Talk to enough workers today, and you’ll find two work-changing trends taking place:
At first, the desire to be remote coinciding with remote fatigue seems to be a paradox.
Employees want more flexibility to work remotely (or must work remotely due for the sake of public health), and yet remote communication is burning people out.
But the real issue here isn’t the nature of remote work itself. Yes, loneliness, isolation, and distance of team members are factors in an employee’s happiness. But day-in, day-out, the shift to purely remote communication is a major culprit.
Looking at how your team communicates is also the most straightforward challenge with remote work to address.
That is why, recently, there has been a lot of talk about synchronous versus asynchronous communication.
In this guide:
Let’s quickly clear up the meaning of synchronous communication vs. asynchronous communication.
Another way to view is like this: The difference between synchronous and asynchronous communications is whether both people are communicating at the same time.
Research shows that more than 50% of a worker’s time is spent communicating at work. That means that the majority of your time is spent not creating or doing—but talking about creating or doing.
And if you spend half of your day communicating, if you do it all synchronously, that means you have to do it RIGHT NOW.
The biggest drawback of synchronous communication is that it breaks up your day. It breaks your flow.
Synchronous communication interrupts you... every time someone else wants to synchronize.
The push for more async communicating is an attempt to alleviate this.
Marcus Kazmierczak, an engineering lead at Automatic, the company that makes WordPress, says, “[Async communication] is the most important productivity aspect for distributed work is asynchronous communication...This is a huge benefit for distributed [teams]. People can focus. Let them focus.”
It may seem like an overly academic exercise to consider whether to communicate in a synchronous or asynchronous way—and then, beyond that, which one—but being thoughtful about your communication in your business allows you to achieve two meaningful results:
The stakes are even higher for remote and hybrid teams who must rely on virtual communication methods in their organizations.
Any kind of two-way conversation or chat that has a real-time back-and-forth can be synchronous.
Sync communication examples:
Any type of communication where there is a delay or gap between responses can be asynchronous.
Async communication examples:
Because meetings involve real-time face-to-face interaction, they’re often lumped entirely in the sync category. Doing so would not only be a mistake but highlights a lot about what is wrong with meetings in general: a lack of preparation and follow-through to make the meeting time worth it.
A good meeting has many async components before the meeting happens:
The meeting itself is synchronous.
Then after the meeting, there are async activities again:
To make the best use of the async and sync aspects of a meeting, use a meeting management tool like Fellow that lets you set a shared agenda, take collaborative notes, and track your meeting action items.
Slack encourages messages to be short and real-time, but it encompasses a variety of messages, including many that go unread or unresponded to for quite some time. Because of this, it sits in an interesting hybrid space. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, chat can be sync or async, depending on whether someone is active in the app or not.
Takeaway: Because chat apps aren’t always sync or async, they potentially combine flaws of both communication styles. Chat messages may seem to all have immediate priority (like a sync conversation), but they can also be slower than less detailed than speaking to someone. Nevertheless, platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams are rapidly becoming the backbones of many organizations, whether remote, hybrid, or co-located.
As a fully remote company, we rely on asynchronous communication in order to stay effective. After testing out a variety of tools, here is what we use.
In lieu of a meeting or a call, people on my team send at least one Loom video message almost every day. These are quick updates, requests for feedback, and other communications that don’t necessarily need everyone to be on the call at the same time.
Certain emails, chat threads, or meetings that would take a long time to put together can be done in a fraction of the time with Loom. Here’s an example of a quick message that took under a minute to record, but which replaces ~5 minutes of work typing out an email:
One of the great things about async, is it sticks around for a long time. If someone new to a team wants to go back and reread all the decisions, ideas, and thoughts around a project. They are all archived.
—Marcus Kazmierczak, Engineering Lead at Automatic
In order starting with the most difficult:
Most Difficult: Connecting. Connecting with other people on a deeper level can be difficult is you’re not only not in the same place, but not at the same time as well. While certain types of async communication are more personal (such as a Loom video), it is difficult, although not impossible, to establish genuine human connection with people asynchronously.
Innovating. Working together to come up with someone new while also being asynchronous requires diligence. It’s harder to spitball ideas. You don’t have serendipitous moments walking past another person. To innovate in an asynchronous way, you must get into good habits of sharing and asking questions, making space for activities that are much easier in person.
Decision-Making. While not impossible to do asynchronous, most decision-making requires a discussion that has some aspect of back-and-forth. While it can be more efficient to have this back-and-forth all at once, coming up with a decision asynchronously can be just as effective.
Creating. Working together to build something while being separated by time and space can be challenging, but it can also provide helpful blocks of uninterrupted focus time.
Problem-Solving. Unlike decision-making, solving problems usually involves more easily defined steps. You need to investigate the source of the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and try them out. Teams often engage in asynchronous problem solving already, dividing up work. (You check A, and I’ll check B, then we check back in with each other.)
Least Difficult: Informing. The simple passing along of information is the easiest task to do at work asynchronously. Rather than be concerned about the difficulty here, you should instead consider the format. Is an email, a slide deck, a chat thread, or a video the best way to go? Or some combination of these?
The notion of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication originally comes from computer science.
These terms have more recently been applied to collaboration styles in the workplace, but they’ve been in the lexicon of the computer world much longer. The same words can be used to describe data transfer in a networking scenario.
A website will load some assets one at a time, for example, in a serial, synchronous fashion. Others can load at the same time, asynchronously.
Likewise, software developers will often break up a single, heavy computation into multiple computations that can be done asynchronously in order to speed up apps and produce efficiency.
That’s why, if you Google “synchronous vs. asynchronous” you might see results with acronyms like tdm, usarts, eia 232, sdlc protocol, mom messaging, or works like bisync, message queue, sequence diagram, or ajax programming.
Interestingly, some of the pros and cons of networking communications are very similar to their human counterparts.
Advantages of synchronous communication in computer networking:
Advantages of asynchronous communication in comptuer networking:
As you can see, synchronous transmission in networking lets you get more information across more quickly, but it’s not as flexible as async methods and can be inaccurate if the receiver isn’t ready for that information.
Remind you of any human behaviors you know about?
Two-way communication happening at the same time.
Having a virtual audio call with someone on a Slack huddle.
Two-way communication with a gap between participants consuming and responding.
Sending a Slack message but not receiving one back for 30-minutes.
Asynchronous. Between each sent or received email you have to wait for a reply. Unless done in rapid succession, email is asynchronous.
Examples of sync vs. async at work, and when to use either way of communicating.
Learn the merits of async vs. sync, and when either communication method makes sense for you and your team.