Video meetings proved crucial for connecting remote workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, replicating face-to-face conversations even when offices were shuttered. But these real-time communications have drawbacks, too, with remote workers facing schedules packed with back-to-back video meetings and trying to catch colleagues who may be several time zones away.
As a result, a growing number of collaboration software vendors are now touting “asynchronous” (or async) video messaging as an option to help make workplace communication less demanding. The idea is that rather than scheduling a video call, colleagues can pre-record a short video (or audio) message to send to colleagues who can watch the clip whenever it’s convenient. This is particularly useful for distributed teams in different time zones, avoiding the need to arrange meetings at awkward times, and for staffers with flexible schedules.
Video messaging vendors cite several ways async messages can be used: it’s to possible request feedback on a project, celebrate team “wins,” or share status updates without everyone being present at the same time. Video messages can also serve as a “knowledge content repository,” allowing training videos to be viewed by new hires, for example.
“What we’re seeing are more micro-opportunities for groups to maintain group situational awareness,” said Mike Gotta, research vice president at Gartner. “Asynchronous messaging gives us another option…. Rather than have my team be online to have a five-minute huddle and break, I can just post a message saying: ‘This is our status’ and then kick it off.”
Already in use by consumers, async video features for the workplace arrive seemingly every week. Slack began rolling out its Clips feature last month; it lets users send short video, audio, and screenshare recordings to colleagues. And Cisco recently unveiled VidCast, which provides similar functionality.
The list is growing: Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Dropbox all announced video messaging features in recent weeks, and work management apps Asana and Trello added similar functionality to their platforms via third-party apps earlier this year. Numerous startups are tackling async video too. They include Loom, a video messaging startup that has received over $200 million in funding since launching in 2016, with 12 million users; Claap; easyUp; Supernormal; and Weet — to name just a few.
The recent interest in async video in the workplace can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the boom in video during the pandemic. Many organizations “massively over-pivoted” towards real-time collaboration with video meetings and conferencing, which had adverse effects on lots of workers, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. “The growth of asynchronous is a realization that we need to manage our workloads better,” she said.
What are asynchronous communications?
Asynchronous communication is not new; the term simply describes communications between two or more people that do not require an immediate response from the recipient.
“The collaboration market ebbs and flows in terms of shifting from team to social to in-person collaboration, real-time to non-real time; that has happened a lot over the years,” said Ashenden.
Email is an obvious commonplace example, while work management apps, digital whiteboards, wikis, and enterprise social networks all support the same approach. Video messages have become the latest approach, adding the expressiveness of in-person verbal communication that email lacks, for example.
Asynchronous communications are the counterpoint to real-time, “synchronous” communications such as a video or phone call or even a quick-fire instant message conversation. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, though some companies have become advocates of asynchronous communications for remote knowledge workers.
“Asynchronous communication is a significant differentiator in a world where businesses are increasingly remote,” says software company Gitlab in a handbook document describing its “Async 3.0” initiative.
For GitLab, which favors async communication where possible for its all-remote workforce of 1,300 employees, there are numerous benefits. They include more thoughtful communications that are well-documented, as well as reduced stress and greater autonomy for workers.
“In an asynchronous company, team members are given agency to move projects forward on a schedule that suits them,” GitLab’s handbook states. “At GitLab, we measure results, not hours. This means that people are free to achieve results when it best suits them.”
Asynchronous communications also suit the different communication styles of individuals within a team, said Ashenden. “Some people are more prepared to talk in group environments, and some people aren’t,” she said. “If you have introverted people who don’t necessarily speak up, an asynchronous tool gives them the space to offer their opinion without having to do it publicly; just create it and share it with the group.”
That’s not to say async communication is always a better approach for remote teams.
Real-time communications can be better suited to fast-paced conversations, such as incident response where an urgent answer is needed. It is also easier to build rapport between colleagues when communicating in real-time. Issues are usually dealt with faster, without overloading users with emails or video messages to view and potentially respond to. And for client-facing roles where there’s an expectation of an immediate response, synchronous communication is pretty much a necessity.
The downside of async
Asynchronous video messages, specifically, do have drawbacks, particularly if companies are to adopt the features widely across their business. “Getting dozens of video clips in my inbox to wade through is potentially just as much information overload as lots of text-based messages,” said Ashenden.
For IT teams, yet another mode of interaction creates more complexity around employee communications and data sharing. “The question is, if I’m an IT organization or even a businessperson, am I increasing my risk surface area for discovery compliance because this fragmentation continues to proliferate,” said Gotta, referring to the potential introduction of video messaging apps.
At the same time, the line between sync and async communications has blurred significantly.
This is true for team-chat applications like Slack and Teams, which can be used in different ways, but also with traditional video communication tools that have evolved to function asynchronously to some degree.
For example, automated video call transcriptions allow absent colleagues to catch up on real-time conversations they missed. “Some of the meeting solutions for videoconferencing are no longer treating it as just a meeting,” said Christopher Trueman, principal analyst at Gartner. “There’s a lot of collateral that’s created around that meeting as well, and a lot of that’s delivered asynchronously after the meeting itself.”
Ultimately what’s important for most organizations is to enable teams and individuals to communicate in their preferred style, whatever that approach or blend of approaches may be. Although it has limits, async video messaging simply offers another route to achieve this.
“Whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous, whether it’s in-person or not, video-based or text, we need to build those [modes of communication] into the picture,” said Ashenden. “Some people will lean more towards one of the various extremes than another. But…we have to embrace all of it, because that’s the way that we communicate as humans: you have to accept that variation.”
Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.