Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: When to Use One or the Other at Work
Deciding to use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication will generally come down to how fast you need a response and how sensitive the situation is.
Many office workers have experienced the struggle of sitting through drawn-out meetings that could’ve been summarized in an email. These team meetings aren’t just unproductive—they take you away from higher-priority tasks. On the other end of the spectrum, responding to message after message and waiting for a response can be inefficient and stall projects.
So, how do you know when to communicate in real time versus opting for more asynchronous methods? How do you strike a balance between the two?
With so many different work models and communication tools available, it helps to identify your key priorities. Deciding to use synchronous vs. asynchronous communication will generally come down to how fast you need a response and how sensitive the situation is. This article breaks down the differences between the two and provides some scenarios where you may choose one over the other.
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication: What's the difference?
Synchronous communication is when you’re communicating in real-time and receive immediate responses from the other person (or people) with whom you are communicating. Common examples of synchronous communication include face-to-face conversations and phone calls.
Sometimes people get confused and think that synchronous communication can’t happen virtually—but that’s not true nowadays. Real-time video calls or instant messaging also allow us to communicate synchronously.
On the other hand, asynchronous communication is when you’re communicating over a period of time and responses aren't immediate.
Email is a common example of async communication in the workplace. Forums, texts and chat messages, recorded videos, and interactive documents are also great examples of asynchronous communication.
When to choose synchronous communication at work
Synchronous communication is ideal for situations where emotions are running high or an immediate response is necessary.
Discussing personnel issues and sensitive topics
When handling complex conversations that impact your employees, communicating in real-time helps to add a personal touch and leaves less room for ambiguity. Sensitive situations like hiring or letting go of an employee, significant shifts in company policies, and personnel issues like harassment claims or performance reviews lend themselves to synchronous communication.
These situations tend to be emotional and anxiety-producing, so the more personable you can be, the better. Synchronous communication allows you more control over the tone and setting of the discussion. In-person or video chats on Zoom also allow you to gauge emotions and non-verbal cues more easily. There’s less chance of your message being misinterpreted or unclear when everyone can fully express concerns and ask questions in real-time.
On the other hand, receiving bad news or having difficult conversations via an asynchronous Slack message or email can come across as cold and uncaring. It’s sort of like the workplace equivalent of breaking up via text message. You don’t want to leave anyone hanging high and dry, right?
Responding to emergencies and crises
Unfortunately, emergency situations—from natural disasters to global pandemics—are things companies have to deal with. When these crises occur, your team needs a leader to step up and communicate with them in real-time. Synchronous communication helps leaders quickly provide clarity, reassurance, and actionable next steps.
Harvard Business Review notes that good leaders “hold” their team during a crisis—helping interpret the situation and offering comfort.
When leaders properly “hold” and support their team through a crisis, “mutual support abounds, work continues, and a new vision eventually emerges,” the article states. If they can’t, the team often falls apart, and “anxiety, anger, and fragmentation ensue.”
Synchronous communication makes it much easier to lead your team through an emergency. Much like world leaders will host live press conferences or briefings to address the nation during a crisis, company leaders can host in-person meetings or video conferences to provide reassurance and direction during trying times.
After the initial synchronous response and concerns are mitigated, you can continue with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous follow-up as needed.
Tackling time-sensitive or detailed projects
Sometimes projects can’t wait, or there are many moving pieces that need to come together. In cases like this, synchronous communication minimizes delays and allows for quick responses and collaboration.
Consider a project that needs multiple people’s input before you can get started. Sharing the information about the initiative, waiting for multiple people to weigh in, then addressing questions and feedback can take hours—or even days—when done asynchronously. All the back and forth can slow down the process and cause a lot of confusion.
In a situation like this, consider holding a kickoff meeting synchronously. That way, everyone can get on the same page, offer input, and ask questions all at once. Then, once everyone is clear on direction, people are free to move forward.
Communicating synchronously allows for more spontaneity and non-verbal communication, making it easier to build relationships and get to know your teammates. Birthday celebrations, holiday gatherings, retirement parties, and other office gatherings are more fun and memorable when we can talk, share stories, and extend our well wishes in real-time—either face-to-face or via a virtual platform.
Beyond special occasions, synchronous communication can be beneficial during the onboarding process—whether building relationships with an onboarding buddy or with leadership. Managers should also consider synchronous 1:1 meetings with their employees to build trust over time.
These real-time team-bonding opportunities are crucial, particularly for remote teams. According to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work survey, loneliness continues to be one of the top challenges for remote workers and organizations. Opportunities for synchronous connection with your team, even virtually, can help make employees feel just a little less alone.
When to opt for asynchronous communication at work
Asynchronous communication is ideal for situations where it’s difficult to connect in real-time or when the response time isn’t important.
Sending non-timely or quick updates
Sometimes you want to keep people in the loop or receive feedback, but it isn’t time-sensitive or urgent enough to pull people away from their work. Asynchronous communication works well for these types of updates because it’s efficient and doesn’t cause unneeded distractions.
Say you want your manager to review a proposal you’ve been working on, or you want to send a status update about a project. You don’t need immediate feedback since it’s more of an FYI. In these scenarios, it’s often much more efficient to send a short message than it is to call or have a meeting.
By sharing the proposal and feedback request asynchronously, your boss can review when they have time rather than being pulled away from whatever they’re currently working on. Async communication channels provide opportunities to mute or ignore notifications when necessary, which is something you can’t easily do when communicating in real-time.
This ability to minimize distractions is key because office workers and IT professionals report being interrupted every three to 11 minutes, according to University of Connecticut management expert Nora Madjar. Those distractions interrupt deep work and impact productivity, according to Madjar.
Plus, asynchronous communication gives your boss room to respond fully and thoughtfully when they complete the review. Their whole attention is on the piece, and they can take time to research, re-read, and process the information. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re put on the spot in an in-person video chat or phone call.
Communicating with colleagues with different working hours
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many companies into remote and hybrid working models—and that trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Upwork predicts that “36.2 million Americans will be working remotely” by 2025, which is “an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels.” More and more companies have team members working all over the world in different time zones and allow for flexible working schedules.
This remote shift can make scheduling live conversations difficult and impractical. In situations like these, asynchronous communication is a great solution. Teams can use async tools, like Threads, to have deep discussions and collaborate effectively—even with varying work schedules.
Set clear communication guidelines for your team
Clear communication guidelines will help streamline communication across the board—whether using async or sync communication methods. If you haven’t already, consider implementing rules based on your working model and key communication challenges.
Global teams may need to set overlapping hours weekly or monthly, so co-workers can connect synchronously. You might also define response time expectations, so team members know when to reply to asynchronous messages. This guidance is critical for keeping projects on track and improving productivity.
With these guidelines, teams can stay on the same page no matter how they’re communicating.
Sign-up for Threads today to start taking advantage of async communication and reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or feedback.