Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: How to choose?

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: How to choose?


We’re talking about synchronous communication vs. asynchronous communication. Depending on the situation, you may rely on one type more than the other, but most jobs require a combination of both. 

Whether you’ve resumed your daily commute to the office, or your once-temporary workspace just a few steps from your kitchen is now a more permanent arrangement, understanding your team’s synchronous and asynchronous communication methods is crucial to being a better-prepared communicator — and a more productive employee.

What is synchronous communication?

Synchronous communication happens in real-time or near-real-time. This is the type of communication that occurs when team members expect an immediate response.

Most people are familiar with synchronous communication in an office setting. Any time a co-worker steps into your office for a progress check or your boss sends a direct message via Slack, they are using synchronous communication. 

In addition to face-to-face conversations and instant messaging, other synchronous examples include phone calls, live online chats and live video conferences. The biggest defining characteristic of synchronous messaging? If you send out a message, you can reasonably expect a reply within seconds to minutes.

Synchronous communication via fist bumps. Synchronous communication via fist bumps.

What is asynchronous communication?

Also known as async, asynchronous communication is any communication that is sent without the expectation of an immediate reply. This type of communication occurs when team members can expect lag time between the sent message and response.

Benefits of synchronous communication

This kind of communication is excellent for building personal connections or conveying a sense of urgency, depending on the situation.

Synchronous works best in scenarios where:

  • Meetings can be scheduled ahead of time.
  • Answers are needed immediately.
  • You’re building workplace camaraderie, such as hosting a team outing (either in-person or virtual).
  • You’re brainstorming a new product or planning a launch and want everyone to start on the same page.

Drawbacks to synchronous communication

Time zones are a common synchronous communication challenge, even with extensive planning and access to high-speed internet. Real-time communication can also present challenges for employees with poor social skills or irregular office hours.

In a work setting, synchronous communication methods help you observe which employees work best in social settings and easily connect with customers. Many individuals struggle with synchronous learning because it requires active participation and limits the ability for learners to go at their own pace — similarly, employees often operate at different paces. Some will excel at time management and responsiveness, while others prefer to lock in on a task uninterrupted and withhold their response until the job is complete.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

If your team is working remotely in any capacity, asynchronous communication has to be part of the conversation. Working from home means that distractions can arise, schedules might shift, and you might not make it to every Zoom call on time. An asynchronous strategy ensures that no one gets left behind.

Asynchronous communication examples include:

  • Recorded video meetings
  • Email
  • Shared Google Docs or Vibe boards
  • Collaborative team spaces (such as Notion )
  • Slack messages

Face-to-face conversations enhance connection, but they can also steal time away from your work. It can be difficult to concentrate on doing intricate work when your email inbox is constantly filling up. An asynchronous plan lets workers focus during a time that works best for them without the pressure to respond to every email as it rolls in.

Async communication works well for flexible workplaces. Async communication works well for flexible workplaces.

Drawbacks to asynchronous communication

The main drawback to asynchronous communication is an obvious risk of delay. Time is precious in any industry, and leaning on asynchronous methods relies on every team member to stay on top of tasks and maintain a sense of urgency on their own. For some employees this is a dream come true — time management is no issue and the risk of micromanaging is low.

That being said, sometimes emails get lost. Updates are missed. Confusion over deadlines can arise. The ability to quickly resolve issues in the chain of communication is limited, and entire projects can be disrupted if not everyone stays in touch and informed. In extreme cases, this can even take the form of messages being ignored rather than forgotten. Asynchronous communication requires discipline and trust throughout an entire organization.

Tips for better synchronous communication

As mentioned above, time is precious. We all have jobs to do, and we’ve all sat through meetings we privately thought could’ve easily been medium-length emails. Improving synchronous communication means making it valuable and worthwhile to everyone involved. Meetings should include some form of engagement for all roles present. Presentations should be efficient and offer more than simply reciting facts from a PowerPoint.

Brainstorming sessions should include everyone present. The entire point of synchronous communication is to facilitate collaboration and camaraderie. Zoom meetings should aim to keep video feeds on and teammates attentive and engaged, not working on other assignments in the background. If it’s clear a meeting or a quick drop-by the office will be a valuable use of time, your office’s smart use of synchronous communication will keep things running smoothly.

