Synch vs. Async: How to Have More Productive (And More Pleasant) Communication

Examples of sync vs. async at work, and when to use either way of communicating.

The Meetingnotes Team
February 9, 2024

When it comes to working as a team, nothing gets done without communication. How team members communicate, how often they do so, and the quality of communication all affect efficiency and outcomes.

With ongoing pressure for organizations to remain agile and competitive in evolving markets, leveraging the right mode of communication for each situation can be the difference between blast-off and bottlenecks. Understanding different modes of communication and when to use them enables teams to best manage their time and priorities.

In the workplace, communication falls into two buckets: synchronous and asynchronous:

  1. Understanding synch vs. async
  2. When to use synchronous communication
  3. When to go async
  4. Finding a balance that works

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1. Understanding Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

The terms synchronous and asynchronous focus on one thing: timing. Are people participating in a conversation simultaneously, or are their messages staggered?

Real-time or synchronous communication means that two or more people are engaged in sending and receiving messages at the same time. This most often happens in the form of in-person conversations, meetings, chats, phone calls, and other rapid exchange methods.

By contrast, asynchronous communication means that two or more people exchange information using a medium that allows for a delay in response. For example, email, social media and forum posts, recordings like voicemails, and Slack channels don’t require an immediate response for communication to happen.

As with most things, synchronous and asynchronous communication each have their benefits and drawbacks. Particularly in the context of a workplace, each style of communication lends itself to specific scenarios. (If you’ve ever attended a meeting that could have been an email, you know exactly what we’re talking about here.)

Knowing which type of communication to use when is critical to streamlining communication and efficiency on teams. Without functional communication, projects can fall apart and take longer than necessary—potentially going over budget and burning out team members. This paper provides a rundown of when synchronous communication makes sense, when asynchronous would be better, and how to find a balance for your team.

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2. When to Use Synchronous Communication

Synchronous communication brings people together—literally. When team members make time to meet or talk, communication is typically more engaged and encourages those present to invest in the conversation.

Part of this is due to real-time conversations tending to include more nonverbal cues. Body language, facial expression, gestures, and tone possibly convey much more than the words we use when communicating. As a result, in-person and video chats provide more information in more detail in less time. Even phone calls have the benefit of tone over written communication.

For this reason, synchronous communication such as meetings, one-on-ones, and phone or video calls are best for:

  • Kicking off a new project, contract, or relationship. Start things off on the right foot by introducing everyone and agreeing on expectations and approach. A meeting helps everyone “get a feel” for one another and look forward to what’s ahead together.
  • Discussing complex problems. If an issue is too complicated to write out or will take a lot of brainstorming to solve, talking in real-time is ideal.
  • Giving difficult feedback or criticism. Providing an employee review or letting someone know they’re way off-base on a project? Some delicate things are better handled by dedicating time to chat.
  • Fostering personal connection. If the team never comes together at the same time, there’s a risk members will feel disconnected and eventually burn out. Fight this by syncing up on occasion.
  • Addressing urgent situations and emergencies. Obviously, if safety is at risk you need to immediately communicate that and confirm the message has been received. Less urgently, but still important, discussing the needs of a dissatisfied customer on the phone supersedes the latest customer email complaint. (That’s a mini-lesson within a lesson on sync vs. async!)
Synchronous communication methods also become necessary when asynchronous communication just isn’t cutting it. Tired of going back-and-forth on Slack? Perhaps it’s time to pick up the phone.

While the benefits of synchronous communication in certain situations is clear, it does have its limitations. For example: the bigger or more distributed the team, the harder it is to get everyone together at the same time. That means a kickoff that should happen this week may have to happen without everyone present or get pushed to next week.

Synchronous communication also tends to pull team members away from their work. In a study of senior managers by the University of North Carolina, 65% said meetings keep them from completing their work, while 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. Unless leaders truly need team members present for a conversation in real-time, it may be more efficient to let people focus on their work.

The in-depth interactions synchronous communication enables are undeniably beneficial under the right circumstances. To balance these benefits without distracting team members unnecessarily, leaders can:

  • Use asynchronous methods like email or Slack to schedule calls or meetings, rather than risking interruption by surprising team members with them.
  • Share agendas, expectations, and other relevant information in advance to ensure meeting or call time isn’t wasted.
  • Record synchronous communications if relevant team members can’t be present, and share recordings with them.
  • Understand that the response you get in real-time isn’t always the most well-thought out response. Be flexible and encourage team members to contact one another outside of real-time conversations if they realize they have more to share.

