on our ability to get things done. Gloria Mark, a professor at University of California, Irvine, researches technology’s impact on people. In one oft-cited study, she found that it takes an average of 23 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds) to regain focus on a task that’s been interrupted.
People who are interrupted often adapt their work styles to compensate, working faster—perhaps by investing less in their work—to make up for time they anticipate will be lost. Mark found they also “experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”
A potential solution is to make asynchronous communication not just an option but an integral part of your team’s culture. In doing so, you can help people own their time by setting their schedules and optimizing their days in a way that gives them time to focus when they need it most.
Good collaboration takes time
Jason Fried, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp, has been advocating for a return to asynchronous communication for years. Real emergencies should be few and far between, he argues, while most meaningful work requires regular uninterrupted focused time.
In an interview with HBR about restoring sanity to the office, he noted that when management drives a culture for quick responses, work hours disappear, actual work becomes disjointed, and people get drawn into watching a “conveyor belt” of conversation: “We’re being pulled into things we don’t need to be pulled into to wait to see if we need to be pulled into something. It’s completely out of control.
Instead, he suggested finding ways to acknowledge that need for space—whether through quiet time in the office, by enabling remote work, or by fostering a culture that asks: When should collaboration happen in real-time and when can it be asynchronous?
The result can be a team that’s able to think things through and get a lot more work done in an environment that’s less stressful and anxious.
“When conversations are sort of owned by the initiator, you end up with a very distracting culture,” he said. “When conversations are sort of controlled by the receiver, when the expectation is that the receiver can get back to you when they’re ready, then you have a much calmer environment.”
Learn more by checking out The Complete Guide to Asynchronous Communication in Remote Teams.