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Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: what’s the main difference (and why it matters)

Michele Cimmino

mar 29, 2022 • 11 min read

Nothing is more important in team management than effective communication.

But with different working styles and a predominantly remote or hybrid working environment, it can be challenging to figure out the best way to communicate with your team. In fact, according to Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report, difficulties with collaboration and communication were cited as the second biggest struggle when working remotely.

To communicate with your team more effectively, it’s helpful to know the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Understanding how and when to use each method will make a huge impact on your team’s collaboration and productivity.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what synchronous and asynchronous communications entail, the difference between the two, and use cases for both.

What is synchronous communication?

Synchronous communication is communication that happens in real-time.

When you’re communicating synchronously with someone, whether virtually or in person, you expect a response right away. It allows for instant, dynamic conversation.

Examples of synchronous communication:

  • ☎️ Phone conversations
  • 🤝 Meetings (physical or virtual)
  • 🖥 Webinars
  • ☕️ Casual coffee chats

What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous communication, as you might have guessed, it the opposite. When communicating asynchronously, you don’t need an immediate response. It allows people to take some time before answering each message.

Examples of asynchronous communication:

  • 📧 Email
  • 📱 Text messages
  • 🧑‍💻 Instant messaging (i.e. Slack, Ring, Fleep)
  • 🎥 Recorded video or voice messages
  • ⚒ Project / workflow management tools
  • 🗂 Assigned tasks and comments in documents
  • 🐌 Snail mail

Sync vs async: what’s the difference?

The main difference between synchronous vs asynchronous communications is in the response time between messages.

When communicating synchronously, people are expected to respond at that moment. Think about when you’re having a phone call with someone: it’s a consistent back and forth between you and the person you’re talking to.

In contrast, when communicating asynchronously, there can be a time-lapse between messages. For example, when you’re emailing someone, you don’t expect an immediate response. The person you’re emailing could take anywhere from 10 minutes to a day to get back to you.

While some companies stick solely with one method or the other, it’s pretty rare. Most teams find a balance between the two that works best for their team - this is quite crucial in Lasting Dynamics that has a 50%-50% distribution and balance between in-office and fully remote team-mates.

Devin Pickell, Growth Marketing Manager at Nextiva, uses async communications 80% of the time and synchronous communications 20% of the time. He explains:

“Being fully remote and in a marketing role, email, Slack, and Asana are often my go-to channels for relaying information and following up. At Nextiva, another async channel is our call recording tool for listening to customer calls and writing down feedback for the sales team. I really only use synchronous channels for vendor meetings, internal meetings, or catch-up calls.”

Devin Pickell, Growth Marketing Manager, Nextiva

Michele Cimmino, CEO @ Lasting Dynamics Group uses to organise his calendar to reduce at the minimum possible the recurring calls to give freedom to the calendar to accomodate around 10-12 hrs working hrs per day in the following direction:

  • Personal Board Tasks - a Kanban infinite and continuative board that merges all tasks from all projects followed, including company management, that uses priorities and statuses to never forget an action to take and keep following up on those that are going slower. 40% of the working day
  • In-office interaction & 5-15 mins quick meetings - to unlock blockers in any direction, interacting with team leaders, project managers, business developers, head of QA and design etc. 30% of the working day
  • Calendar events - retrospectives, customers, projects management meetings 30% of the working day

Each communication method has its own pros and cons. When you should use each depends on the situation. These days, with countless async communication tools at our disposal, there’s a lot we can get done asynchronously. But, there are still some situations when having real-time interactions can’t be replaced - considering also that workspace is an important part for fully living and enjoying the workplace.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: what’s the difference (and why it matters) 01

Pros and cons of synchronous communication

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of synchronous communication:

Pros of synchronous communication

✅ Minimizes misunderstandings and back-and-forth

We’ve all been in a situation where miscommunication happens as a result of a misinterpreted email or Slack message. It can be hard to convey your emotions and tone through a written message (thank goodness for emojis 🙏 ). One of the advantages of synchronous communication is the ability to ensure your messages are received as you intended them to be. If any misunderstandings occur, you can easily address them on the spot, clarify the issue, and avoid future confusion.

Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab, explains that when feasible he uses asynchronous communication to move a project forward. But, after a certain amount of back and forth, he’ll switch to synchronous communication. In some situations, it helps get to the bottom of things faster. Darren explains:

“Working asynchronously is not a goal unto itself; rather, being considerate and opting to move a discussion or project forward asynchronously when feasible creates more space for synchronous moments. If two people go back and forth more than three times on the same topic — and it’s impractical to break it into smaller async-friendly decisions — it makes sense to temporarily pivot to synchronous or a richer communication medium.

