How to make decisions asynchronously

A short guide on the dilemmas remote-first teams face when making an important decision, and the one solution that may just work

You need to get the product team together this week to discuss and make a decision on something that affects your roadmap. Do you:

  1. Hunt for a block of time on the calendar to squeeze in yet another Zoom meeting on the edge of everyone’s time zones,
  2. Do whatever works best for you –– email thread, brainstorm doc, adding a card to the kanban board –– because there’s no set process, and try to monitor progress so other people contribute, or
  3. Start an ad hoc Slack thread on the topic and ping everyone on your team.

If you’re caught in this multiple choice nightmare, you aren’t alone. Most remote teams have imperfect solutions to having key discussions asynchronously – and the costs are higher than you might think.

The Back-to-back meeting dilemma

Meetings are the default for team decisions because you can capture everyone's attention at once. But this isn't a reliable or recommended practice in remote. In fact, remote best practices and conventional office wisdom have little overlap. That’s why many companies switching to remote in the last few years have seen how quickly a day can fill up with Zoom calls where little seems to get done. That’s because:

  • The loudest voice dominates meetings. Some people are not as comfortable public speaking or being assertive about their ideas, even when they have great things to say.
  • Fast solutions are prioritized over thoughtful ones, because settling on a solution during the meeting is a “sign” that it wasn’t a waste of time.
  • Workflow and productivity are cramped. Syncing multiple time zones is a nightmare, and busy schedules mean that squeezing in another meeting demands everyone drop their projects to discuss, rather than fitting discussions into their flow.

Meetings are great for some purposes, but they certainly aren’t the best way to handle every decision a team needs to make. Relying too much on meetings is gumming up your workers’ schedules and giving them Zoom fatigue for no real reason.

The "Free-for-all" dilemma

If you’ve cleared the hurdle of endless meetings, your team probably decided you would try to discuss things in a more asynchronous way. The only problem is that different managers, teams and workers have different preferences and needs. Rather than having one process, your company now has many, from email threads to Asana tasks to kanban cards. This is a step in the right direction, but:

  • Decisions are decentralized and impossible to keep track of, and this siloing results in radically different decision logic for different parts of the company.
  • Specialists have no idea where to look for action items and things they need to contribute to, and their input can fall through the cracks.
  • People don’t know how to go about closing a discussion with a decision, which can lead to hesitancy around taking ownership.
  • As your company grows, the number of workaround "processes" of decision-making increases exponentially.

The "Random thread" dilemma

So you decided that enough was enough, and your company decided people would start one thread for every decision in Slack or another communication tool. This is a small step up: it’s asynchronous and allows people to think before they respond, and at least it sets a precedent for how to have a conversation with the team. But starting a random thread in one of your team’s many tools is still not a real solution:

  • Level of urgency is not clear, especially if you use the team’s ground zero communications tool, which houses many different levels of discussion.
  • Deadlines are difficult to set and keep, especially when threads get buried in central channels with lots of activity.
  • Keeping track of decisions means moving information from your messaging tool into another tool where it won’t get lost, like a company wiki, task manager, or team calendar, which creates an extra layer of admin work.

So, where do you turn to create an actual, thought-out process to remote decision making?

Decision-making is core to any workflow, remote or not

We went through the above dilemmas ourselves in the early days of Slite. The bright side of learning about how to make remote decisions badly, is that we now know this: all remote teams need to put decison-making at the forefront of their workflow.

Like meetings, you need a firm deadline to ensure a decision gets made–it just needs to be a little more flexible than "right now". Like the free-for-all conundrum, you need to have space for different ways of thinking (bullets, comment threads, screenshots)–it just needs to be housed in one place. And like random threads, you need your decisions to be made in a tool your team already uses every day, not yet another software to slap on top of your stack.

A real Slite Discussion from our marketing squad

Why use Discussions in Slite

Discussions in Slite was developed for remote teams, by a remote team. When you start a Discussion in Slite, you simplify your decision-making process, making it more calm and flexible at the same time. Discussions creates a productive, asynchronous decision-making process because it:

  • Centralizes where decisions are made,
  • Doesn’t demand anyone stop their workflow,
  • Gives everyone equal space to think and contribute,
  • Has the flexibility to include many different types of media so people can share their thinking in the way that works for them,
  • Appoints a Decision-maker who owns the discussion,
  • Sets a timeline that creates a bias towards action, and
  • Clearly highlights what the decision is and when the discussion is closed.

Plus, Discussions is hosted right where your team documentation is. That way, you can tag and link documents in your discussion, meaning you can always find your way back to a decision and you can start to make documentation as soon as you brainstorm a solution.

Tips for using Discussions

These tips for Discussions can apply to all remote team communications
  1. Create one deadline for Discussion replies, and another for the Discussion decision. Encourage people to contribute by giving everyone time to think about the best decision, not the first one.
  2. Break up text. Use bullet points, sketches, and tables to make Discussion replies easily scannable and to keep the conversation organized.
  3. Tag other team members when you have a dependency. Discussions are transparent with your whole team, so you can bring people into Discussions even with a team they're not a core member of.
  4. Highlight, react and respond to specific lines. Use the info in your teammates'replie
  5. Suggest action steps at the end of each reply, if you can –– this keeps the ball rolling!

A step in the right direction for remote work

Like many remote-first companies, Slite had to figure out the best process for asynchronous decisions in a world flooded with ideas and software made for going into a central office. When we couldn’t find something that actually streamlined remote decisions and prioritized a good remote workflow, we made Discussions to solve the problem for ourselves and our customers. We know it's not perfect, but it's a start towards better async-first remote work.

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