Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: How to Find the Right Balance for Your Team

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

Are you and your team good at communicating? How about through the pandemic when you could no longer see each other face to face in the office every day?

Have you mastered when to use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication? Or do you feel unsure about the best time and way to work and coordinate with your team?

Communication is one of the most important soft skills for every manager and every team member to master, especially in today's world. Choosing the right channel for communicating your message is essential to how it will be understood and acted upon. 

Always consider the context

However, not all communication methods are created equal. There are various factors you need to consider when choosing how you reach out to someone. Some of them are: 

  • How urgently something needs to happen
  • How detailed your message needs to be
  • The recipient's time zone and schedule
  • How complex the subject is
  • How many people need to be involved
  • The purpose of the communication (an update, a decision, feedback, etc)

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it's that remote work is here to stay. Many organizations, including Doist, GitLab, Buffer, and others have become more productive by cutting down on meetings and learning to embrace asynchronous communication.

Despite that, synchronous communication still has an important part to play in our day to day lives. That's why this post takes a look at the pros and cons of both synchronous and asynchronous communication, when to use them, and how to get the most out of them.

choosing Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication can get difficult

Balancing synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: Helping you make the right choices

Today's post is structured to answer every aspect of this decision. You can click on the link to jump to the area you're thinking about, or read it in order below: 

Now let's go over how and why you should communicate in different situations.

synchronous vs. asynchronous communication you need both

What is synchronous communication? 

Synchronous communication is communication that happens in the present or in real time.

It can take place in-person or virtually on a call, and it can be scheduled or happen unannounced. Some examples of synchronous communication include:

  • In-person meetings
  • Video meetings (via tools like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, etc.)
  • Phone calls
  • Professional development programs that include group discussions (virtually or in person)
  • Spontaneous in-office conversations with your team members
  • Instant messaging where you're actively conversing back and forth (using Teams, Slack, and other similar tools)

Synchronous communication is part of our nature - it's what we've been used to all our lives. And prior to the COVID crisis, it used to be the only method of communicating that mattered to most of us. 

The pros of synchronous communication

Here are a few reasons why synchronous communication is relied on by so many teams today:

It's more efficient for your urgent tasks.

The main advantage of synchronous communication is that it allows people to solve issues immediately. If there's a crisis that requires your team's attention right now, calling a meeting is the best way to get everyone up to speed. It also allows you to stress the importance of acting now and minimizes the chance of people not reacting to your message.

It makes it easier for you to build rapport with someone.

Whether it's in a 1:1 meeting, team meeting, or a company retreat, synchronous communication allows you to ask questions on the spot to get to know someone. It's a more spontaneous way of connecting with people, as it allows you to see how someone's reacting to your words.

Building deeper relationships is much more difficult if you're using async-first tools, as they're inherently less personal and expressive; seeing someone get excited about a shared interest right when you say you love something is much more powerful than a reply 12 hours later about it.

It helps you deal with a lot of unknowns and is better for brainstorming.

Group brainstorming sessions can be a highly effective way of finding answers to difficult questions.

Research by Scott Isakssen, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Norwegian Business School, has shown that group brainstorming sessions can yield up to 10x more ideas compared to when individuals come up with their own ideas. It's why shows and movies are written in writers' rooms and why companies like Google and Amazon have their own brainstorming sessions.

It's great for providing critical feedback and discussing sensitive topics.

The right piece of helpful coaching, or encouraging and specific praise can make all the difference for someone on your team.

The best time to give someone constructive feedback is during your 1:1s. This way, they're more likely to ask questions and tell you how you can support them. They are also less likely to misinterpret your words and get discouraged, because you can see their reactions and they can see your intent, which may not come across in writing alone. 

Even though the circumstances of COVID-19 and remote work have shown us there's much to be gained from having more asynchronous communication, synchronous communication is still the best way to address the situations described above. 

However, despite these benefits, it's not always the best choice. Its flaws make it not always the best choice for you and your team. 