Darren Murph, Heaf Of Remote, Gitlab

✅ Builds rapport

Humans are hardwired to communicate face-to-face. Synchronous communication, especially video calls and in-person interaction, is an important part of building rapport with your team. And the rapport isn’t just a nice-to-have. You need it to build a foundation of trust and create a more engaged team. No matter the tool or your ability as a communicator, you can’t build the same type of deep connections with people asynchronously.

✅ Quick response for time-sensitive situations

There are situations when it’s imperative to disrupt someone’s workflow because a more pressing matter comes up. In those scenarios, synchronous communication is the answer. A last-minute change of plans or any type of crisis demands a quick response from team members.

Cons of synchronous communication

❌ Distracting

One of the biggest disadvantages of real-time communications is that you’re expected to respond as soon as you can, even if it means constantly interrupting your focus.

A team-member that has to stop doing something to jump into a meeting is probably going to take lot more time later to resume from the stopping point. Furthermore, participating into meetings according to latest neuroscientists discovery - contributes in quickly discharging the energy of people making them feeling they either need a pause or some easier task after a meeting with a duration of already only 30-60 minutes.

❌ Difficult for different time zones

One of the beauties of remote work is the ability to work with team members all over the world. But, because your remote employees might be living in different time zones, it’s not always possible to expect them to be available during your daily work hours. So, synchronous communication isn’t the optimal form of communication for teams spread out across time zones.

Liviu Tanase, entrepreneur and CEO of ZeroBounce, confirms:

“I manage several teams that are spread out across the U.S. and Europe. Communicating with all of them in real-time isn’t always possible. Asynchronous is what we mainly use for our remote teams. Thankfully, they’re self-starters and highly independent people that I can always count on.”

Liviu Tanase, ZeroBounce

Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: what’s the difference (and why it matters)

Pros and cons of asynchronous communication

The main advantage of asynchronous communication is the freedom to respond to messages at a time that works for you — which can has major benefits for everyone.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits and disadvantages of async communications:

Pros of asynchronous communication

✅ More focus time

Communicating asynchronously allows your team to focus on their work without constant interruptions. This is especially important for certain roles. For example, while meetings might be an important tool to you as a manager, they cost your team precious uninterrupted focus time. Paul Graham calls this the maker vs. manager schedule. For managers, synchronous communication is how work happens. For makers, it stops work from happening.

Communicating asynchronously allows makers to respond on their own time, rather than disrupting their workflow — which will ultimately make the whole team more productive.

Narek Safaryan, CEO of Renderforest, expands on this. He explains that a key to successful team management is eliminating unnecessary distractions:

“Most of our communication during projects is done asynchronously. If anything urgent comes up, we use chat, if not, we stick to our boards and cards on Trello. The way we define tasks for team members and assign deadlines to them without any further distractions makes it easy for them to concentrate.”

– Narek Safaryan, Renderforest

✅ Time-zone friendly

If the only way your team’s communicates is through real-time meetings or phone calls, you’re not creating an inclusive environment for your team members in other time zones. When you have good async communication methods in place, your global employees don’t need to spend their off-hours online or on the phone with their team members. Instead, they can actually spend their leisure time well to avoid burnout.

✅ Flexible response time

Asynchronous communication is ideal for issues that demand more time and dedication to be resolved. Instead of throwing together an on-the-spot response simply because you’re expected to do so in a meeting, you can take your time and analyze the issue to come up with a thoughtful solution.

Cons of asynchronous communication

❌ Not suitable for urgent issues

When it comes to urgent issues, asynchronous communications aren’t the best options. By nature, asynchronous communication methods allow people more time to respond. While that’s the beauty of them, it won’t work for every situation — especially not an emergency.

❌ Potential for miscommunication

Asynchronous messaging increases the chances of miscommunication. Tone and body language are essential components of communicating effectively, and harder to interpret through asynchronous communications like email or task management tools. While some of the potential for miscommunication can be mitigated with voice and video recording software (like Yac or StoryXpress), asynchronous communication doesn’t allow misunderstandings to be cleared up in real-time. That’s why when dealing with more sensitive topics, it’s better to opt for a real-time meeting.

When to use asynchronous vs. synchronous communication

We’ve all been there: You’re enjoying your weekend when you receive a phone call from your manager asking you to do something that in reality can wait until Monday.

In this situation, an email would have been a more appropriate means of communication. You would have been in control over when you checked it and when you responded. But, because you received a phone call, you feel the need to address the issue immediately.

