Effective communication is the backbone of high-performing teams.
But the rules of engagement can become muddled when everyone has a preferred communication style.
It doesn’t help that the average knowledge worker contends with so many communication channels: Should they send a message on Slack or send an email?
Learning the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication can help you make the right call—and ultimately, communicate like a seasoned pro.
What is synchronous communication?
Synchronous communication refers to conversations that happen in real-time.
Whether those conversations happen in person or virtually, “synchronous” implies that two or more people will participate in a back-and-forth exchange with minimal lapses between each person’s contributions.
Examples of synchronous communication methods
- In-person meetings or standups
- Video conferencing
- Phone or audio-only calls
- Real-time or instant messaging
- Impromptu desk or “watercooler” chats
Where synchronous communication goes wrong
Synchronous communication is often the default communication mode while at work.
When a manager wants to share information with their team, it’s not uncommon for them to set up a recurring meeting or schedule a series of training sessions where everyone is expected to abandon their work to show up.
But is this always the most appropriate choice?
Let’s look at a typical workplace scenario to consider the limitations of synchronous communication: brainstorming.
In a brainstorming session, the expectation that meeting participants will spontaneously produce solutions puts many at a disadvantage. While some people will have no problem coming up with ideas on the fly, others will need more time to think things through before presenting their ideas.
Another (possibly less common) scenario is the weekly team check-in meeting, which emerged during the early days of COVID as a way to “stay connected.”
In this scenario, the expectation is that team members will join a video conference at some point during the workweek to discuss… well, anything.
With these asynchronous communication examples in mind, let’s dig deeper into some of the cons associated with this communication method.
Synchronous communication cons
It puts connectedness before productivity
There’s no doubt that face time is an essential component to work. Still, if you’re hosting meetings with a tenuous agenda—like the aforementioned weekly team check-in—you’re asking your team to drop whatever they’re doing to engage in idle chit chat.
It promotes constant interruptions
Anyone who’s interrupted a colleague to ask a question knows immediate gratification doesn’t always make for better communication. And anyone who’s ever endured interruptions knows how hard it is to regain the flow state needed to do deep work.
It causes unnecessary stress
Real-time communication can put a strain on an otherwise harmless conversation because of the additional demands it brings. With video conferencing especially, absorbing additional visual information is not only distracting, but it’s also exhausting.
It fosters low-quality discussions
The pressure to respond immediately can lead many people to blurt out whatever comes to mind, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re brainstorming. Still, it can be counterproductive when serious problem-solving is the goal.
When synchronous communication makes sense
Don’t get us wrong—there are plenty of situations where synchronous communication is the superior choice. For managers, the ability to “read the room” is best supported by observing their team members in real-time.
Here’s when it makes sense to do that:
- One-on-one meetings
- Motivational team meetings
- Sensitive topic discussions
- Urgent or time-sensitive scenarios
- Complex (but quickly articulated) explanations
Generally, we recommend reserving synchronous communication for situations where gauging emotions and building rapport are more critical than technical outcomes.
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication refers to conversations that happen over a period of time.
There’s usually a lag between responses, and in general, this form of communication isn’t planned or scheduled ahead of time. Instead, an asynchronous conversation unfolds at the pace of its participants.
Examples of asynchronous communication methods
- Email, voicemail, or direct mail
- Project management tools (Asana or Trello)
- Video messaging and screencast tools (Loom or Vidyard)
- Company wikis and workspaces (Notion or Confluence)
- Meeting notes apps (Hugo)
Where asynchronous communication goes wrong
It’s no secret that we love Slack, but a lot of people use it wrong.
The problem isn’t Slack-specific. The problem is that many people treat asynchronous tools like synchronous ones.
Let’s look at another common workplace scenario to illustrate the limitations of asynchronous communication: the “quick question.”
When some people encounter a roadblock at work, their first inclination is to look for someone who can help. Then, they send their chosen savior a Slack message.
If both people are actively using the app, a real-time conversation will often ensue. But just because real-time communication is possible doesn’t mean it’s optimal.
When someone “Slacks” their colleague with something like “hey” and waits for a response before sharing their reason for reaching out, it undermines the promise of the tool.
It also puts the person on the receiving end in the precarious position of engaging in an unproductive back-and-forth, the total opposite of asynchronous communication.
With this example in mind, let’s dive deeper into the potential disadvantages of asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication cons
Decidedly NOT time-sensitive
When the issue at hand requires timely action, asynchronous communication is not ideal for getting your message across.
Difficult to gauge tone
Asynchronous communication is synonymous with written communication. As a result, it can be challenging to convey or interpret the sentiment behind the message.
Causes anxiety without trust
Despite the knowledge that messaging platforms like Slack are hybrid communication tools, many people expect an immediate response—and when they don’t receive one, they panic.
When asynchronous communication makes sense
As anyone on a remote team can attest, asynchronous communication is a powerful way to get work done.
With the pressure to respond in real-time no longer a factor, individual contributors and managers alike can focus their efforts on one thing at a time instead of spreading their energy in half a dozen places.
Here’s when it makes sense to choose asynchronous communication:
- The issue doesn’t require an immediate response
- You want to be mindful of your colleague or team member’s time
- You’re communicating with someone in a different time zone
- You need to deliver a message to a group of people
- You need to communicate something information-dense
- You want to provide an update or feedback that’s “on the record”
- You’re responding to an asynchronous message you received
As you can see, there are numerous situations where asynchronous communication wins. Given that it requires us to compose thoughtful and well-organized messages rather than fast ones, it’s also time-saving in the long run.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication: What’s the verdict?
In the war of communication preferences, there’s no such thing as a perfect option. For many organizations, adopting a hybrid approach to communication is the best way to do business.
At Hugo, we often send video messages or use Slack threads instead of getting something on the calendar. These asynchronous habits might seem odd for a meeting technology company, but for us, respecting each other’s time, including around meetings, is a crucial ingredient for success.
Here’s our best recommendation for taking a hybrid approach: Prepare for meetings asynchronously.
By creating agendas and sharing pertinent information before the meeting, your team can spend more time focusing on the good stuff once you’re there—decisions and discussions.