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Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication and why more teams are choosing asynchronous communication

Great communication is the sign of a high performing team, but technology and the pandemic have changed the way we work and how teams communicate. One of the biggest challenges companies are now facing is figuring out the best way to keep their newly remote, distributed, and hybrid teams in sync.

Technology has helped facilitate the shift to remote, with tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, helping teams connect better. However, with these tools, come more channels of communication, more interruption, and more distraction. As a result, knowing when to use which channel is a challenge for many; plenty of companies are struggling to find the perfect formula for how to have fewer better remote team meetings. Many teams still struggle with knowing when to jump on Zoom vs send an email, or when to send a Slack message vs schedule a meeting.

Understanding how great teams use asynchronous communication and when it's right to use synchronous communication is key to running an effective remote or distributed team.

The difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication

What does synchronous communication mean?

Synchronous communication is when the communication is sent and received at the same time. Traditionally, in the workplace, there is an expectation of immediate response. Although this seems like an effective approach, instead, it is quite the opposite and is one that prioritizes immediate responses over thoughtful responses and interruption over focus. Largely, synchronous communication was manageable when we had to be physically near colleagues to interrupt them, but now it's much easier to interrupt tens or hundreds of colleagues at the push of a button.

What does asynchronous communication mean?

Asynchronous communication is when communication is sent and received at different times, with no expectation of an immediate response. Asynchronous communication prioritizes thoughtful, often longer-form communication over short, frequent pings and focused work over constant interruptions.

Read more to understand what is asynchronous communication and how to apply it.

Synchronous communication examples

  • In-person meetings
  • Zoom, Meet or Microsoft Teams video calls
  • Team chat like Slack (when there's the expectation and habit of immediate response)
  • Tapping your colleague on the shoulder for a work conversation
  • Phone calls
  • Watercooler work conversations
  • Email (when there's an expectation of immediate response)

Asynchronous communication examples

  • Email (when there is no expectation of a quick reply)
  • Communication in project management tools
  • Pre-recorded video in tools like Loom and Vidyard
  • Communication in asynchronous tools
  • Asynchronous meetings

Is email synchronous or asynchronous?

This is one of the frequent questions teams have when deciding how their remote team should collaborate. The answer is, it depends. It depends largely on whether there is expectation of immediate response. The truth is that most organizations have created a culture where a sent email expects a near-immediate reply. So, although email can be asynchronous, it can be hard to change work habits without changing the medium of communication. Another downside of email is that it is not transparent or open. By default, email is only visible to specific recipients, so asynchronous teams largely steer clear of email due to the expectation of response, tendency for short-quick emails and the lack of default transparency.

When to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication

Whilst most experienced remote teams default to remote asynchronous collaboration, there is still a place for synchronous communication. The key lies in knowing when to use each type of communication, and applying these practices throughout the team.

When to use synchronous communication:

Tip: Promoting more asynchronous communication also means that any synchronous meetings you have, will now have more context, and be run more efficiently, especially if you're using a remote meeting agenda template. Use a tool to help promote more asynchronous communication and improve your meetings.

When to use asynchronous communication:

  • Status updates
  • Proposals
  • Team sync meetings
  • Weekly staff meetings
  • Gathering feedback
  • Quarterly planning meetings

Tools for asynchronous work

  • Asynchronous meeting tools like Know Your Team
  • Project management tools like Trello and Basecamp
  • Voice recording tools like Yac
  • Video recording tools like Loom and Vidyard
  • Google docs

Asynchronous meetings: How to get started

Although companies that were born remote, like Gitlab and Buffer, are already used to working in sync asynchronously, it's unrealistic to expect established companies to change their communication habits overnight. The best way to get started is to:

  • Document how to use your team's existing communication channels.
  • Improve meeting habits and ensure your team are writing agendas and taking meeting minutes or meeting notes.
  • Start having fewer, better meetings by using a tool to run your meetings + enable your team to communicate asynchronously between meetings.

Wrapping up

Many teams are struggling with Zoom fatigue and wondering how to manage their hybrid teams now that not everyone is in the office. It's important not to try and replicate the office habits with a distributed team. Remote and distributed work requires a new set of tools, practices and habits.

Now is a great time to re-think how your team communicates to avoid the risk of your team becoming disconnected or misaligned. It's important to understand the role that asynchronous communication should play in hybrid teams and how to slowly introduce more thoughtful communication practices.