Over time, using the wrong methods of communication at the wrong times will lead to resentment and burnout on one end of the spectrum (too much synchronous communication), or miscommunication and lack of trust on the other (too much asynchronous communication).

It’s important to know when to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication and align with your team on preferred methods of communication.

When we asked a small group of leaders which tasks they preferred to tackle asynchronously, the most common answers were status updates (100%), followed by project updates and goal-setting. While one-on-ones were exclusively done synchronously.

https://hypercontext.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/asynchronous-events-poll-results-1-1024x597.jpg

Let’s look closer at some of the cases for both synchronous and asynchronous communications.

Good synchronous communication use cases:

  1. one-on-one / ad hoc meetings
  2. quick heads-up on a fast topic
  3. retrospectives / planning / process evaluations
  4. hiring process / onboarding ceremony

Good asynchronous communication use cases:

Task management

While it’s great to have a kickoff meeting for any given project, from there team members can often report on their progress and give feedback asynchronously. Project management tools make it easy to communicate effectively and keep everything in one place while remaining asynchronous.

Pro tip: This is much more effective when roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and you’ve created a culture of accountability and ownership on your team.

Focus-intensive problem solving

Often as soon as any kind of issue arises, people rush to set up a team meeting. It’s true that consulting your team members about important issues is necessary. But, in many cases, you can’t expect a short synchronous meeting to solve all the issues. Team members need time to evaluate the issue and make an informed decision.

This is when using an asynchronous communication method can help a lot. It allows team members to spend time on the issue, do some research, and offer a meaningful solution. Then, once everyone’s had the chance to think about it, it might make sense to regroup synchronously.

Status updates and reporting

Asynchronous status updates make it easier for everyone to stay in the loop on progress. When you communicate status reports asynchronously, you’ll notice that when you meet in real-time, it becomes a lot more productive. All of the sudden, you’re not spending an hour on status updates. Rather, you’re already in the loop and able to address blockers or talk about improvements.

Blockers warnings

The propagation of a problem at a team level is something that doesn’t need to await any daily or weekly team appointment, it is an activity that needs to be proficiently carried out on a daily basis - in Lasting Dynamics we follow the practice that after 2 hrs spent trying to sort out an issue, the next step is to notify team-mates to analyse the issue and find a solution with the further benefit of making everyone know about the existence of the issue and the possibility of delays on an iteration and/or roadmap.

How to find a balance

To find an effective balance between synchronous vs. asynchronous communications on your team, it’s important to approach it with the right mindset. Remember, the ultimate goal is to make collaboration easier and create a space where employees can be engaged and productive.

For a long time, employers and managers have been obsessed with a sync-first communication culture. In many corporate cultures, the default solution for dealing with any kind of nuisance is calling a meeting (it’s why meetings get a bad rep). Similarly, pre-COVID, many companies were stuck on the idea of an office-first culture.

The root cause for this is the managers’ preference for “surveillance and visible busyness” of employees rather than “defined outcomes and trust”, as Cal Newport writes for The New Yorker. It seems that managers tend to define productive work as seeing their employees busy at their desks. The thinking goes: “How will I know people are working if I can’t see them?”

But as Jody Thompson, an early proponent of results-first work culture asks “people are sitting in their cubes, going to meetings, grumbling about how busy they are, but are they actually making progress on measurable results?”

For a truly collaborative and productive work environment, you need a culture of trust, strong processes that accurately describe and continuously tweak the working methodology and issue trackers / workflow management systems. If your team works best during certain hours or prefers certain methods of communication, listen. Especially in the midst of “The Great Resignation,” being rigid about communication style isn’t how you’ll retain your employees.

Find a balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication that helps you and your team work together effectively to make the greatest impact.

Conclusion

Each communication method has its time and place. Real-time communication is ideal for time-sensitive issues, and for building rapport and connection amongst your team.

But, it works best when combined with asynchronous communication. Using asynchronous communication tools for things like status updates and task management will allow everyone to use their time as efficiently as possible.

When you find the right balance between the two methods of communication, it’ll do wonders for your calendar, engagement, and overall happiness at work.

Michele Cimmino

I believe in hard work and daily commitment as the only way to get results. I feel an inexplicable attraction for the quality and when it comes to the software this is the motivation that makes me and my team have a strong grip on Agile practices and continuous process evaluations. I have a strong competitive attitude to whatever I approach - in the way that I don't stop working, until I reach the TOP of it, and once I'm there, I start to work to keep the position.

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