Difference Between Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication

Remote Nov 2, 2020

Communication is the bedrock of all great team collaboration. How a team chooses to communicate makes a big difference in productivity and team spirit. So, we must understand what are different types of communication and how should we carefully choose the appropriate type of communication for different occasions. Should we email? Should we send a Slack direct message? Or should we call for a Zoom meeting? Depending on the situation, there are pros and cons to each type of communication.

There are two types of communication: synchronous or real-time communication and asynchronous communication.

We are familiar with in-person, face-to-face, real-time communication, but not so much with asynchronous communication. How do they differ? And how does asynchronous communication help remote teams to work better?

Let’s explore what synchronous and asynchronous communication is and compare the two together.

What is synchronous communication?

Synchronous communication, or real-time collaboration, is when you communicate with your peers in real-time. Everyone is present either in person or online, engaged simultaneously. Synchronous communication is simply having face-to-face interaction and immediate feedback loops.

Types of synchronous communication include:

  • Video conferencing with cameras on (via Zoom or Google Meet)
  • Audio conferencing with cameras off (also via Zoom or Google Meet)
  • In-person meetings
  • Phone calls
  • Direct messaging or instant messaging (via tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams

What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous communication is when you exchange thoughts and communicate at different times. I share my thoughts. A few hours later, you share yours—vice versa. The point of asynchronous communication is that you are not required to engage at the same time.

Asynchronous communication is typically done through a software tool in the modern business world today (if you know anyone other than the IRS who still likes to conduct business via letters, let us know ;)).

On a side note, asynchronous communication is the preferred method for fully remote teams (no office) like Zapier, Gitlab, and Basecamp.

Types of asynchronous communication include:

Pros and cons of asynchronous and synchronous communication

Both types of communication have good and bad. Remote teams must carefully select each type for the right occasion. Combining the two with the right balance that works for your team will improve productivity while maintaining a good work-life balance.

Benefits of synchronous communication

1. It's easier to access.

One of the best things about synchronous communication is that it is easier to access for everyone.

When you want to talk to someone, you just do. You "ping" others to grab their attention, and you can tell them your ideas right away.

This can also be a downside to synchronous communication, however—more on this below.

2. Face-to-face communication (for video conferencing or in-person meetings)

If you’re meeting in-person or via video conferencing, then you also get a chance to communicate face-to-face. Face-to-face communication is the most familiar way to communicate for us - it’s a natural way! When you get to see your co-workers, you can pick up their facial expressions, emotions and spot non-verbal communications such as gestures.

For instance, when you need to give feedback or discuss sensitive topics, it’s always better to do it face-to-face. It’s easier to catch reactions, and it’s faster to reach an alignment if you’re meeting in real-time.

3. "Spark" or "lightbulb" moments

Brainstorming, ideating, and planning discussions work better when you’re in the same meeting room with others (virtual or offline). Everyone is present and engaged. Ever felt a “spark” or your inner “light bulb” turn on while brainstorming about an idea with your co-workers? More ideas come up when you talk about your ideas. This happens a lot more often when you’re conversing in real-time.

4. Gets things done quicker.

Synchronous communication also works great when you're dealing with time-sensitive issues. When you're sitting on a deadline, it's much faster and more efficient to bring everyone on the same page in real-time and align on outstanding issues.

Challenges with synchronous communication

1. Requires a lot of energy

The downside of synchronous communication is that it requires so much more energy. It increases our cognitive load, as we’re constantly assessing information and interactions that happen during real-time communication. For video conferencing, this gets much harder. People are on mute, people turn off their cameras, there are frequent audio overlaps, sometimes you’re stuck with frozen screens, the list goes on. Zoom fatigue is real.

2. Requires a lot more time

Most knowledge workers spend hours in meetings every day. And although Slack chats aren't labeled as "meetings," they do require your attention in real-time if you want to actively participate in discussions. They suck a lot of time throughout your day, giving little or no time for you to do more important things.

Even the founder of Zoom, Eric Yuan, discourages back-to-back Zoom meetings and encourages employees to take breaks between meetings.

"When you're always in back-to-back meetings, you don't have time to think, eat, talk to your family members," he added. "I don't think there's a productivity loss; I think there’s a mental health problem."

- Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom

3. It's not suitable for deep work

One of the good things about synchronous communication as a channel is that it is easy to access. But this can also work in the opposite; it distracts people from staying focused because it’s so easy.

For example, real-time meetings fragment your time throughout the day, leaving little time to focus.

Cal Newport, the author of the book Deep Work says that the "culture of connectivity," where one is expected to be available and responsive promotes distracting behaviors. In his book, he points out setting up regularly occurring meetings is an example of the connectivity culture:

"These meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible."

- Cal Newport, author of Deep Work

4. Can't accommodate everyone's work hours.

Work hours for you may not be suitable for others living in different time-zones. Even if there is only one time-zone to consider, people run their lives at a varying pace. At first, people can stay up late or ask their spouses to pick up their kids to make real-time communication work. But in the long run, people will start to experience burnouts, often resulting in overall productivity loss.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

1. You're in control of your time.

The best thing about asynchronous communication is that you are in control of your time. You can respond to messages and notifications when you are ready to respond.

Asynchronous communication saves a lot of time, too. Meetings that could have been an email or two save so much time for you.

2. It's compatible with deep work. It's also simply more effective overall.

Cal Newport also says that if you couldn’t count on quick response time, you’d be planning in advance for your work, be more organized, and be prepared to put things aside for a while and turn your attention elsewhere while waiting for what you requested. This may sound harder at first, but he guarantees that this will produce more satisfaction and a better outcome in the long term.

3. You can give more thoughtful ideas.

Asynchronous communication frees up time for you to think, build your point, and communicate thoughtfully. In an asynchronous environment, no one is expecting your response right away. It gives you enough time to think and build your ideas.

4. You can be respectful of each other’s time, and you can accommodate multiple time-zones.

For teams working in multiple time-zones, asynchronous is not a “good to have.” It is a “must-have.” Different time-zones mean that work hours will also be different. Asynchronous communication allows people to communicate effectively without sacrificing their time outside of work.

In asynchronous communication, everyone has the chance to actively participate in discussions. In real-time conversations, unless you’re there, real-time, it’s difficult to participate. Take Slack chats, for example. While you’re asleep, people can talk about important issues quite heavily and reach a conclusion before you even get a chance to read them. If those discussions would happen asynchronously, sure, it takes more time, but you’d at least have a chance to give your opinion.

"The half-life of a Slack message is like an hour. If you don't see in an hour, it might as well not exist at all."

- Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier

5. Automatic documentation

When you’re communicating asynchronously, you are leaving the so-called “paper-trail.” Whatever tool you’re using to communicate, it automatically builds a record system for every communication so that you can always go back to them later.

In fact, compiling these paper trails and organizing them helps your teammates quickly find answers instead of playing the "pinging & waiting" game.

"I try to resist the temptation to just hop on a call with my teammates. I know it will be quicker that way for now, but asynchronous work and documentation is the long-term win for remote teams."

- CEO of a fully remote startup with members distributed across 5 continents

Challenges with asynchronous communication

1. It's generally harder to read tone or emotions asynchronously.

When your communication happens via text, it's harder to read the tone or emotions. This is the reason that asynchronous communication can be tricky when building relationships.

One thing that worked well for the Hyperinbox team is to use emojis whenever relevant and writing out our intended tone/emotions as much as possible. Not writing in all caps unless you mean to yell is another one. IF YOU WRITE LIKE THIS, YOU SOUND LIKE YOU'RE YELLING.

2. It's not suited for time-sensitive issues

Asynchronous communication is not suitable for resolving time-sensitive issues. It can sometimes slow down progression, leading to delays in projects. When you’re sitting on something that needs to be resolved quickly, it’s better to do synchronous communication, such as instant messaging or Zoom call.

3. Asynchronous communication can be time-consuming.

Since asynchronous communication requires you to be more thoughtful and intentional about your message, it can be time-consuming at times. Instead of taking the slower route of asynchronous communication, it can be resolved quickly for some issues if you’re just on a Zoom call or Slack DM.

Here's a chart that summarizes the pros and cons of both synchronous and asynchronous communication:

Conclusion

We've explored the two different types of communication: synchronous and asynchronous communication. We also covered some benefits and challenges tied to each type of communication. Balancing between the two and coming up with a good mix for your team is key to making a highly productive, collaborative environment.

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Christopher Chae

Co-founder at Hyperinbox. Loves 🍕 and ☕️.

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