As the norm for workplaces continues to shift and change, teams oriented around one shared space have become less “the standard” and more “one of the recognized options” for a successful workplace setup. More and more, companies have begun to employ remote workers, offer hybrid working situations, and lead teams that are distributed in countless ways.
These developments have reinvented the way we think about work and as they have continued to evolve, some unprecedented communication challenges have reared their heads. “The office” has evolved from a common space between 4 walls with easy access to all employees simultaneously, to an uncontained global space spanning multiple timezones and complicated availability differences.
Having a team distributed in this way can make it difficult to arrange meetings and opportunities for collaboration, but it also holds the benefits of extended operating hours and daily coverage. With those advantages to a remote workforce, mandatory meetings might suddenly seem less necessary than they once did.
For effective communication and collaboration with a distributed team, leaders will need to weigh various communication options and consider both synchronous and asynchronous communication methods.
You may be wondering what asynchronous and synchronous communication even means and how you can best incorporate each of them to lead your remote team well. If that’s the case, you’re in the right place – in this article, you will find an overview of each type of communication, as well as helpful examples and best practices so you can figure out which could work best for your team in different scenarios.
What is synchronous communication?
Let’s start with synchronous communication. What are its pros and cons? What does it look like in action? What exactly is synchronous communication and what are the best practices to use when engaging in it? Let’s dive in.
Synchronous communication, a definition
Synchronous communication is the exchange of information between 2 or more people in real-time. It may be in person but it certainly doesn’t have to be. In addition to in-person conversations or meetings, phone calls and video meetings are also examples of synchronous communication.
There are many situations in which synchronous communication will be your best choice – these include, but are not limited to
- Discussions of sensitive projects or issues
- Providing critical feedback
- Brainstorming or conversations with a lot of unknowns
- Project kickoffs or other instances where everyone needs to be quickly brought up to speed or a lot of dynamic variables need to be shared
- Rapport needs to be built
- A crisis has happened and immediate attention is required
Examples of synchronous communication
In-person meetings are great opportunities to churn up new ideas and solutions to complex problems.
A phone call can get a decision made quickly and doesn’t necessarily need to be scheduled ahead of time.
Video conference (i.e., via Zoom, WebEx, Slack, etc)
When the team works remotely but the benefit of reading facial expressions and body language is required, a video conference is a great choice.
Asking the teammate across your desk a quick question
Walking over to a teammate to get an answer can be much faster than scrolling through a process document.
Coffee break conversations
Conversations at break time can generate innovative ideas without the pressure of being in a formal meeting.
Advantages of synchronous communication
Synchronous communication is a natural way of communicating for humans. Because of this, it can have some significant benefits and advantages in the workplace and has been the default form of communication historically.
Synchronous communication gives the opportunity to have deeper interactions with your team. Activities like brainstorming and solving in-depth problems collaboratively benefit from the ability to speak together, read body language, and give and receive real-time feedback.
Get resolutions in real time
With synchronous communication there is no need to wait in order to get a problem solved. Unlike with asynchronous communication, where projects can sometimes come to a halt while awaiting answers, production time can be maximized by this advantage of synchronous communication.
Disadvantages of synchronous communication
Of course along with the advantages come a few disadvantages as well.
Focus is disrupted
Although it does feel easier to talk in real time most often, it can be quite disruptive to your focus. When someone pops by your desk or pings you on Slack for a quick response, the task you were in the middle of can suffer – not to mention you may not be giving 100% of your focus to the conversation that’s been entered into.
Difficult for people in different timezones
Depending on how spread-out your team is, synchronous communication can cause problems with work-life balance and result in burnout because of timezone differences. The optimal time for one person may be the middle of the night for another and if synchronous communication is the expectation that won’t be overly effective.
Synchronous communication best practices for remote teams
In order for your team to work together efficiently, they need to understand how synchronous communication can best be used to reach their desired outcomes. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when you and your team need to use synchronous communication in your work together so that it can be as positively impactful as possible.
1. Keep a small number of participants
Whether you are engaging in synchronous communication in person or using phone or video calling, the conversation should be kept to a small group. With too many participants, the discussion can become confusing and unfocused. Inviting fewer participants and ensuring each understands their role can reduce the confusion and help maintain focus.