The cons of synchronous communication

Unfortunately, today's workplace is still overly dependent on synchronous communication. Whether it's 5 too many meetings, yet another coworker interrupting your focus to approach you at your desk, or a quick ping via Slack or Microsoft Teams – we're used to these interactions being our highest priority. 

Yet, synchronous communication shouldn't always be your top priority, and often gets in the way.. Here's how:

It can get complicated for teams distributed across different time zones.

As distributed teams are becoming the norm, you have to pay more attention to everyone's schedule and be careful about pinging them whenever you feel like asking something.

The more you hire people around the world, the harder it is to schedule a live meeting. It also makes "quick chats” when you want to spontaneously talk about a problem or idea harder; some people may not even be awake, let alone ready to work on what you want to discuss. 

It can take up your whole day.

Another major flaw of synchronous communication is that it requires a lot of your valuable time. "This could have been an email” , is a thought we've all had about some of our meetings. 

According to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the time teams spend on collaboration has increased by 50% over the past twenty years. Even more notably, the article found today's employees can spend up to 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues. This includes 1.2 hours of meetings per day, as well as 200 daily instant messages exchanged with others.

If you combine that with the occasional office chat, it's clear why synchronous communication can be such a time suck. 

It interrupts "deep work."

Another critical issue with synchronous communication is that it prevents you from making the most of your time for deep focused work by interrupting you.

When you ping someone to get his/her quick take on something, you may be breaking their focus. According to Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain your focus after a distraction.

Since synchronous communication causes constant attention switching, it provides no room for large, uninterrupted periods of concentration required for most complex tasks.

Given how significant these drawbacks are, it's well worth considering how you can use the opposite approach, asynchronous communication, to make your team more productive and effective. 

For imore on how to get the most out of synchronous communication and navigate its challenges, try reading some of these posts:

What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous communication is any type of communication that includes a delay between when someone sends a message, and when the recipient receives and reacts to it.

Examples of asynchronous communication methods include:

  • Communicating via email with your team
  • Project management tools (such as Jira, Asana, Trello, or Basecamp)
  • Direct messaging or text messaging (using apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram or your phone) where you're not communicating immediately.
  • Sharing a screen or other video recording which your team can watch and respond to any time.
  • A Google or Word Doc that you write and your team comments and adds to when they have some down time throughout the week. 

Many companies have switched to an asynchronous way of working as it compliments their remote team structure particularly well. And if you and your team want to put hours and hours you spend sitting in meetings and chatting back and forth live on instant messaging to better use, you should consider implementing it as well.

how to work remotely like a pro asynchronous communication is part of it

The pros of asynchronous communication

Embracing asynchronous communication as part of your  culture can have a few very important positive impacts on your team:

It helps your team come up with better-prepared answers and have more detailed ideas.

Despite being slower, async communication can yield higher quality results.

This is because rather than relying on your team's ideas in the moment in a meeting, they can take their time responding and considering their response and ideas longer. This is especially important for your introverts, who generally prefer time to prepare and consider ideas before speaking.  

It saves you time and gives you and your team more control over their time.

When you replace a live meeting with an asynchronous discussion you free up your team in a few big ways:

  • Your team gets to choose when to respond, instead of having to coordinate with everyone else
  • Everyone can spend the amount of time that is appropriate for them on the topic; instead of everyone sitting in the same meeting for an hour, a passionate, deeply involved person can add ideas repeatedly over time, while a lesser involved team member can skim it once and be done in a few minutes. 
  • Your team members can optimize their time and engage with the asynch message when they're at their best for that kind of work. 
  • One less meeting can help your team members in more challenging time zones either have more time for a more important meeting, or one less hour they have to work at an odd time for where they are, while still fully participating. 

It helps people focus on deep work.

Asynchronous communication is much more than choosing to write emails instead of instant messages. One of its biggest advantages is that it prevents the type of interrupting, distracting communication we've become so used to with modern technology.

Using asynchronous communication means your team doesn't have to keep track of every message as it comes in. Rather, people are encouraged to block off time on their calendar to do the work that creates the most value for their company.

