Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: what’s the difference (and why it matters)[wtr-time]
This article is the ultimate guide to synchronous vs. asynchronous communications. We look at the difference between the two methods, when to use each and how to strike the right balance.
Nothing is more important in team management than effective communication.
But with different working styles and a predominantly remote or hybrid working environment, it can be challenging to figure out the best way to communicate with your team. In fact, according to Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report, difficulties with collaboration and communication was cited as the second biggest struggle when working remotely.
To communicate with your team more effectively, it’s helpful to know the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Understanding how and when to use each method will make a huge impact on your team’s collaboration and productivity.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what synchronous and asynchronous communications entail, the difference between the two, and use cases for both.
- What is synchronous communication?
- What is asynchronous communication?
- Sync vs async: what’s the difference?
- Pros and cons of synchronous communication
- Pros and cons of asynchronous communication
- Examples of when to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication
- How to find a balance
What is synchronous communication?
Synchronous communication is communication that happens in real-time.
When you’re communicating synchronously with someone, whether virtually or in person, you expect a response right away. It allows for instant, dynamic conversation.
Examples of synchronous communication:
- ☎️ Phone conversations
- 🤝 Meetings (physical or virtual)
- 🧑💻 Instant messaging (i.e.Slack)
- 🖥 Webinars
- ☕️ Casual coffee chats
What is asynchronous communication?
Asynchronous communication, as you might have guessed, it the opposite. When communicating asynchronously, you don’t need an immediate response. It allows people to take some time before answering each message.
Examples of asynchronous communication:
- 📱Text messages
- 🎥 Recorded video or voice messages
- ⚒ Project management tools
- 🗂 Assigned tasks and comments in documents
- 🐌 Snail mail
Sync vs async: what’s the difference?
The main difference between synchronous vs asynchronous communications is in the response time between messages.
When communicating synchronously, people are expected to respond at that moment. Think about when you’re having a phone call with someone: it’s a consistent back and forth between you and the person you’re talking to.
In contrast, when communicating asynchronously, there can be a time-lapse between messages. For example, when you’re emailing someone, you don’t expect an immediate response. The person you’re emailing could take anywhere from 10 minutes to a week to get back to you.
While some companies stick solely with one method or the other, it’s pretty rare. Most teams find a balance between the two that works best for their team.
Devin Pickell, Growth Marketing Manager at Nextiva, uses async communications 80% of the time and synchronous communications 20% of the time. He explains:
“Being fully remote and in a marketing role, email, Slack, and Asana are often my go-to channels for relaying information and following up. At Nextiva, another async channel is our call recording tool for listening to customer calls and writing down feedback for the sales team. I really only use synchronous channels for vendor meetings, internal meetings, or catch-up calls.”Devin Pickell, Growth Marketing Manager, Nextiva
Pros and cons of synchronous communication
Each communication method has its own pros and cons. When you should use each depends on the situation. These days, with countless async communication tools at our disposal, there’s a lot we can get done asynchronously. But, there are still some situations when having real-time interactions can’t be replaced.
Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of synchronous communication:
Pros of synchronous communication
✅ Minimizes misunderstandings and back-and-forth
We’ve all been in a situation where miscommunication happens as a result of a misinterpreted email. It can be hard to convey your emotions and tone through a written message (thank goodness for emojis 🙏). One of the advantages of synchronous communication is the ability to ensure your messages are received as you intended them to be. If any misunderstandings occur, you can easily address them on the spot, clarify the issue, and avoid future confusion.
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab, explains that when feasible he uses asynchronous communication to move a project forward. But, after a certain amount of back and forth, he’ll switch to synchronous communication. In some situations, it helps get to the bottom of things faster. Darren explains:
“Working asynchronously is not a goal unto itself; rather, being considerate and opting to move a discussion or project forward asynchronously when feasible creates more space for synchronous moments. If two people go back and forth more than three times on the same topic — and it’s impractical to break it into smaller async-friendly decisions — it makes sense to temporarily pivot to synchronous or a richer communication medium.Darren Murph, Heaf of Remote, Gitlab
✅ Builds rapport
Humans are hardwired to communicate face-to-face. Synchronous communication, especially video calls and in-person interaction, is an important part of building rapport with your team. And the rapport isn’t just a nice-to-have. You need it to build a foundation of trust and create a more engaged team. No matter the tool or your ability as a communicator, you can’t build the same type of deep connections with people asynchronously.
✅ Quick response for time-sensitive situations
There are situations when it’s imperative to disrupt someone’s workflow because a more pressing matter comes up. In those scenarios, synchronous communication is the answer. A last-minute change of plans or any type of crisis demands a quick response from team members.
