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What is asynchronous communication and how to use it effectively

It wasn’t too long ago when offices reliant on synchronous communication had to adapt to online asynchronous communication overnight. With the sudden rise of remote and hybrid work, spurred in large part by the pandemic, businesses everywhere became eager to learn more about how to work effectively not only across geographic locations, but also across days and even weeks.

Asynchronous communication is now used by everyone, but what is it really? In this post, we’ll explain the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication, discuss the benefits of asynchronous communication, and we’ll provide tips for how to navigate communication as a remote team.

What is asynchronous communication?

While the name is a little technical, asynchronous communication is a lot more basic than it sounds—and you do it every day.

Asynchronous communication is any communication between two or more people that doesn’t require them to be in the same physical space or communicating at exactly the same time. Email is an example of asynchronous communication. You’re engaging in a dialogue with another person, but it’s not expected that the person will reply at that exact moment. Instead, they’ll reply whenever they’re able to. 

Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication

Everyone uses a combination of both asynchronous and synchronous communication, and it depends on the needs of the interaction.

In order to have a conversation with someone over the phone, they need to pick up when you call. If the person you’re calling picks up and you’re able to have a conversation, that’s synchronous communication. If they don’t pick up and you leave a message, that’s asynchronous communication

A meeting held in an office requires everyone involved to be physically present in the space together. Questions are responded to immediately, and there’s real-time discussion. Even though you’re not in the same physical space, a Zoom meeting is also a form of synchronous communication since participants are able to communicate with each other freely in the same moment.  

Asynchronous communication examples 

  • Email
  • Leaving a voicemail
  • Text messages
  • Facebook messenger
  • Slack
  • WhatsApp
  • Microsoft Teams (+Yammer and Sharepoint)
  • Asana

Synchronous communication examples

  • Phone calls
  • In-person meetings
  • Video conferencing (Zoom, Skype, etc.)
  • Watercooler chat
  • Real-time conversations in Slack

Effective communication in the workplace: challenges for remote and distributed teams

Constant interruptions 

We likely don’t have to tell you it’s challenging to manage interruptions when you work remotely. For your pets, children, spouses, and roommates, it’s tough to understand when you’re ‘at work’ and when you’re not. Responding right away to a quick question or a furry friend who wants to go for a walk can completely throw off your concentration.

Then there are the interruptions that come from your email, text messages, calls, and phone notifications. People who work from home are more likely to have their smartphone nearby, which can cause tiny interruptions throughout the day that prevent deep work

Lack of connection with coworkers 

Working from physically separate locations affects some more than others, but not being able to see your friends at work (and only seeing those you live with) can take an emotional toll. 

It’s tough to keep team engagement lively without seeing the friendly faces of coworkers, which can leave remote workers feeling disconnected from the team.

Finding work-life balance

The mindset of when I’m at work, I’m at work, and when I’m at home, I’m at home doesn’t exactly play into the remote work reality. It’s easy for your home life to bleed into your work life and vice versa if careful boundaries are not set. This can have a negative impact on your wellbeing, and in the end, both your work and home life will suffer.

Zoom fatigue

Teams may overdo Zoom meetings to make up for lack of in-person communication. It’s not as if you don’t want to communicate with your coworkers; it’s just that, after a while, Zoom fatigue gets pretty real. 

It’s an excellent way for teams to meet and communicate online, but there is such a thing as too much Zoom. Going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting can get tiring, and just like the physical workplace, a day filled with meetings means a day where nothing else gets done.‍

Benefits of asynchronous communication

For all its challenges, remote work provides a number of benefits to both employees and employers. It takes time to get used to and time to figure out your own groove, but once you do, it’s smooth sailing and optimized productivity. 

Reduced interruptions

It can be difficult to work productively in an office surrounded by like-minded coworkers. A coworker stopping by your office (or Slack) to chat may seem like no big deal or even a welcome distraction from your work, but interruptions come at a cost. 

A study cited by the American Psychology Association found that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” As much as we may try and fight it, our brains aren’t made for heavy-duty multitasking; we work best when we can focus all of our attention on doing just one thing well. 

Asynchronous communication means you decide when you can afford to be interrupted. If you have a major task that requires all of your focus, you can choose to close Slack or your email and devote all of your energy to it without fear of being interrupted. Then, when that critical task is complete, you can check in on Slack to see if your coworkers need anything from you. 

