Let's Talk: Asynchronous vs. Real-time Communication

02/04/2020 5 min read
Liam Martin
Liam Martin is the Co-Founder of Time Doctor, a time-tracking software program for remote teams, and of Running Remote, the world's largest conference on building and scaling remote teams.
Let's Talk: Asynchronous vs. Real-time Communication

Sitting in rattan chairs against a backdrop of palm trees, Nick Francis and Amir Salihefendic were the perfect picture of remote talent.

As CEOs of two remote companies, the pair were in Bali for the 2019 Running Remote Conference. As the host of the conference, I was moderating a debate between Francis, the co-founder and CEO of Help Scout, and Salihefendic, the CEO of Doist, on the issue of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication.

Synchronous communication is real-time communication between two or more people. Examples include in-person conversations, phone calls, video chats, and real-time collaboration apps. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, does not happen in real time. Information is provided by one team member, and the recipient sees, uses, and responds to the information in their own time. Examples include email or message boards, or even working on documents in the cloud. One person does his or her part, and others do their part according to their own schedule.

We haven’t always had the choice. Before technology, if we wanted to communicate, we spoke to each other face to face (synchronous communication). Or, after 1775, we mailed a letter (asynchronous). Communication picked up speed about 150 years ago with the advent of the telegraph and the telephone. This allowed synchronous communication to happen with fewer location barriers. Much later, the creation of the fax machine and then email expanded asynchronous business communication beyond the postal service. Today, smartphones allow us to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously, 24 hours a day.

Pros and Cons of Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication

Understanding the benefits and challenges of synchronous and asynchronous communication can help managers determine when each is appropriate for a given situation.

Advantages of synchronous communication include:

  • Leads to immediate response or feedback. Employees don’t have a time lag between asking for and receiving input.
  • Creates a friendly working environment. Real-time communication helps foster strong bonds and support company culture.
  • Provides more interaction. Employees can more easily jump into the conversation and help to solve problems.
  • Production continues. With issues addressed immediately, production isn’t slowed while waiting for an answer.

However, synchronous communication also has disadvantages, including:

  • Less productivity. Although the ability to get an instant response keeps productivity going, constant interruptions from Slack messages can keep employees from focusing on the task at hand.
  • Eroding work-life balance. For fully remote teams, with members across various time zones, the best time for synchronous communication for one member may not be optimal for another. This can easily thrust work-related communications into home life.
  • Lack of reflection. It’s easy to react instantly and emotionally, without thinking clearly about the words or tone used. Additionally, the fastest person to speak out may be the only one heard, with less vocal team members or those whose native language is not the predominant team language never having the chance to add their own insights.

On the other side of the debate is asynchronous communication, which solves many of the problems created by synchronous communication. However, it also surrenders the benefits.

For example, asynchronous communication isn’t in real time, so an email doesn’t have to interrupt an employee’s work-life balance. On the other hand, production will come to a stop if the team has to wait for an answer. Because of the time lag, communicating through asynchronous channels must be clear and thorough. A poorly worded email could easily require another round or two of emails to clarify. If each email has a 12-hour lag time, getting to a solution could take days.

Applying the Right Kind of Communication

Back in Bali, Salihefendic believes asynchronous communication should be the default communication for business -- mostly. “We banned almost all synchronous communication and banned almost all meetings. And it didn’t work,” said Salihefendic. “So when we say asynchronous by default, we mean 60 percent to 70 percent of communications should happen asynchronously. But you still need the human element.” At Doist, Salihefendic and his employees use the pyramid of remote team communication to determine when to use which type of communication.

As a general rule, urgent communication should be synchronous, while non-urgent communication should be asynchronous. Combining the two, such as a synchronous phone call to discuss a time-sensitive issue followed by an email to summarize what was discussed, reinforces accuracy.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication Solutions

Once an organization determines which type of communication to use, it is time to pick the right app or software. Below are a few of the top synchronous apps available today:

  1. Flock: Offers direct messaging, personal space, team-based channels, shared to-dos, reminders, and polls, all of which help keep teams on the same page.
  2. Slack: Chat, video conferencing, and integrations with productivity tools.
  3. Zoom: Video and web conferencing, private and group messaging, and screen share.
  4. Glip: Chat with a tool for video and audio, screen sharing, task manager, calendar, and notes.
  5. Microsoft Teams: Workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and collaboration.

In addition to apps, Francis and Salihefendic suggest the following synchronous activities to build team cohesiveness:

  • Spontaneous face-to-face chats. “I have six to eight spontaneous, five to 10 minute synchronous face-to-face chats where a decision is made or critical feedback is given. I can deliver a message better and with more context over the course of a few minutes. Whereas with Slack or a more asynchronous medium like email, a conversation could go 30 minutes or even days.” -- Nick Francis
  • Pairing. A programming technique in which one person writes code and the other reviews it. “At any given time, 24 hours a day, there are probably two engineers at Doist that are pairing.” -- Amir Salihefendic
  • Create a Fika, which is a Swedish term for having a pastry and coffee together. This can happen through a Slack plugin called Donut. “Every week I'm doing a Fika with somebody on the team. We get on a video call and get to know each other and try not to talk about work.” -- Nick Francis

Asynchronous apps to consider, in addition to email, include:

  • OneDrive: Allows access to share and collaborate on all files from anywhere.
  • Google Docs: Create and edit shared documents. It includes a real-time chat feature for synchronous communication.
  • Miro: Online whiteboard that can be used both asynchronously and synchronously.
  • Twist: Uses clearly titled threads to allow users to read in their own time and a powerful search to find any topic easily.

Ultimately, it’s not the tool that creates good communication, but how the tool is used. As technology continues to evolve, so will our synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication.

Liam Martin
Liam Martin is the Co-Founder of Time Doctor, a time-tracking software program for remote teams, and of Running Remote, the world's largest conference on building and scaling remote teams.