Clearly, asynchronous communication has a role to play in any organization’s success that cannot be overlooked.


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3. When to Use Asynchronous Communication

While asynchronous communication may not bring people together on the calendar, it certainly does some heavy lifting for team morale.

Asynchronous communication such as email, Slack, video recordings, or voicemail allow teams distributed across the globe or simply desiring more control over their schedule to receive and send information on their time. It also often creates a living document recording communication throughout a team’s time working together.

With autonomy, team members are more likely to find work-life balance and avoid burnout. Remote work is at an all-time high, and it's imperative that leaders of teams consider the real-world needs of members who are working from home. There are many opportunities to use asynchronous communication to achieve just that, such as:

Tracking projects.

With the right project tracking tools, anyone on the team can check in on progress at any time. There’s less need for real-time check-ins as long as everyone’s effectively communicating asynchronously about where they’re at.

Keeping things moving.

If team leaders notice friction or bottlenecks developing, they can quickly share their bird’s-eye-view with an email or message to course-correct before these issues become unmanageable. A meeting about following hand-off procedures is unnecessary if a quick reminder message will do.

Giving individuals time for deep thinking.

Synchronous communication can put people on the spot. You might get a gut response to something that actually requires a more thought-out reply. To truly leverage your team’s creativity and talent, use asynchronous communication to ask deep questions and get meaningful replies.

Relaying non-urgent information.

Donuts in the break room? Some may find that urgent. Realistically, however, it’s likely a little less urgent than the tasks many team members are working on. There’s no need to interrupt everyone with the news—they’ll see the message when they’ve reached a good stopping point.

When you have a large, busy, and/or distributed team.

If it’s tough to get everyone together at the same time, using asynchronous communication as much as possible can save a project from floundering.

While the value of asynchronous communication is clear, getting it right does require some extra thought and consideration. Try using these tips to avoid the pitfalls of this communication style:

  • Set reply deadlines to help message recipients make time to respond. You can give generous deadlines for non-urgent matters, and stricter ones when necessary.
  • Think before you hit send. Have you provided enough detail to get the response you need? Do your recipients have the resources to reply in a useful way?
  • Remember that written communication lacks the benefits of tone and visual cues. If you catch yourself writing a wall of text, it may be better to record an audio or video message instead.
  • Don’t overuse features like @tagging someone or marking emails as urgent. When every email is urgent and every message has a tag, they lose their power. Additionally, showing team members how to change their notification settings so they’re not overwhelmed by non-urgent messages may be helpful.
  • Offer team members opportunities to connect. Working asynchronously can make for lonely teams. Have casual channels or occasional real-time check-ins if possible. (You can try having two meetings, one for each hemisphere, for globally distributed teams.)

Asynchronous communication poses challenges for teams that try to rely on it alone. Realistically, each organization has its own sweet spot that balances both sync and async methods.

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4. Finding a Balance that Works for Your Team

Every team is unique, and their communication style will follow. Your team’s existing processes and structures as well as personal preferences play a large role in the balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication that works right for you.

When you consider that some people prefer audio-visual communication over written or vice versa, it becomes even more clear how much flexibility teams need to accommodate all their members. One team member may work best chatting live on Slack, while another prefers to let people leave voicemails they can check when they’re ready.

Innovative solutions have risen to the forefront of these growing needs in the age of remote work. Tools like Loom allow people to record short videos complete with screen-share that team members can watch when ready. This harnesses almost all of the benefits of a video meeting without requiring everyone to schedule time to be together.

When teams do need to come together, say for a kickoff, Loom’s videos can even help meeting leaders inform attendees of what to expect. Paired with a traditional agenda, a video can reinforce an upcoming meeting’s tone and expectations. Afterward, follow-up videos can help meeting attendees exchange ideas and thoughts asynchronously even though the meeting has ended.

Fellow and Loom have teamed up to provide meeting leaders with an integrated experience that leverages the best of synchronous and asynchronous communication. Pair great meetings with great video messages to exchange more detailed information more efficiently within your organization by trying out Fellow's Loom integration today.

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