Manager’s Guide: Sync Vs. Async Communication

Productivity ⚡⚡⚡ + Avoid Burnout 🚫🤦‍♂️ + More Time For Deep ⏲️💪🛠️ Work. Understand why Sync vs. Async matters.

The Meetingnotes Team
December 6, 2023

Talk to enough workers today, and you’ll find two work-changing trends taking place:

  1. A massive shift to remote and hybrid workplaces
  2. Fatigue and burnout from too much remote communication 

At first, the desire to be remote coinciding with remote fatigue seems to be a paradox. 

Employees want more flexibility to work remotely (or must work remotely due for the sake of public health), and yet remote communication is burning people out.

But the real issue here isn’t the nature of remote work itself. Yes, loneliness, isolation, and distance of team members are factors in an employee’s happiness. But day-in, day-out, the shift to purely remote communication is a major culprit.

Looking at how your team communicates is also the most straightforward challenge with remote work to address. 

That is why, recently, there has been a lot of talk about synchronous versus asynchronous communication.

In this guide:

  1. Definitions: Sync vs. Async Communication
  2. Why Consider Sync Vs. Async?
  3. Benefits of Choosing the Right Communication Method
  4. Examples of Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication
  5. Best Asynchronous Communication Software
  6. What types of work are difficult to do asynchronously?
  7. Roots of the terms asynchronous vs. synchronous 
  8. FAQs
  9. Takeaways

1. Definitions: Sync vs. Async Communication

Let’s quickly clear up the meaning of synchronous communication vs. asynchronous communication.

  • Synchronous Communication (Sync) - Happening in real-time. Interactive. Two-way.
  • Asynchronous Communication (Async) - On your own schedule or time frame. Not simultaneous or concurrent in time.

Another way to view is like this: The difference between synchronous and asynchronous communications is whether both people are communicating at the same time.

2. Why Consider Sync Vs. Async? It Eats Up Half Your Time

Research shows that more than 50% of a worker’s time is spent communicating at work. That means that the majority of your time is spent not creating or doing—but talking about creating or doing.

And if you spend half of your day communicating, if you do it all synchronously, that means you have to do it RIGHT NOW.

  • Someone walks up to your desk: Either talk to them or send them away
  • Got a meeting? Got to go.
  • Phone ringing? Better pick up.

The biggest drawback of synchronous communication is that it breaks up your day. It breaks your flow.

Synchronous communication interrupts you... every time someone else wants to synchronize.

The push for more async communicating is an attempt to alleviate this.

Marcus Kazmierczak, an engineering lead at Automatic, the company that makes WordPress, says, “[Async communication] is the most important productivity aspect for distributed work is asynchronous communication...This is a huge benefit for distributed [teams]. People can focus. Let them focus.”

3. Benefits of Choosing the Right Communication Method

It may seem like an overly academic exercise to consider whether to communicate in a synchronous or asynchronous way—and then, beyond that, which one—but being thoughtful about your communication in your business allows you to achieve two meaningful results:

  • Improved collaboration. When together, you want your time to be spent in a productive way that energizes the team.
  • Increase flow. When apart, you want blocks of uninterrupted focus time for deep work.

The stakes are even higher for remote and hybrid teams who must rely on virtual communication methods in their organizations.

4. Examples of Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

Any kind of two-way conversation or chat that has a real-time back-and-forth can be synchronous.

Sync communication examples:

  • Making a phone call
  • Having a meeting
  • Having a conversation
  • Text-based chatting in real-time

Any type of communication where there is a delay or gap between responses can be asynchronous.

Async communication examples:

  • Sending an email
  • Sending a doc share
  • Leaving a comment
  • Writing a note
  • Sending a video
  • Leaving a voicemail
  • Triggering a notification

Examples of communication that is both synchronous and asynchronous:

Meetings - Both Synchronous and Asynchronous Elements

Because meetings involve real-time face-to-face interaction, they’re often lumped entirely in the sync category. Doing so would not only be a mistake but highlights a lot about what is wrong with meetings in general: a lack of preparation and follow-through to make the meeting time worth it.

A good meeting has many async components before the meeting happens:

  • Circulating of an agenda and/or discussion topics
  • Sharing of materials to review before the meeting
  • Scheduling meeting times (the event invite and any rescheduling efforts)

The meeting itself is synchronous.

Then after the meeting, there are async activities again:

  • Recording and following up on action items
  • Scheduling the next meeting
  • Supply updates about what happened between meetings

To make the best use of the async and sync aspects of a meeting, use a meeting management tool like Fellow that lets you set a shared agenda, take collaborative notes, and track your meeting action items.

Chat - Can Be Sync Or Async 

Slack encourages messages to be short and real-time, but it encompasses a variety of messages, including many that go unread or unresponded to for quite some time. Because of this, it sits in an interesting hybrid space. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, chat can be sync or async, depending on whether someone is active in the app or not.

Takeaway: Because chat apps aren’t always sync or async, they potentially combine flaws of both communication styles. Chat messages may seem to all have immediate priority (like a sync conversation), but they can also be slower than less detailed than speaking to someone. Nevertheless, platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams are rapidly becoming the backbones of many organizations, whether remote, hybrid, or co-located.

5. Best Asynchronous Communication Software

As a fully remote company, we rely on asynchronous communication in order to stay effective. After testing out a variety of tools, here is what we use.