Cons of synchronous communication
One of the biggest disadvantages of real-time communications is that you’re expected to respond as soon as you can, even if it means constantly interrupting your focus.
Lucas Miller, a neuroscientist and a lecturer at Haas School of Business at Berkeley University, explains the negative aspects of using Slack, as a major synchronous communication tool, in the workplace.
“[Constantly checking Slack makes] workers end up checking messages about work, rather than doing any…The problem isn’t necessarily Slack as a platform, but how people use instant messaging software. Beyond a loss of production, it has the longer term impact that users are either distracted by the tool or anticipating being distracted by it. The result is workers are increasingly finding it difficult to concentrate fully on the task they’re doing.”– Lucas Miller, Haas School of Business at Berkeley University
❌ Difficult for different time zones
One of the beauties of remote work is the ability to work with team members all over the world. But, because your remote employees might be living in different time zones, it’s not always possible to expect them to be available during your daily work hours. So, synchronous communication isn’t the optimal form of communication for teams spread out across time zones.
Liviu Tanase, entrepreneur and CEO of ZeroBounce, confirms:
“I manage several teams that are spread out across the U.S. and Europe. Communicating with all of them in real time isn’t always possible. Asynchronous is what we mainly use for our remote teams. Thankfully, they’re self-starters and highly independent people that I can always count on.”Liviu Tanase, ZeroBounce
Pros and cons of asynchronous communication
The main advantage of asynchronous communication is the freedom to respond to messages at a time that works for you — which can has major benefits for everyone.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits and disadvantages of async communications:
Pros of asynchronous communication
✅ More focus time
Communicating asynchronously allows your team to focus on their work without constant interruptions. This is especially important for certain roles. For example, while meetings might be an important tool to you as a manager, they cost your team precious uninterrupted focus time. Paul Graham calls this the maker vs. manager schedule. For managers, synchronous communication is how work happens. For makers, it stops work from happening.
1 – 👷 Makers v Manager— Brennan McEachran 👨🚀 (@i_am_brennan) May 14, 2021
To You? How work happens
To Them? How works stops happening
Makers get in flow. Meetings ruin that.
❌ Meet wherever it fits.
✅ Meet after a natural work break of THEIRS
Ensure *unbroken* focus time.
Communicating asynchronously allows makers to respond on their own time, rather than disrupting their workflow — which will ultimately make the whole team more productive.
Narek Safaryan, CEO of Renderforest, expands on this. He explains that a key to successful team management is eliminating unnecessary distractions:
“Most of our communication during projects is done asynchronously. If anything urgent comes up, we use chat, if not, we stick to our boards and cards on Trello. The way we define tasks for team members and assign deadlines to them without any further distractions makes it easy for them to concentrate.”– Narek Safaryan, Renderforest
✅ Time-zone friendly
If the only way your team’s communicating is through real-time meetings or phone calls, you’re not creating an inclusive environment for your team members in other time zones. When you have good async communication methods in place, your global employees don’t need to spend their off-hours online or on the phone with their team members. Instead, they can actually spend their leisure time well to avoid burnout.
✅ Flexible response time
Asynchronous communication is ideal for issues that demand more time and dedication to be resolved. Instead of throwing together an on-the-spot response simply because you’re expected to do so in a meeting, you can take your time and analyze the issue to come up with a thoughtful solution.
Cons of asynchronous communication
❌ Not suitable for urgent issues
When it comes to urgent issues, asynchronous communications aren’t the best options. By nature, asynchronous communication methods allow people more time to respond. While that’s the beauty of them, it won’t work for every situation — especially not an emergency.
❌ Potential for miscommunication
Asynchronous messaging increases the chances of miscommunication. Tone and body language are essential components of communicating effectively, and harder to interpret through asynchronous communications like email or task management tools. While some of the potential for miscommunication can be mitigated with voice and video recording software (like Yac or StoryXpress), asynchronous communication doesn’t allow misunderstandings to be cleared up in real-time. That’s why when dealing with more sensitive topics, it’s better to opt for a real-time meeting.
When to use asynchronous vs. synchronous communication
We’ve all been there: You’re enjoying your weekend when you receive a phone call from your manager asking you to do something that in reality can wait until Monday.
In this situation, an email would have been a more appropriate means of communication. You would have been in control over when you checked it and when you responded. But, because you received a phone call, you feel the need to address the issue immediately.
Over time, using the wrong methods of communication at the wrong times will lead to resentment and burnout on one end of the spectrum (too much synchronous communication), or miscommunication and lack of trust on the other (too much asynchronous communication).
