What is synchronous vs. asynchronous communication?

Synchronous communication is when a group of people connect at the same time and have a real-time discussion. This requires all the involved individuals to carve out time from their calendar to focus on the same activity during the allotted period. This type of communication can be virtual or in person. A few common examples of synchronous communication are – virtual/in-person meetings, coffee chats, dropping by someone’s desk, lunch/dinner meets, phone calls.

Asynchronous communication does not happen in real-time and does not require all the involved individuals to be present at the same time. Individuals have the flexibility to address the discussion per their convenience. As a result, there is a significant time gap between the correspondence. A few common examples of asynchronous communication are – direct messages, emails, project management tools, broadcast videos/recorded sessions, and collaboration tools.

Which communication channel should I use? Synchronous or Asynchronous?

Both forms of communication have their advantages and disadvantages. There is no one size fits all! Individuals should leverage the communication that best fits their needs. In this article, we have outlined a few guiding principles to help arrive at this decision.

Below we have listed four questions that you can answer when deciding between synchronous or asynchronous form of communication –

1. How urgent is the discussion?

Asynchronous communication works well when the topic of discussion is not time-sensitive. This is because this form of communication gives the involved individuals the flexibility to participate in the discussion based upon their availability. However, not all discussions can wait! Synchronous communication should be leveraged to address important and urgent matters.

2. Does this require folks across different time zones to collaborate?

With more and more teams going remote and globalization of workforces, people from across the world are coming together to drive projects and participate in discussions. Moreover, team members within your time zone might have commitments outside of work which limits their overlap with the rest of the group. Hence, there are occasions when one time does not work for everyone – Asynchronous communication saves the day!

3. Would this disrupt my co-workers?

Every time we dial into a meeting, respond to an ad-hoc phone call, or quick drop-ins, our productivity takes a hit. We spend time gaining the needed context to have the discussion and then resetting ourselves once the discussion is over – this takes a significant amount of cognitive load. When you have a topic that does not require your co-worker’s immediate attention and would do more harm than benefit by disrupting their flow, it is best to resort to asynchronous communication. Instead of “dropping by their desks quick” or asking a “quick question”, send an email or a message for them to respond at a convenient time.

4. Does this require me to connect with my coworkers personally?

Not all non-time-sensitive discussions should be held asynchronously. Certain discussions are best handled in person – 1:1 meeting with your direct reports, end-of-year reviews, business reviews, leadership reviews, new hire introduction, project kick-offs, etc. All these meetings require the involved individuals to be present in-person to best communicate with the group and prevent any loss of context. Such discussions should always leverage synchronous communication as much as possible.