Room for deeper focus

Demanding tasks require deep focus, which can be real tough to come by on any given workday. Interruptions and distractions are everywhere, and sometimes, what keeps us from accomplishing deep work is other forms of work. Even though you’re technically working during a meeting or when replying to Slack messages, it’s not quite the right mindset needed to tackle larger, cognitively-demanding tasks. An entire busy workday can go by without you ever reaching a state of deep concentration.

Asynchronous communication creates fewer interruptions, which leaves more opportunities for deep work. When you can communicate with your team based on your own schedule, you’re able to create productive blocks of focused work. This helps people find a groove, and it’s terrific for productivity.

Freedom from time zone constraints

Remote work means the whole world is your talent pool instead of just the small city where your company is located. This means businesses are able to hire the best of the best, creating a well-rounded, diverse team. But synchronous communication is time zone sensitive. It requires two or more people to be available at any given time, which can be a nightmare for teams spread out across the globe or businesses that work with overseas customers. 

When you get accustomed to communicating asynchronously, time zones are no longer a barrier. You can communicate at a time that works best for you, and the other person will get back to you at a time that works best for them. In fact, asynchronous communication makes different time zones an asset, not a hindrance. You can ask a question or pass on work at the end of your day and a colleague in a different time zone is able to take it over while you’re sleeping. 😴

Asynchronous = fewer meetings

Ever had a day with back to back to back meetings, and then all of a sudden it’s the end of the day, and you’re left wondering how and when you’ll ever get your work done?

Meetings are expensive. They may seem harmless, but they can completely eat up company time and employee productivity. Any time spent in a meeting is time not spent working on another task. This means employees have less time to complete their other work, which adds unnecessary stress to their lives and can lead to burnout. Poorly managed, unstructured meetings, or ones without a set purpose, cost employers precious work hours that could otherwise be spent in more productive ways.

Of course, there is a time for meetings, and in some cases, they are exactly what’s needed to boost morale or get to the bottom of a problem. Meetings should always be set with intention. What’s the purpose of the meeting? What do you hope to accomplish? 

Asynchronous communication provides opportunities for teams to interact productively outside of a meeting, ensuring effective meetings once one is actually required. It allows people to communicate on their own terms so that entire days aren’t lost to meetings. 

Letting people work how they work best

Everyone works differently. Morning people get a burst of energy in the morning, while others take hours to fully wake up and find the right work groove. Enabling teams to work the way they work best is better for everyone.

Giving employees the freedom to work how and when they want, and trusting them to do so, improves productivity and boosts morale. To effectively provide employees that freedom, you must practice asynchronous communication in your workplace. It allows each individual to maintain their own work schedule while still ensuring effective communication continues across the whole team.

Synchronous communication: Use cases & best practices

Of course, we can’t completely rule out synchronous communication. It has its time and place, and it can be extremely useful when used correctly.

The thing about synchronous communication is it requires consent from two people. When you choose to stop by someone’s office, call a coworker, or start a video call out of the blue, you’re interrupting the other person. Synchronous communication is a two-way street, which means you need to be considerate of other people’s time.

Before choosing synchronous communication, make sure the other person is available. If you want to speak on Zoom, coordinate a time that works for both of you. If your message isn’t important, share it in a status update or send an email so you don’t interrupt whatever is going on in someone else’s day. Save surprise phone or video calls for emergencies only.

The impact of asynchronous communication in the workplace

When done right, working and communicating asynchronously can have both immediate and long-term effects in the workplace. Let’s consider a few notable ways this mode of working can change up the office.

More flexibility

One of the most significant effects of asynchronous work will be the increased flexibility it affords teams and individuals. Without a set time to meet, async work allows people to make contributions at the times that suit them best. This means they don’t have to worry about accommodating busy schedules or cutting off a productive conversation just so the next meeting can begin.

Greater inclusivity

Async work can also make the workplace much more inclusive. Instead of having to attend another meeting or all get on the same call, people can make contributions when they want. That makes it easier to include everyone, regardless of time zone. Plus, it doesn’t matter if they’re introverted, extroverted, neurodiverse, or whatever — regardless of ability, async work gives everyone an equal voice.

More time

Also significant is the added amount of time that asynchronous work can give everyone. Unlike regular meetings, async work can take place over multiple days or even weeks. This gives everyone the space they need to consider their responses and how they want to contribute, helping to enable more creativity and thoughtful work.

Limitations of asynchronous communication

Although asynchronous communication can be a wonderful alternative to traditional working formats, they can also come with a few negatives. Let’s explore some of the most significant drawbacks.