It’s important to know when to use synchronous vs asynchronous communication and align with your team on preferred methods of communication.
When we asked a small group of leaders which tasks they preferred to tackle asynchronously, the most common answers were status updates (100%), followed by project updates and goal-setting. While one-on-ones were exclusively done synchronously.
Let’s look closer at some of the cases for both synchronous and asynchronous communications.
Synchronous communication use cases:
Your one-on-one meeting is one that can’t be an email. One-on-ones are a time for managers and direct reports to connect to talk about growth, motivation, communication and work. They’re a key tool to help create a foundation of trust amongst your team and should be a safe space to talk about sensitive topics and have potentially difficult conversations. Whether you’re having a remote one-on-one or in person, it needs to happen in real-time.
Hiring new team members is a process that demands a great deal of synchronous communication — for everything from actually hiring the person to creating a seamless onboarding experience.
At Yac, they run their company async-first, but CMO Hunter McKinley explains:
“When you’re first meeting someone, it’s one of the only times when synchronous communication is irreplaceable. It’s important to understand their mannerisms and general vibe.”Hunter McKinley, CMO, Yac
While you can get a lot of information about a person on paper, meeting them in real-time is important to get a sense of whether they’ll be a good fit for your company. If you’re building a remote team, you can use a video interviewing platform to conduct your virtual interviews.
Once someone joins the team, incorporating some synchronous communication into their onboarding is helpful to support them as they get acclimatized and build rapport with the team.
Team building is an important part of creating an engaged and productive team, and impossible to do synchronously. Because the point of effective team building is to make connections with your colleagues and build relationships with them. It normally entails a fun activity you all do together, like having a meal, volunteering, playing a sport, etc. Without real-time interaction, your team-building won’t be effective.
Asynchronous communication use cases:
While it’s great to have a kickoff meeting for any given project, from there team members can often report on their progress and give feedback asynchronously. Project management tools make it easy to communicate effectively and keep everything in one place while remaining asynchronous.
Pro tip: This is much more effective when roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and you’ve created a culture of accountability and ownership on your team.
Focus-intensive problem solving
Often as soon as any kind of issue arises, people rush to set up a team meeting. It’s true that consulting your team members about important issues is necessary. But, in many cases, you can’t expect a short synchronous meeting to solve all the issues. Team members need time to evaluate the issue and make an informed decision.
This is when using an asynchronous communication method can help a lot. It allows team members to spend time on the issue, do some research, and offer a meaningful solution. Then, once everyone’s had the chance to think about it, it might make sense to regroup synchronously.
Status updates and reporting
Asynchronous status updates make it easier for everyone to stay in the loop on progress. When you communicate status reports asynchronously, you’ll notice that when you meet in real-time, it becomes a lot more productive. All of the sudden, you’re not spending an hour on status updates. Rather, you’re already in the loop and able to address blockers or talk about improvements.
How to find a balance
To find an effective balance between synchronous vs. asynchronous communications on your team, it’s important to approach it with the right mindset. Remember, the ultimate goal is to make collaboration easier and create a space where employees can be engaged and productive.
For a long time, employers and managers have been obsessed with a sync-first communication culture. In many corporate cultures, the default solution for dealing with any kind of nuisance is calling a meeting (it’s why meetings get a bad rep). Similarly, pre-COVID, many companies were stuck on the idea of an office-first culture.
The root cause for this is the managers’ preference for “surveillance and visible busyness” of employees rather than “defined outcomes and trust”, as Cal Newport writes for The New Yorker. It seems that managers tend to define productive work as seeing their employees busy at their desks. The thinking goes: “How will I know people are working if I can’t see them?”
But as Jody Thompson, an early proponent of results-first work culture asks “people are sitting in their cubes, going to meetings, grumbling about how busy they are, but are they actually making progress on measurable results?”
For a truly collaborative and productive work environment, you need a culture of trust. If your team works best during certain hours or prefers certain methods of communication, listen. Especially in the midst of “The Great Resignation,” being rigid about communication style isn’t how you’ll retain your employees.
Find a balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication that helps you and your team work together effectively to make the greatest impact.
Each communication method has its time and place. Real-time communication is ideal for time-sensitive issues, and for building rapport and connection amongst your team.
But, it works best when combined with asynchronous communication. Using asynchronous communication tools for things like status updates and task management will allow everyone to use their time as efficiently as possible.
When you find the right balance between the two methods of communication, it’ll do wonders for your calendar, engagement and overall happiness at work.