Async 101: What are async meetings, why you should try them and how to get started?

Asynchronous communication has turned into a buzz-word in the tech circles since 2020. While there's lots of talk about benefits and gains of going async, there's lesser information on what it takes to put it into practice. This article covers the absolute basics - what are async meetings and how can you get started today?

Last year, Gumroad Founder Sahil Lavingia shared a thread on Twitter that started an interesting conversation. Here's what he had to say about the benefits his company realized in going fully asynchronous.

  • "All communication is thoughtful. Because nothing is urgent (unless the site is down), comments are made after mindful processing and never in real-time. There's no drama."
  • "Because everyone is always effectively "blocked," everyone plans ahead. It also means anyone can disappear for an hour, a day, or a week and not feel like they are holding the company back. Even me!"
  • "People build their work around their life, not the other way around. This is especially great for new parents, but everyone benefits from being able to structure their days to maximize their happiness and productivity."
  • "This is possible because everything is documented. And because everyone talks through different text-based mediums, it's easy for people to peer into anything if they're curious (or take over if need be). There are also no meetings, and all numbers are public, so there's no FOMO."
  • "The software we ship is well-tested and incredibly stable. It has to be, because we're never online at the same time to "deploy" together. There are rarely fires to fight, and we lower the amount of technical debt we have at Gumroad every week too!"
  • "Overall, it's a very low stress environment. Many of us don't even have Slack installed. Yet, we're shipping the best software we've ever shipped, and growing faster than ever. Funny how that works!"

Threads like these have been a common sentiment for a while now. It's a great feeling to see more and more remote teams find the right workflows that fit their culture. However, getting there is still a tricky process with lack of clarity on practice and no one-size-fits-all approach.

In this post, we'll talk about async meetings. We will go over everything that's important:

  • What are async meetings?
  • How do they work?
  • Which meetings can be async?
  • How can you get started?

What are async meetings and how do they work?

Meetings that can be run without active, real-time, in-person communication are async meetings. Team members using asynchronous communication can respond to messages as they’re available, with gaps of communication between messages. Participants do not need to be online at the same time or in the same physical location. The key goal is making sure the right information flows between team members without time-consuming, in-person meetings.

Async meetings are time agnostic. There is not set time for the meeting, but rather an open window of time when everyone can share contribute to their part of the conversation. Async meetings help teams reduce the busy work and free up more time for deep focus.

Which meetings can be async?

This is a real question that most people have on their minds when talking about async culture. What meetings are better run async and how can you decide that? Here's a simple framework that can help you decide whether a meeting should be synchronous or asynchronous:

  • The meeting can be asynchronous if: You want to update, sync or share (Ex: Sprint ceremonies, Daily Stand-ups, Status Updates)
  • The meeting can be synchronous if: You want to co-create, brainstorm or decide (Ex: Brainstorming, Ideation, Decision Meetings)

Meetings that require you to tap into collaboration and co-creation are better of synchronous. Meetings that require you to share, engage, update or sync can run absolutely well when async. If you're looking for clearer examples, here's a list of meetings that can be sync and async.

Synchronous Meeting Examples

  • Brainstorming meetings.
  • Pitches or Presentations.
  • Ideation meetings.
  • Decision meetings.
  • All-hands meetings.
  • Team onboarding.
  • Socializing.

Asynchronous Meeting Examples

  • Daily Stand-ups.
  • Sprint Ceremonies.
  • Status Updates.
  • Topic discussions.
  • Weekly/Monthly planning.
  • Weekly/Monthly reviews.
  • Team or Employee Feedback.
  • Announcements.
  • Meeting Preparation.
  • Meeting Retrospective.

How do you run an async meeting?

Once you know which meetings can do well when async, the natural question that most founders and leaders have is how do you actually run an async meeting? We'll get into this by first talking about where you can run an async meeting and how your can structure it.

Where do you host an async meeting?

While video-meetings apps (like Zoom and Google Meets) are obvious answers that pop in your head. However, async meetings are flexible and can be run in different shapes and forms. It all depends on what your team feels comfortable with. Here are a few ways to run async meetings:

  • Run it within your communication app (like Slack or Teams)
    A natural option for many. You can create dedicated channels within your team communication tool (Slack or Teams). In these dedicated channels, you can have your team share their updates or participate in the meeting. Another way is to use dedicated Slack Bots or Teams Bots that are build to run async meetings (like MyCheckins and many more).
  • Get a dedicated tool for async meetings. (like MyCheckins or Loom)
    Getting a dedicated tool to run your async meetings can go a long way in making sure your meetings are effective, hassle-free and smooth to run. There's some great tools out there that offer all forms of async communication. Loom helps you share video updates with your team. MyCheckins helps you share updates over text and Slack. Picking a tool that is a good fit for your team can make it easy for you to build a culture of async communication.

How do you structure an async meeting?

While this question is subjective to the kind of meeting being held, here's a few general tips to help you structure and run better meetings. For more ideas on this, check out our post on running effective meetings as a remote team here.

  • As a host, set the right context and questions for the team.
    Your async meeting will probably involve your team answering the questions on the agenda in their own time. As a host, it is your responsibility to make sure the meeting items are clear, well-contextualized and easy to follow along.
  • Make it easy for everyone to access the meeting, answer the questions and view team updates.
    Make sure your meetings are low in friction. Use a single platform, make it easy for everyone to participate, share updates, view team responses and collaborate effectively. To do this, make sure you communication is hosted on one central location and use the right tools to keep things in order.
  • Build a playbook for your team.
    Async communication is a new concept for most of us. To help your team transition to an async-friendly routine, it would make sense to create a playbook that answers the key questions about what async communication is, how your team can put it into practice and what are the ground-rules. GitLab did a fantastic job documenting this for their team. Take a look here.

Final Thoughts

Utilizing the right approach to communication can be the factor that uplifts your team's remote work experience by magnitudes. It's quite clear that:

  • A remote team that doesn’t properly utilize synchronous communication will have team members that spend too much of their time in meetings, with little time for deep work.
  • A remote team that doesn’t correctly implement asynchronous communication will have detached team members who can’t work efficiently together. You might notice misaligned priorities, a feeling of isolation and poor collaboration within the team.

Thus, understanding and leveraging all modes of communication is essential for any remote leader today. When you get it right, you’re left with a happy, productive and engaged remote team that can function well without being bound by borders.

Gopi Sukhavasi

Founder and CEO