Start Brainstorming sessions with the Vibe Smart Whiteboard

Tips for better asynchronous communication

Async is great, but since it’s still new to many people, they might find that communicating effectively across emails, messages, and social media isn’t as simple as it seems. Between tones and typos, online communications leave plenty of room for misinterpretation and confusion.

Crafting well-written messages is not only important for getting work done, but also for establishing healthy and friendly relationships with colleagues. So, what does it take to become a communication pro across digital lines? Focus on the big three: clarity, tone, and timing.

Related: Help Your Modern Workplace Thrive with Asynchronous Communication Tools

Write like you talk

Remember high school term papers? If you were like many students, you did whatever you could to reach the page requirement. Many times that meant using more complex words and phrases as well as longer sentences. These habits often carry over into our professional communication. And while they might be good tactics to hit those page requirements, they don’t work for achieving clarity.

For asynchronous communication, write as you talk:

  • Keep it conversational with contractions and everyday language.
  • Avoid fluffy words and phrases. (Think “use” versus “utilize.”)
  • When appropriate, lean on emojis, memes, gifs and typeface to support your message.
  • Stick to a common vocabulary easily understood by all instead of acronyms and corporate speak .
  • Watch out for idioms or expressions that could be regional, insensitive, or just difficult to understand.
  • Give messages a quick proof before hitting send to avoid confusing typos or grammatical errors.

A man writes in a notebook, writing his asynchronous communication plan. A man writes in a notebook, writing his asynchronous communication plan.

Set the tone to avoid misunderstandings

The biggest thing lacking in written communication? Tone. During in-person conversations, you can use your body language, facial expressions, inflection, and even your surroundings to better convey your message. None of those aids exist in written communication.

That’s why as much as 50% of emails and messages are misunderstood . What might sound like a friendly conversation in person could be misinterpreted as demand over email. Fortunately, there are some foolproof ways to master tone over text.

First, you can follow some of the best practices for having difficult discussions in relationships. Use “I” statements, avoid superlatives like “always” and “never,” and steer clear of assumptions. “You” statements can feel pointed and even overly direct depending on the context.

Making assumptions (especially negative ones) can also be dicey. You can try reframing them as questions. Instead of writing, “You probably haven’t started the project yet,” try, “Have you had a chance to start on the project?” This also leaves room for discussion.

For particularly tricky messages, let it simmer. Your initial response may be a bit more heated than you intend. Even 30 minutes can be enough to cool your head and reflect on your response before hitting send. You can also bring in someone to provide an external review if it’s a critical piece of communication, especially one that will have many readers.

Related: Save Time and Streamline Workflows with Hybrid Communication Strategies

Timing is everything

Do you wake up to a flurry of texts, alerts, and emails each morning? You’re not alone. Since the shift to remote work, working hours have grown longer. Nearly 70% of people who have begun working from home since the pandemic say they now work on the weekends; 45% report that they work more hours a week than before. This shift results in more messages at more hours of the day.

To establish healthy working hours and boundaries, consider the timing of your communications.

  • Be mindful of “deep focus hours,” which for many employees includes the first half of the day.
  • Check your colleagues’ calendars for blocked-off times and PTO before messaging or scheduling meetings .
  • Acknowledge messages promptly even if it’s just a thumbs up or note that you’ll get back to it later.
  • Schedule messages to send during your company’s working hours if you’re crafting them outside of those hours.
  • Update your status on communication platforms when you’re away, on PTO, or otherwise unavailable.

The evolution of workplace communication

As our work situations evolve and the phrase “traditional office” takes on a new meaning, asynchronous communication will become more prevalent. With a growing list of app integrations and a design that fits your communication style, the Vibe board can be one of the solutions to your remote team’s collaboration needs.

[Editor’s note: this post was originally published November 6, 2020 and updated Jan 28, 2022.]

Vibe offers a collaborative solution combining an interactive digital whiteboard and innovative smart software. Increase engagement and efficiency at your brainstorming sessions, virtual training, and classroom sessions by integrating your favorite applications with video conferencing and an infinite, mess-free writing canvas. Collaborate today with Vibe.

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