2. Always record the meeting
Recording your meeting can be an effective way to ensure content doesn’t get misremembered and talking points can be clarified. Many calling and video calling platforms have built-in recording functions which makes this an easy task to take on.
Some other benefits are a reduced need for note-taking and the ability to share the meeting’s content with team members who could not attend. Just be sure to advise all attendees that the meeting is being recorded prior to getting started.
3. Create an agenda and stick to it
Whether you’re running a meeting virtually or in person an important task to complete before the meeting even starts is to draft an agenda. In the agenda, make sure to identify the goals of the meeting and any questions that will need to be answered.
It is important as well to consult with other team members about the agenda so that their needs related to the project/task in question can be considered as well – the goal here is a productive meeting for everyone. You’ll want to make sure everyone has a copy of the agenda and that it is strictly adhered to for maximum efficiency.
4. Get familiar with the tools
Constant changes and developments in technology have led to a video conferencing market that has a variety of options available. Each of these has a unique set of features which may include polls, screen sharing, chat functions, and various audio and video permission settings.
Your team members should be encouraged to get to know these features for the system you use in order to make synchronous virtual communication most efficient.
5. Always send follow-ups afterward
Following all meetings or phone conversations it is important to send a quick follow-up message to everyone who was in attendance. The message should thank them for attending and note any key takeaways, decisions, or outcomes of the meeting. You can send this by email, direct group message, or via an update in your project management system.
What is asynchronous communication?
Now that we’ve covered synchronous communication, let’s dig into the pros and cons of asynchronous communication, and look at some examples and best practices.
Asynchronous communication, a definition
Asynchronous communication refers to any kind of communication where there is a delay between when a message is sent and when the person on the other end receives and interprets it. It is usually not an in-person type of communication and is rarely scheduled.
Asynchronous communication works best when:
- An immediate answer isn’t necessary
- Collaboration needs to happen with teammates across different time zones
- You want to offer context before or after a real-time event
- A complex concept or task needs to be explained and documented for later reference
- Communication flexibility is beneficial or important to your teammates
- Message storage could act as a resource for other team members
Examples of asynchronous communication
Emails can help you advise or seek input from individuals or groups without interrupting their flow of work.
Letters or direct mail
For those who resist digitization, direct mail can be a great communication option.
Project management tools
Project Management tools like Trello and Asana can keep communication closely tied to the project it relates to.
Quick and informal communication can be easily shared using a text message.
Tools like Teams and Slack can keep work communication compartmentalized in a way that is customized to your team.
In an asynchronous meeting, individuals add talking points and comments in a shared digital space when it is convenient for their schedules.
Advantages of asynchronous communication
Similar to synchronous communication, there are pros and cons to asynchronous methods of communication as well. Let’s check them out:
One key advantage to asynchronous communication is the flexibility it offers. The reduction in pressure to respond immediately often results in better responses and happier, less stressed team members.
Better for timezones
Asynchronous communication works really well for remote teams that cross various timezones. Messages can be delivered and received at the ideal times for each individual involved.
Disadvantages of asynchronous communication
As you may expect, there are also some disadvantages to asynchronous communication.
No sense of immediacy
Most managers appreciate a sense of urgency to the work of their team and asynchronous communication can get in the way of this. Because of the lag in response times, there can be delays in progress and inefficient use of time.
People feel disconnected
Asynchronous communication needs to be very clear and detailed, and it moves at a much slower pace. This can create feelings of disconnection because of the dissimilarity to a natural flow of conversation.
Asynchronous communication best practices for remote teams
When working on a remote, distributed team, the use of asynchronous communication methods like email and collaborative project management tools can make it easy to connect despite differences in time and availability across the organization.
1. Take inventory of how your team members spend their time
With a reported 252% increase in meetings since early 2020, there is a notable reduction in the amount of time spent actually completing tasks. With that knowledge under your belt, it’s clear to see that efficiencies and increased opportunities for focused time need to be a priority. Performing an audit on how time is being spent can provide insight into where asynchronous methods of communication, like emails and providing updates using a project management tool, may benefit your team.
