Case Study - GitHub's Focus on Asynchronous Chat Between Remote Workers
Communication is one of the cornerstones of teamwork, and that is doubly true for a successful business. How clearly and effortlessly you communicate, both in vertical and horizontal organizations, has a huge impact on productivity, work output, and overall product quality.
Most good managers understand this, and if you’ve ever considered hiring remote workers, you have worried about communication. How can you communicate effectively with someone that is half a world away?
Did we just read your thoughts? No, we didn’t - we’re not mind readers. We just know our stuff - this is our business, after all, and part of that business is coming up with solutions to your worries. Or even better - finding out established solutions that have worked for others when managing remote workers.
Enter the revolutionary GitHub, a business valued in millions that nonetheless didn’t even have an office for its first two years in operation. They credit part of their success on asynchronous communication - a topic we’ve touched on briefly in our free Remote Agile e-book.
What is asynchronous communication? It’s a fancy expression to say that people don’t need to reply immediately - issues, questions and announcements sit in the cloud and everyone can get at them at their own pace. It’s the essential distinction between an e-mail that you can schedule to reply later, or a phone-call / meeting that you need to take NOW.
Sounds like it would never work for your company, right? Read on - we bet you’ll be surprised. In fact, while every company, business and startup is different, if we had to establish a connection, a commonality between all of the most successful, then one of our prime suspects would be a reliance on asynchronous communication over synchronous communication.
So how did this approach work for GitHub? And how did they implement it?
Chat Is King
There’s a huge reason why Slack is so popular these days - and if you dislike it that’s fine, we have looked at a few great Slack alternatives - and that is because it took asynchronous chat to the next level. If you rely on a phone call or even video chat whenever you need anything, you’ll have to see if the other person is available; even if she makes herself available, you’ll have disrupted her work-flow. As psychology tells us that once distracted, a human being needs on average 20 to 45 minutes to re-focus, that’s a big chunk of productivity down the drain!
Now imagine what happens when you need to coordinate with several people! Not only will you have to find a time that works out for all of them, you’ll be massively disrupting their personal productivity, which directly affects the company’s output as a whole. This is why incredibly productive companies like GitHub or Basecamp proclaim meetings as toxic - they claim that meetings drastically impact productivity and rarely offer anything meaningful in return.
E-mail is an imperfect solution to this - it is properly asynchronous, but it is also very easy to tuck away and forget about. Have you ever spent minutes panicking while going through your Gmail tags, looking for an important e-mail? We feel your frustration.
This is why GitHub adopted chat as the ultimate solution. In the words of Zach Holman, one of GitHub’s first engineers and a key player in their initial growth:
“Asynchronous communication means I can take a step out for lunch and catch up on transcripts when I get back. Asynchronous communication means I can ask my coworker a question in-chat and not worry about bothering her since she’ll get back to me when she’s available.”
This is the huge benefit of current chat solutions: everything is archived and easily searched. You have a huge, centralized database of your whole organization’s communications, one that leans toward promoting self-sufficiency and transparency over office politics and time-wasting.
GitHub has, quite simply, made the chat-room into their de-facto virtual office. Nearly every piece of communication in the company lives inside researchable chat. Meetings are used as a last resort, and this helps everyone stay, as they put it “in the zone”, focused on their work which them seamlessly comes together through chat.
Does it work for your company?
We at Distant Job aren’t fans of one-size-fits-all solutions. We think that every company is unique and works in unique ways, so optimizing needs to be done on a case-by-case basis with an even head and a willingness to experiment. This is why we’ll happily share Basecamp’s mantra that “meetings are toxic” in one day while providing you with a handy e-book detailing how to go about Agile meetings with remote workers.
We do think that studying success is crucial to replicating it, and you owe it to yourself and to your company to at least consider a trial implementation of these examples in your business.
Determine at least a couple of low-risk projects about which communication is to be done exclusively through asynchronous chat. And then see the magic happen!
(Spoiler Alert: 9 times out of 10, it will work out great)