Communication is the exchange of messages—in the context of work, communication is how ideas are generated, expectations are shared, connections are made, and work gets done. At a general level, communication modes can be divided into two types: synchronous (sync) and asynchronous (async).
What comes to mind when you hear the term asynchronous? Pre-pandemic our team would receive blank stares when bringing up the concept during conversations. However, 2020 saw a significant rise in the term as asynchronous communication and asynchronous learning began to play a larger part in our daily lives.
With BCG’s Decoding Global Ways of Work study reporting that 89% of professionals would like to work fully or partially remote in the future, async communication is going to be critical to success. But what exactly is async communication, what is it not, and why is it so important? A common definition of asynchronous is “not synchronous” so it’s important for us to define both and provide examples of what they look like in remote work settings.
What is Synchronous Communication?
Synchronous communication is when information or messages are exchanged in real-time. A message is shared by a sender, and a recipient simultaneously receives it.
Examples of Synchronous Communication in Remote Work
The most common form of synchronous communication is meetings. Multiple people are in the same room, physical or virtual, at the same time and are having live conversation. Individuals may take on the role of speaker or even just as listener, but communication is happening simultaneously on both ends.
Live meetings are not the only form of sync communication; in fact, it may not even be the most common form in your organization. Some asynchronous methods can be used incorrectly as a medium for synchronous communication. For instance, sending a Slack or Teams message and expecting an immediate response, potentially turning into written dialogue, has shifted an asynchronous channel into a synchronous one. As Hannah Fleishman of HubSpot shares, “A good communicator never blames her tools.“
What is Asynchronous Communication?
Asynchronous communication is the opposite of synchronous. Information or messages are not received at the same time as when the sender transmits them. There is an inherent delay. For async communication to be effective, that delay should be respected, within certain parameters that are ideally set and aligned by your teams.
Examples of Asynchronous Communication in Remote Work
Asynchronous communication can take many forms. People most often think of asynchronous communication as happening in written form, such as handwritten letters or emails. Some companies like Basecamp espouse long-form asynchronous written communication as the gold standard for remote teams.
Asynchronous communication can be emails, Slack messages, recorded videos, audio, shared document collaboration, or project management commentary. Increasingly, healthy remote teams are recognizing that writing may not include all the rich communication cues and are introducing remote video asynchronous collaboration tools, like Loom. Slack and Microsoft teams have even added video messages as a feature.
What About Synchronous vs Asynchronous Communication?
Communication challenges in remote and hybrid teams often stem from an imbalance in sync versus async communication practices. While there is no universal perfect ratio that applies to every single team or organization, the aim should be to constantly refine your communication practices to achieve incremental improvements. The breakdown of sync versus async communication may change depending on the needs of your team.
Balancing async and sync communication allows for both autonomous work and rich communication. With asynchronous communication, you’re respecting each individual’s time and work style as well as managing the team’s overall energy, focus, and attention. Prioritizing asynchronous communication with strategically selected synchronous interactions encourages freedom for individual workers and maintains meaningful interpersonal communication. This balanced combination of communication modes yields productive teams while buffering against challenges like isolation.
Sync communication is often preferred when you’re having difficult conversations, resolving conflicts, or live brainstorming is needed to overcome a challenge. Async communication works best for widely distributing information, when processing time is needed for brainstorming or collaboration, or when tasks can be completed independently. If your team is experiencing symptoms of suboptimal communication, like frequent miscommunications or an increase in missed deadlines, you likely haven’t yet figured out async communication and could benefit from training.
The Placeless Taxonomy is a classification system that represents a hierarchy of work tasks and how difficult they are to achieve asynchronously, moving from the bottom (easiest) to the top (hardest).
- Informing: Sharing information and updates
- Collaborating: Achieving a task together that has already been determined
- Problem-solving: Defining a problem, determining cause, and sourcing and implementing solutions
- Creating: Generating new ideas
- Decision-making: Influencing, gaining consensus, and taking action
- Innovating: Turning a concept into reality
- Connecting: Building social capital, resolving conflicts, and deepening relationships
Async Isn’t New, But You May Need to Apply It in New Ways
While I think remote work is the future, I believe that asynchronous communication is an even more important factor in team productivity, whether your team is remote or not.
– Amir Salihefendic, Founder and CEO of Doist
Since the invention of writing, humans have been communicating asynchronously. Despite async not being a new concept or practice, one of the most consistent indicators of ineffective remote work is an overreliance on synchronous communication and a hesitancy to embrace async to accomplish more work tasks.
Read our guide to async communication to explore the impact of this imbalance on business outcomes and how to move toward strategic synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Learn the Right Balance of Async for Your Team
Start Async at Work
This eCourse helps teams quickly achieve flexibility and productivity results by adopting async-first practices.