Instead of constantly bouncing between reading and replying to pings, they can review unread messages in batches a couple of times per day to stay more productive.

It makes meetings more meaningful.

Asynchronous communication requires documenting things in more detail, and in a structure your team becomes familiar with. This makes it easier to have a reference for past decisions and updates that may have otherwise been made only verbally in a live, synchronous meeting.

As a consequence, meetings you keep are transformed from a medium for daily syncing and status reports to only a few key needs: valued face-to-face time like your 1:1s, brainstorming and creative work, and decision making in small groups.

Leveraging async communication helps in many situations - it reduces the chance of your team being overworked and stressed, as well as increases productivity and creates time for "deep focus” work.

However, claiming that you can go 100% async is probably a bit of an exaggeration. Here are a few challenges associated with asynchronous communication.

choosing Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication can get difficult

The cons of asynchronous communication

Switching to a more asynchronous communication format isn't as easy as it seems. As you do away with daily meetings and "quick pings”, you have to replace them with more detailed writing - and that requires practice. 

It also isn't perfect for all situations. Just like you shouldn't think all the world's a nail just because you have a hammer, keep in mind these downsides to asynchronous communication; use it when it's the right tool, but not the only tool.

You and your team need to develop great writing skills.

To make async methods work, everyone on your team will need to become effective writers.

That includes understanding the difference between being thorough and redundant, and expressing the right level of emotion for different contexts. It means communicating ideas through words alone when they may be used to the tone of their voice and facial expressions to help carry their meaning. 

Because this is a hard adjustment, we've included detailed instructions on how to help your team become better writers here: How to Work Remotely Like a Pro: Advice from a Veteran

Asynchronous communication is less personal.

While better prepared and more detailed communication can give you a good insight into how someone thinks, it can't replace more spontaneous interactions. Async mediums are much less suitable for asking personal questions, building rapport, and developing chemistry with your team members - all of which are a vital part of keeping up team morale and motivation. 

It also lacks tone of voice and facial expressions in most cases from both sides, but at the least, the creator of the first message (like say in a Loom video) doesn't get to see everyone's reactions to what they're saying as they go along. This prevents often helpful pauses, questions, and adjustments. 

Async communication is unfit for urgent matters by definition.

If you're reviewing messages and documents you've received once or twice per day, that makes it difficult to react to issues quickly. With asynchronous communication, you will not be able to rally a group in one direction and get buy in immediately.  

Despite these limitations, many organizations know to use asynchronous communication for its strengths and keep synchronous communication where it fits best, too.  

choosing Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication can get difficult

Know when to choose Asynchronous vs. Synchronous communication

Due to the effects of the ongoing, global health crisis, Naval Ravikant's remote work prediction came true even more quickly than expected.

In fact, even as we're nearing the end of COVID, an overwhelming majority of employees have stated they would like to work remotely at least some of the time in the future, according to this report from Buffer:

choosing Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication can get difficult

People are now more aware that their jobs can be done from anywhere. As a result, they will expect their companies to create async-friendly working conditions to go with them. No one wants to spend 8-10 hours a day on Zoom and video calls. 

However, it's important to find the right balance for every occasion and choose between synchronous vs. asynchronous communication intelligently. 

To summarize, it's best to use synchronous communication methods when:

  • You need to solve an issue urgently
  • You're trying to build rapport and get to know your people
  • You need to find solutions to difficult questions as a group (through brainstorming)
  • You're providing feedback, coaching your team, or doing performance reviews
  • You're discussing sensitive topics like someone's problems at work

Asynchronous communication is best used when:

  • Your team needs to do complex work that requires hours of uninterrupted focus
  • You want better prepared, thought out answers and solutions from your team for a key project
  • Your team is working across different time zones and you need a more efficient way to update people instead of a status meeting
  • You have a large mix of people involved in a project, and so want a more efficient way to update and get input

Knowing when to use synchronous and asynchronous communication will help you get the most out of everyone's time and keep people happy and engaged, no matter where they are.

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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