Although the term “asynchronous meeting” may sound like an oxymoron, how many meetings have you sat through that could have just as well been a Slack message or email?
Probably too many, considering how much much meeting time is spent on one-to-many information dissemination. More than 31 hours per month are spent in unproductive meetings, and half of all meetings are considered a waste of time.
That’s not to suggest meetings are worthless. Some meeting topics are too complex to cover via email, and it’s often necessary to discuss matters as a group.
The asynchronous meeting sits in the middle ground between Slack messages and in-person meetings.
So, what is an asynchronous meeting?
Asynchronous meetings are meetings that don't happen in real-time and don't require an immediate response. They allow presenters to communicate messages through the same means of a live, in-person meeting without the need to coordinate across time zones and overflowing schedules.
If a meeting is an assembly of people for the purpose of discussion, then an asynchronous meeting is also an assembly of people for the purpose of discussion — just not all at the exact same time. The same people receive the same message; they just interpret and react to it on their own time, versus synchronously in the same (real or virtual) room.
Related reading: When to Choose Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Communication
For meetings that take a one-to-many approach — as is often the case with all-hands meetings and other presentations — asynchronous communication give teams the freedom and flexibility to address the audience in a more engaging manner than a dry block of text, without forcing the meeting participants to file into an auditorium, conference room (or, these days, Zoom meeting) all at the same time.
The problem with remote all-hands meetings
If you’ve ever been in a synchronous, remote, all-hands meeting with a global team, you know that means it’s early in the morning for some, the middle of the day for HQ, and into the wee hours of the night for others. A few folks from the leadership team provide updates to the rest of the company while most of the audience is counting down the minutes until they can go grab a coffee, make lunch, or put their child to bed.
The idea of having everyone in a company meet up at the same time to listen to a few speakers — with little interaction from the rest of the audience — intuitively sounds like a poor use of time.
The problem is exacerbated as you add team members across time zones, considering that joining a company all-hands at 11 p.m. doesn’t let you bring your best and most engaged self to the meeting.
The engagement issue goes both ways, between presenters and participants. While the majority of participants stay on mute during the meeting (and feel like they’re watching a low-budget YouTube channel), the presenters get very little feedback from the audience.
On top of this true lack of engagement during remote company all-hands meetings — especially in a world where distributed workforces are becoming the norm — meetings with everyone in the same room at the same time are at a premium.
How we switched to asynchronous all-hands meetings
As Loom continued to scale as a company and add Loommates in new time zones, we began to confront these problems more frequently. Even before the Bay Area announced the Shelter in Place order, we could no longer all fit in one conference room in our San Francisco office. It was getting harder and harder to coordinate real-time meetings across a dozen time zones, risking excluding certain team members from participating in the conversation.
As a-remote first company focused on building an asynchronous communication tool for the workplace, we knew that all-hands was a broken process, and that we were building a tool to help solve the problem.
We decided it was important to free up time to allow for better content delivery and more engaging conversations.
We asked presenters to record brief (two minutes or under) Loom videos to share their updates, and we asked the rest of the company to watch all of those looms at a time that was convenient for them (at 2x speed, if they so choose).
We still schedule synchronous meetings after everyone has had a chance to review the content, but that time is solely focused on Q&A. This way, we take advantage of when everyone is together to have real-time discussions and bounce ideas off of each other. This practice has strengthened our belief that meetings should be used for conversation — not information dissemination.
The benefits of asynchronous all-hands meetings
We initially experimented with an asynchronous all-hands meeting with the understanding that we’d try it out and see how it went. While there were a couple minor hiccups the first time around, we instantly validated the power of the idea.
Switching from real-time to asynchronous all-hands meetings:
Allowed viewers to consume content when it was convenient for them, and to pause, skip around, and return to particularly interesting content.
Provided presenters with better feedback, as viewers interacted with their content through emoji reactions and comments.
Preserved the time we spend together for company-wide engagement via Q&A.
Created a system of record for current and future Loommates to go back and review relevant content in a more approachable format than reviewing hours of all-hands meeting recordings.
Overall, the change was much less dramatic than expected — in a world where people watch YouTube videos and Instagram stories on a daily basis, consuming company updates in a similar fashion didn’t introduce any new muscles.
New research validates organizing our workday around this kind of “bursty” communication:
“Remote teams who communicate in bursts — exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity — perform much better than remote teams whose conversations involve long lag time between responses and are spread across multiple topic threads. … People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”
Asynchronous meetings have freed up that valuable synchronous time slot to work on building, shipping, and communicating the value of Loom to our customers.
When you let people consume information …
on their own time
at their own pace
with the ability to re-watch or re-read parts where they tuned out or don't understand
… then you've meaningfully increased the effectiveness of your communication. Live time should be for “bursty,” creative collaboration. Information should be disseminated asynchronously.
There is no silver bullet
Have I convinced you that asynchronous meetings hold the answers to all of your prayers yet? No? Good, because they aren’t the end-all-be-all.
While asynchronous meetings are a great tool, there is still incredible value and richness in real-time meetings. At Loom, we still host the live Q&A sessions after our asynchronous all-hands because we realize the importance of all coming together in the same room — in-person or virtually — and asking questions of the leadership team and each other.
While asynchronous meetings don’t necessarily solve the pain point associated with unproductive meetings, we’ve found that the advantages with regard to time, productivity, morale, and revenue made the experiment well worth it. Async meetings offer an opportunity to keep one-way content flexible and engaging, while preserving synchronous meetings for discussions that are best held in real time.