Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication
Historically, when most businesses ran according to the traditional model, work during office hours largely relied on synchronous communication. Asynchronous communication occurred when someone was out of the office or working off-site. As remote work is becoming the new reality, companies must assess whether asynchronous communication is adequate for their remote or hybrid offices and how synchronous communication systems should be adopted for remote teams. Choosing the best communication style that works for your team is crucial, and we’re here to help.
Synchronous communication takes place in real-time and can facilitate an instant response. Examples of synchronous communications include face-to-face meetings, video conferencing, and, of course, in-person meetings (scheduled or informal) and telephone calls.
In the traditional office workspace, people would meet, speak, and exchange messages either face-to-face or over the phone. COVID-19 closures and social distancing necessitated the creation of a more flexible workspace. Where feasible, employees worked from home in virtual offices — setups allowing them to complete their work from a physical location not specifically dedicated to their employer/company. Because of the quick adaptation of video conferencing applications, remote team members were able to continue with synchronous communication rather than having to rely solely on asynchronous communication.
Synchronous communication supports remote work in the following ways:
Many people who are used to working in an office but now work remotely feel disconnected from their peers and office life. Synchronous communication closes the gaps, makes people feel like part of a team and is dynamic and engaging.
It is well suited to employee engagement and networking events that bring a lot of people together at once.
Many projects, especially during brainstorming and other phases, need immediate attention and reactions to keep things moving. Synchronous communication improves the remote collaborative process.
Feedback is crucial for increasing productivity, troubleshooting, avoiding mistakes, and keeping employees/team members on track — and is ideally exchanged in a timely fashion. Synchronous communication prevents lags in information exchange.
Text messages and emails can be easily misinterpreted, as recipients are unable to always decipher the tone of voice and body language. Synchronous communication can occur in real-time so that clarifications and corrections can be made immediately, reducing ambiguity.
In terms of an asynchronous communication definition, think of it as interpersonal reactions that do not occur simultaneously. Since group members are not all present at the same time, there can be a delay between sending a message and receiving a response — anywhere from a few minutes to days, even weeks. Examples of asynchronous communication include regular snail mail, email, the feedback/comment function in Google Docs, project management tools like Asana or Trello, text messaging, messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and video messaging programs like Loom.
People who are accustomed to using asynchronous communication methods continue to utilize these tools because of the following supposed benefits:
Answering an inquiry or providing a requested explanation on one's feet often does not offer a person time to properly craft their response. The ability to process and understand communication and to choose words carefully and strategically benefits all parties involved. There is less likelihood of misinterpretation or missing information on both sides. This is especially important when giving and receiving feedback, as certain discussions can be sensitive.
Many workplaces have protocols relating to documentation. Manually documenting minutes, discussions, or other important business activities can be cumbersome and, depending on the skill and attention of the documenter, inaccurate. Because asynchronous communication is done through software, there is automatically a detailed "paper" trail (minus the paper). Topics and action items are transparent, as everyone can see what was referred to or assigned.
During in-person meetings, it is not uncommon for discussions to be dominated by senior or more extroverted team members. Others may not feel they have the opportunity to contribute or express concerns. Asynchronous communication allows everyone to have a voice and to provide as much explanation as they feel is required.
With the right support, however, many of these issues can be remedied without the need to rely heavily on asynchronous communication to manage your remote team.
Now we will look at synchronous and asynchronous communication in terms of strengths, weaknesses, purposes, and best usage.
As we have discussed, synchronous communication reconnects remote workers and allows them to feel like a team and improves the collaborative process by facilitating better brainstorming and troubleshooting sessions. It also helps to prevent misinterpretation of messages and feedback because people can gauge nonverbal cues. Synchronous communication also increases productivity by keeping everyone on the same page and letting team members provide and receive immediate feedback.
However, synchronous communication has its cons as well. If the team members work in different time zones or if some team members are traveling abroad, which is becoming more common in the age of a growing global workforce, conversations need to happen at times when everybody's schedule overlaps. Many video conferencing programs allow for private messaging and have a general chat function.
Asynchronous communication lets employees carry out tasks uninterrupted and allow parties to take the time to craft responses strategically. All team members have the opportunity to weigh in, not just the more senior or extroverted people. Asynchronous communication programs also tend to automatically document communications, topics of discussion, actions, follow-up items, and the actual chain of communication.
On the downside, the nature of asynchronous communication means that the spontaneity of creative ideas — that happens when employees brainstorm together in real time — is absent. Asynchronous communication is not great when immediate action or responses are required since the recipient may not answer for hours or even days. The lack of real-time, personal connection and the inability to easily ascertain the tone or emotion normally conveyed during in-person conversations also exacerbate feelings of isolation and disconnect remote workers often experience.