2. Set clear deadlines on all platforms
Setting clear deadlines is essential for success in asynchronous communication. Recipients of asynchronous communication should be made aware of when you want to hear back from them as well as any internal deadlines and the target completion date for the project as a whole. Most project management tools have features that support deadline tracking. Making deadlines clear can go a long way in keeping projects on track even with the flexibility made available with remote work.
3. Write clear, concise messages on all platforms
Clarity is a vital ingredient in successful asynchronous communication. Any confusion created will likely cause a series of back-and-forth communications which will delay progress. When thinking about clarity, it might be helpful to imagine what follow-up questions the receiver may have and answer them proactively to maintain forward motion.
4. Craft detailed responses
When you receive questions from your team via asynchronous communication methods, be sure to spend the time required to give a full and detailed response. A quick response may seem like the most efficient use of time, however, that is a misguided thought. Any details missed because of a haphazard response can launch a series of back-and-forth communications which can hold up projects. Asynchronous communication thrives when details are plentiful.
5. Don’t schedule meetings if you don’t need to
One of the benefits of asynchronous communication is the ability to make progress without having to schedule and attend meetings. Emails and comments in shared documents can be very effective and can be used in place of virtual or in-person meetings. It is crucial though to know when a meeting should be called.
Asynchronous communication versus synchronous communication, which one is right for your business?
The long and short of it is that there is no simple, all-encompassing answer to this question. It’s almost always a carefully curated combination of asynchronous communication and synchronous communication that will best serve a business. There are very few workplaces that can effectively rely solely on one or the other of these approaches to communication.
It is important then, for all of the leaders within your workforce to understand how to weigh both options and select the optimal method for communication in any given situation. It isn’t as black and white as some people believe it to be, and rules like “asynchronous communication is for remote work” and “synchronous communication is for on site work” leave an awful lot to be desired in their attempts at guidance.
Putting policies and processes in place can be very effective to guide the decision making and create uniformity to the approach across your organization, but with a “shades of grey” situation like this, what should be considered as those are written?
Who are you communicating with?
Well, like all communication efforts, one of the most important details to consider is who you are communicating with. For this component, considering factors like what generations your team belongs to, the concentration of introverts vs extroverts and personality types as well as the sheer size of the audience and their demonstrated past behaviour can help you make a great decision about using synchronous or asynchronous communication.
Gen X team members might prefer a synchronous meeting whereas Millennial and Gen Z staff might respond more positively to a recorded video message. A heavily introverted staff might be more effectively engaged in a brainstorm completed using asynchronous communication, while an extrovert leaning group likely prefers the energy involved with synchronous brainstorm sessions.
How Urgent Is Your Communication?
Another important consideration in the synchronous vs asynchronous communication debate is related to timing. As the primary difference between the two approaches is in the time between message delivery and response, this could easily be the variable that tips the scales in one direction or the other.
For example, if you are on hold with a client and realize you are missing a key piece of information, you should probably get the colleague who has that info on the phone – you’re not likely to get a response to a text or slack message before the hold music stops!
Conversely, having a document passed back and forth with edits via email, a classic asynchronous approach, may be less desirable when you’re on a tight deadline than using a live document to edit and revise in real time with your collaborators. Asynchronous communication is not usually your best bet for having time sensitive communication needs met.
Is Complexity a Factor?
One more important variable to consider is the complexity of the communication required and both your ability to effectively pass along all of the nuances and complexities and the receiver’s ability to pick them up using one form or the other, synchronous or asynchronous communication.
This area is one where we tend to believe one approach is overall superior to the other, specifically, that if you have to deliver a complex message you need to do it sychronously. However, there are so many excellent tools available to support asynchronous communication that even if that sentiment ever were true, it is now blown out of the water.
Tools like Camtasia and Snagit make it simple and streamlined to communicate layers of complex information effectively using video and image based methods.
All in all, each of these areas and likely other situation specific factors need to be carefully considered when deciding on synchronous or asynchronous communication in the workplace. There in no one answer that will always be right, and there may be some trial and error involved while you learn to navigate this.
Having a strong understanding of the individuals your team is comprised of, as well as an excellent handle on the details of each project you are working on together, will help you make the best choices for your team’s communication.