When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of us were faced suddenly with working and learning from home. While remote work and education aren’t new concepts, most of us hadn’t experienced the challenges (and —yes — rewards) of a fully digital workplace or classroom.
For new remote workers, it raised a lot of questions. What’s the best way to communicate with your colleagues? As an instructor, how can you ensure your students aren’t just getting the information they need, but also actually learning? How do I know when I should make a phone call or hold an online meeting, vs. sending an email or making a video?
The answers often come down to the choice between synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. Both are useful and valid ways to communicate and share knowledge, but each has its strengths and weaknesses as well.
It can be hard to know which to use and when, but armed with the right knowledge and tools, you can absolutely own remote working and learning.
What is synchronous communication?
Synchronous simply means that the communications happen in real time, with all parties engaged simultaneously. Have you ever talked to someone on the phone or had an in-person meeting or conversation? Congratulations! You’ve engaged in synchronous communication.
For most of us, going remote meant losing the face-to-face communication we’re all used to. Suddenly, when you want to talk to a colleague, it’s not as simple as popping over for a chat.
Now, you’re sitting at your desk with a webcam and microphone talking to images on a screen. If you’d never heard of or used Zoom or a similar video conference service, you almost certainly have now.
But virtual meetings aren’t the only kinds of remote synchronous communications. Chatting by SMS text or online chat such as Microsoft Teams or Slack are often synchronous, as well.
What makes synchronous communication useful?
Synchronous communication is perfect for when you need answers to a question right away. Its greatest strength is its immediacy. It’s also great for times when you need to brainstorm or when you want to be able to get opinions or ideas in real-time. It most closely resembles the meetings and conversations you’re used to from daily office life.
Many people believe that synchronous communication is better at building rapport or engaging those you’re communicating with or teaching. While that may be true in some instances, it doesn’t have to be a universal truth.
But more on that later!
How does synchronous communication fall short?
Because of the immediacy, it requires everyone to be in the same (virtual) place at the same time. This is a huge disadvantage for people who may be in multiple time zones or who may have difficulties with internet connections, availability of technology, or other challenges. Synchronous communication’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
Here at TechSmith, I used to coordinate the work of several outside consulting agencies. Some of those consultants were in the U.S., but others were in France, Germany, the UK, and Australia. Trying to coordinate a time when we could all be available for a synchronous meeting proved to be impossible.
For a meeting to work for my European consultants, for example, I typically had to hold the meeting before 10 a.m. ET so it wouldn’t force them to stay late in the office. But, that would mean the Australians would have to be on the call around midnight.
That’s just an unreasonable thing to ask. Instead, we would hold the meetings with as many people as could reasonably attend, and I would record the meeting to share with those who couldn’t be there.
It worked, but it also meant that the Australians didn’t often get the chance to engage in the way the other consultants did.
But, that’s also a pretty extreme example. Synchronous communication can be just as problematic for people who aren’t thousands of miles away.
We’ve all been in meetings where we wonder why we’re there and silently curse the interruption of our productivity. The same goes for quick chats at someone’s desk. Your sense of urgency about a particular subject may not always be shared by the person you’re interrupting.
Synchronous communication requires everyone to be present, whether it’s the best time for them or not.
Finally, with synchronous communication, there’s little room for error. In a streaming meeting, if the technology fails, everyone has to wait for the problem to be solved or the meeting may have to be rescheduled.
This recent tweet from our friend Brian Fanzo sums is up pretty well:
Furthermore, in a real-time conversation, there’s sometimes little time to consider an answer to questions or alternative solutions to problems. You may not have time to gather required information or resources to adequately address an issue.
What is asynchronous communication?
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably already guessed that — if synchronous communication happens in real-time — asynchronous communication must be any communication that doesn’t. It doesn’t require all parties to participate at the same time to be effective.
It’s really that simple. But, there are a wide variety of ways to do it!
Email is likely the most common way to communicate asynchronously in a business setting. But there are. multiple forms of communication.
Other examples include:
- Project management tools like Asana or Trello.
- Your organization’s wiki or Sharepoint site.
- Informational or instructional videos.
- Quick reference guides.
- Screenshots with markup.
- Provide feedback.
But some of the synchronous methods can also be asynchronous or hybrids. While direct messages and text messages can be done in real time, you may not be available to answer a colleague’s question right away.
The same is true of messages left in tools like Slack or Teams. People can choose to answer them right away or when they’re available.
My earlier example of recording a streaming meeting and sharing with any absent participants is an example of a kind of hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous.
What makes asynchronous communication useful?
Asynchronous communication works best when immediacy isn’t required. It allows all parties to consume and respond to content when it’s convenient, appropriate, or possible for them. They don’t have to stop their work to engage on someone else’s schedule.