Thankfully, it is possible — and even recommended — to use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication. The question is, what combination suits your remote team best? For businesses with remote workers, a ratio of asynchronous communication roughly 70% of the time, synchronous communication roughly 20% of the time, and the remaining roughly 10% for an in-person team or employee engagement events appears to be optimal.
When deciding which mode of communication to use, ask the following questions:
When do I need the answer?
Do other team members require this information right now?
How many team members are there?
How complex is the information I need to share?
Would others benefit from hearing this information/inquiry/message with nonverbal cues?
If there is no pressing need for the response, the information is relatively simple, and it does not affect a large number of people, there is arguably no need to use synchronous communication to inquire. What you may find, however, is that communications are clearer, more effective, and more efficient when they occur in real-time and as close to "in-person" as practicable.
Here are some of the best practices for using both kinds of communication.
The general philosophy with respect to synchronous communication is to use it strategically. Some people ask, "Does it truly have to be a meeting, or would an email suffice?" That's not necessarily the question. It may not have to be a meeting, but it may be a good chance for a quick, real-time chat with one person or a small group of people. It could be a phone call or an avenue facilitated by Kumospace or other programs.
Incidentally, if you do want that meeting, make sure you respect time zones and schedules so that the fewest members have to attend outside of their normal working hours. If it is an ongoing series of meetings, consider switching up the times so that the same people don't have to make that sacrifice each time. Make an agenda and stick to it. Record meetings so that those unable to attend can still catch up. Lastly, make sure that your video conferencing programs optimize video and audio settings and that employees have the hardware necessary to properly use the program.
When using asynchronous communication, include as much information as possible. Don't just list out action items — include due dates, who to contact for clarification, and links to resources and documents, so everyone has what they need to proceed. Ask for responses but provide reasonable response times. Be clear with expectations and be transparent. Some programs can show whether recipients have opened/viewed the communication. If your system can provide read receipts, enable that function. This way, if someone hasn't looked at your message and time is ticking, you can choose another way to contact them and advise them to review what you sent.
Figuring out how to communicate with virtual teams in different scenarios depends largely on understanding people's roles on shared projects and what actions need to be prioritized. Synchronous communication shouldn't be used only when there is urgency and with personnel who are integral to the discussion or decision. There are some intangible benefits to synchronous communication — getting to know your colleagues or higher-ups better, for example. There is a lot of information you can learn about someone just by hearing their perspective on issues seemingly unrelated to your discussion.
Do, however, fight the urge to invite people "just in case." Those for whom it may only be "nice to know" what transpired during a meeting can be updated separately — asynchronously. The key is to be able to understand the best person with whom to communicate.
An email is a form of asynchronous communication because one may read and respond later. However, if used synchronously — if team members write back and forth immediately — it may lead to a systematic misuse of the form of communication. For example, people who have been cc'ed may see all the activity on the chain and feel pressured to respond right away — and eventually, the expectations will shift. The team may lose email as a proper asynchronous form of communication. Even worse, it won't be synchronous communication for everyone on the list, making it possible for different groups of people to treat the email differently.
Use the appropriate method of communication at the outset — with the right group of people — and clearly delineate the purpose of the communication as well as your expectations.
Both synchronous and asynchronous communication have their purposes and roles. Understanding when to use each method is key to enabling efficiency and effectiveness in remote work. That way, your team can have the best of both worlds.
While COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in most jurisdictions, businesses have begun to see the positive aspects of a fully remote or hybrid office setup. As communication technologies and abilities evolve, more and more businesses will likely shift at least a part of their operations to a remote workplace model. Companies that had started working remotely early on discovered that effective communication is vital to the success and productivity of a remote team. There will always be a place for both synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Synchronous communication occurs in real-time so that participants can exchange information immediately without any time lag. Asynchronous communication allows for a delay in response, as not all team members involved are experiencing it simultaneously.
Whether synchronous or asynchronous communication should be used depends on the circumstances. If there is urgency, immediate action or response is needed, or there is more complex information to exchange, synchronous communication may be more appropriate. However, if there is no rush, asynchronous communication may be preferable because workers will be able to continue their workflow without needless interruption.
Synchronous communication is better in more circumstances than many people realize. Some argue that synchronous communications are only beneficial when a complex decision must be made, participants need to gauge nonverbal cues to interpret the message properly, or a rapid exchange of ideas must take place. These people, however, tend to forget how much growth can come from networking, community, and real-time interaction. If anything, unless the communication needs to be asynchronous, multiple objectives can be achieved through synchronous communication.