Loom - Video messaging is the unspoken key to remote collaboration

In lieu of a meeting or a call, people on my team send at least one Loom video message almost every day. These are quick updates, requests for feedback, and other communications that don’t necessarily need everyone to be on the call at the same time.

Certain emails, chat threads, or meetings that would take a long time to put together can be done in a fraction of the time with Loom. Here’s an example of a quick message that took under a minute to record, but which replaces ~5 minutes of work typing out an email:

One of the great things about async, is it sticks around for a long time. If someone new to a team wants to go back and reread all the decisions, ideas, and thoughts around a project. They are all archived.

Marcus Kazmierczak, Engineering Lead at Automatic

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What Types Of Work Are Difficult To Do Asynchronously?

In order starting with the most difficult:

  1. Connecting
  2. Innovating
  3. Decision-Making
  4. Creating
  5. Problem-Solving
  6. Informing

Most Difficult: Connecting. Connecting with other people on a deeper level can be difficult is you’re not only not in the same place, but not at the same time as well. While certain types of async communication are more personal (such as a Loom video), it is difficult, although not impossible, to establish genuine human connection with people asynchronously.

Innovating. Working together to come up with someone new while also being asynchronous requires diligence. It’s harder to spitball ideas. You don’t have serendipitous moments walking past another person. To innovate in an asynchronous way, you must get into good habits of sharing and asking questions, making space for activities that are much easier in person.

Decision-Making. While not impossible to do asynchronous, most decision-making requires a discussion that has some aspect of back-and-forth. While it can be more efficient to have this back-and-forth all at once, coming up with a decision asynchronously can be just as effective.

Creating. Working together to build something while being separated by time and space can be challenging, but it can also provide helpful blocks of uninterrupted focus time.

Problem-Solving. Unlike decision-making, solving problems usually involves more easily defined steps. You need to investigate the source of the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and try them out. Teams often engage in asynchronous problem solving already, dividing up work. (You check A, and I’ll check B, then we check back in with each other.)

Least Difficult: Informing. The simple passing along of information is the easiest task to do at work asynchronously. Rather than be concerned about the difficulty here, you should instead consider the format. Is an email, a slide deck, a chat thread, or a video the best way to go? Or some combination of these?

7. Roots Of The Terms Asynchronous Vs. Synchronous 

The notion of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication originally comes from computer science.

These terms have more recently been applied to collaboration styles in the workplace, but they’ve been in the lexicon of the computer world much longer. The same words can be used to describe data transfer in a networking scenario.

A website will load some assets one at a time, for example, in a serial, synchronous fashion. Others can load at the same time, asynchronously.

Likewise, software developers will often break up a single, heavy computation into multiple computations that can be done asynchronously in order to speed up apps and produce efficiency.

That’s why, if you Google “synchronous vs. asynchronous” you might see results with acronyms like tdm, usarts, eia 232, sdlc protocol, mom messaging, or works like bisync, message queue, sequence diagram, or ajax programming.

Interestingly, some of the pros and cons of networking communications are very similar to their human counterparts.

Advantages of synchronous communication in computer networking:

  • Transmit large amounts of data in real-time
  • Data is transmitted without gaps between bytes
  • Accuracy of transmission relies on the receiver’s ability to count the received bits accurately

Advantages of asynchronous communication in computer networking:

  • Highly flexible, but slower transmission rate
  • Can transmit between sources that have different bit rates

As you can see, synchronous transmission in networking lets you get more information across more quickly, but it’s not as flexible as async methods and can be inaccurate if the receiver isn’t ready for that information.

Remind you of any human behaviors you know about?

8. Review / FAQs

What does synchronous communication mean?

Two-way communication happening at the same time.

What is an example of synchronous communication?

Having a virtual audio call with someone on a Slack huddle.

What does asynchronous communication mean?

Two-way communication with a gap between participants consuming and responding.

What is an example of asynchronous communication?

Sending a Slack message but not receiving one back for 30-minutes.

Is email asynchronous or synchronous?

Asynchronous. Between each sent or received email you have to wait for a reply. Unless done in rapid succession, email is asynchronous.

What are some types of synchronous online communication?

  • Video conferencing: Virtual meetings top the list because they’re what we associate with synchronous online communication, but they’re not the only option
  • Audio conferencing: With the release of features like Huddles in Slack and other easy voice calls in so many apps, having a quick online audio call is just one-click away in most apps
  • Chat: Text-based communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, depending on whether people are watching and replying back in real-time. Often it is a little bit of both.

What are advantages of asynchronous communication?

  • Less likely to interrupt a person’s flow
  • Allows people to take the correct amount of time to consider an issue or complete a task (versus the fixed time in a meeting)
  • Less mentally exhausting than having another live Zoom call
  • Shows respect for people’s boundaries
  • Promotes a culture where people think before they speak

What are disadvantages of asynchronous communication?

  • Slower exchange of ideas 
  • More difficult to establish strong relationships
  • Limitations set by the tool: text, a screen, and app

9. Takeaways

  • Synchronous Communication, a.k.a. “Sync” is collaboration happening in real-time.
  • Asynchronous Communication, a.k.a. “Async” is not simultaneous or concurrent in time.
  • Using async more effectively can help combat burnout in your organization
  • Asynchronous communication frees up more time for focused work
  • Not all sync activities are as easily replaced with async versions

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