Additionally, asynchronous communication allows more time to gather information, resources, thoughts, and opinions before answering questions, addressing concerns, or offering ideas.
Asynchronous communication is also more forgiving of mistakes and technology issues. If your computer crashes in the middle of writing an email, you can just go back to it when your computer restarts. If you make a video to share, you can go through and edit out your verbal mistakes and hesitations.
Asynchronous communication is scalable in a way that synchronous communication often isn’t.
For example, most virtual meeting spaces have at least some kind of limit to the number of attendees. For many organizations, these limits won’t often be an issue. But for larger companies or for instances where it may be necessary to share information with a bigger group of people, these limits may severely impact your communications.
However, if you turn that informational or educational meeting into a pre-recorded video, there’s virtually no limit on how many people can view it.
Finally, asynchronous communication leaves more room for error and correcting mistakes or potential miscommunications. You have more time to craft a message, ensure its accuracy, and review for mistakes before sharing.
Asynchronous communication doesn’t try to replicate the experience of face-to-face communication, but instead leverages the unique advantages of the online environment.
Where does asynchronous communication fall short?
Picture this: You’re on a tight deadline and you need a couple of final questions answered before you’re finished. You dash off an email to your coworker and then you wait.
In most cases, asynchronous communication isn’t as effective in times of crisis or when you need an answer right now.
There is some concern, as well, that in many cases, asynchronous communication can be less engaging or personal than synchronous communication.
That certainly can be true. An email is almost never going to be as personal as a phone call or face-to-face conversation.
But, done correctly, many forms of asynchronous communication can be incredibly engaging and personal. In our recent post How to Effectively Shift to Online Teaching: The Ultimate Guide, we lay out a number of ways to ensure your asynchronous learning engages your audience — especially when it comes to making videos.
Some examples include:
- Including webcam video of your face when recording a slide deck for a presentation.
- Keep your videos as short as possible.
- Don’t overdo it with high production value.
- Speak with enthusiasm.
Check out that post for more great information.
Is synchronous or asynchronous better for remote communication?
Neither is inherently better than the other. It all depends on your (and your audience’s) needs.
As noted above, when most of us went remote a few months ago, we likely tried to figure out how we could replicate the office environment (or classroom) with video calls, streaming meetings, direct messages, and other methods. And, while that worked in the short term, it likely can’t be sustained indefinitely.
For most organizations, a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication methods will be most efficient and effective.
Should I choose synchronous or asynchronous communication?
If you’re unsure whether synchronous or asynchronous communication is right for your particular need, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this urgent enough to interrupt others’ work?
- Do I need an answer immediately?
- Do my coworkers need this information right this second?
Remember, an emergency on your part doesn’t necessarily translate to an emergency for someone else.
Consider this: The online environment affords us a number of opportunities to communicate effectively without necessarily having to do it synchronously. And, in many cases, asynchronous communication will actually work better.
Remember our example earlier of the meeting that could have been an email? If you’re holding meetings that are purely informational, consider turning that meeting into a video instead. Your audience can consume the content without having to interrupt their work. And, with a tool such as TechSmith Video Review, they can even ask questions and see responses as they’re watching.
Here are a few ways you can more effectively use asynchronous communication, even if you’re not working remote.
- Send an email.
- Turn an informational meeting into a video.
- Create a quick screencast to go over proposed document changes rather than meeting in person.
- Take screenshots and walk your audience through the steps to complete a task.
- Make a training video instead of doing in-person training.
For more information and tips, check out this great post on how to transform your remote communications with visuals.
What tools are available for synchronous communication?
There are a number of tools available to help you with your remote synchronous communication, including video conferencing software and real-time communication tools like chat.
Here are a few of the most popular:
What tools are available for asynchronous communication?
While some of the following tools are most useful for asynchronous communication, you’ll notice there is some crossover. For example, if you send someone a text message, they can certainly respond right away, but they can also respond when it’s more convenient or appropriate.
Here are a few of the most popular tools for asynchronous communication
- Screen recorders/video editors such as TechSmith Camtasia.
- Screen capture software such as TechSmith Snagit.
- Video platforms such as TechSmith Knowmia.
- Microsoft Teams
- SMS text
Synchronous vs. asynchronous? More like synchronous AND asynchronous!
There’s no one perfect way to communicate when working or learning remotely. There are benefits of asynchronous communication and synchronous communication as well as cons.
Some communications are urgent and need immediate attention. Others, though, are less urgent and can be handled in a less disruptive and perhaps even more useful way.
With the right tools and a better understanding of where each method really shines, you can use both to help you better communicate with your colleagues, students, and other audiences, whether they’re 5,000 miles away or right down the hall.