Longer timelines

Although you may gain a great deal of flexibility, you may also lose an equal amount of efficiency. Due to its very nature, asynchronous communication means employees will have to wait longer to get feedback, make decisions, and move work forward. For this reason, it may not be the best solution when a problem needs to be addressed immediately.

Less spontaneity

There’s no denying it. Whether it’s because of chemistry or just the energy of being in the same room, in-person debates and discussions can lead to some surprising and rewarding ideas. When communication is moved into an asynchronous format, this sense of spontaneity can be lost – and that might mean a lack of creativity and energy.

A greater need for follow up

Asynchronous communication can mean longer timeframes and no face-to-face. Because of that, it can sometimes be harder getting people to carry out the tasks assigned to them during an async session. This will require more work to make sure everyone stays on task.

Asynchronous communication tools to utilize 

There is no shortage of tools available these days for businesses interested in asynchronous work. From one-on-one collaboration tools to company-wide platforms, there is a solution that can make every type of communication more asynchronous.

  • Email: Possibly the most widely used communication tool out there, email is nonetheless one of the most effective ways to take advantage of asynchronous work. When something needs to be communicated but does not require an immediate response, email is often the fastest and most effective way to do it.
  • Instant messaging apps: Nearly as ubiquitous now as email, instant messaging applications are a more informal and often faster way to send and receive messages. They also do a good job of mimicking real-time conversations. Popular instant messaging apps include Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Chat.
  • Document collaboration tools: Oftentimes, asynchronous communication is most effective when it takes place within the most relevant context. Tools like Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365, and Figma make it possible for people to leave comments and edits directly in a document, where people can see and respond to them on their own time.
  • Voice and video messages:  Although video may be more closely associated with real-time communication, it can also be a highly effective way to communicate asynchronously. By using tools like Loom and Voxer to record voice or video messages, people can quickly convey complex information or detailed instructions.
  • Knowledge management systems: A great deal of communication that takes place involves answering common questions and sharing standardized instructions. Central repositories of information (such as Confluence, Notion, and Evernote) make it easy to store and share information, documents, and resources for teams or employees to access as they need it.
  • Calendar and scheduling tools: Scheduling meetings and coordinating availability among team members can be a time-consuming process when done in real-time. But tools like Google Calendar and Calendly make it easy to see when people can meet and reserve times on their own, making this process much more efficient for everyone.

Measuring the effectiveness of asynchronous communication

The success of synchronous communication can be measured and assessed just like anything else in a business – as long as the right metrics are used. Here are a few key metrics teams can look at in order to understand how effective their async work really is.

  • Response and completion times: By looking at how long it takes for employees to respond to requests, as well as the average length of time it takes for them to check off a task, organizations can get a good idea of how engaged employees are. By measuring these numbers against more traditional, synchronous methods, they can also gauge how effective their async communication is.
  • Engagement: A good indication of how much employees like using asynchronous methods of communication is simply how many messages they are sending, comments they’re making, and other measures of participation. If usage rates are high, chances are asynchronous productivity is as well.
  • Task accuracy: Although engagement is one measure, the accuracy and rate of errors in asynchronous communication and work should also be looked at. If there are a lot of errors, this could indicate that these methods of collaboration are breaking down somewhere, resulting in miscommunications and less effective work.
  • Knowledge sharing and retention: The amount of knowledge and information that is shared, communicated, and documented across asynchronous platforms can be a good measure of their effectiveness. Ideally, businesses should see a high rate of usage across their knowledge management systems. If not, employees are probably getting that information elsewhere.
  • Team satisfaction: Sometimes, the best way to know whether something is working is simply to ask. By using surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one discussions to solicit direct feedback on asynchronous communication tools, organizations can quickly measure how supported their teams really feel by these methods.

How to adopt asynchronous communication in your organization

The most effective workplaces use synchronous and asynchronous communication with intention. They both serve a purpose—the challenge is learning which to use when and getting the whole team on the same page about what’s expected.

Changes you can implement today:

Managers and team leaders should set best practices around workplace communication. Help your team understand how, when, and where to communicate.

As an individual, you can prepare your own communication guidelines to help you decide how to communicate with colleagues based on different circumstances.

Before making an impromptu call to a coworker, always consider if your question or comment is really worth the interruption.

Keep your Slack status up-to-date to help your team see when you are available and when you are not.

Set meetings with intention. Only schedule a meeting if synchronous communication is needed or would benefit the cause.

David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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