What is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication?

Asynchronous (or async) is when something doesn’t happen in immediate order or succession. Synchronous means that things happen in a scheduled order and are ‘syncing’ correctly.

With remote work, async communication is when you send a few messages to people and they can respond to which message makes them the most productive first. For example, you can skip a meeting and have everyone write their thoughts down.

An example of asynchronous communication is an email.

Why an email? Because I could send you an email, and you could reply 3 minutes later. You could also reply 3 days later. You could also reply 3 months later.

I once got a reply to an email that was nearly 3 years later than when I had sent it. The contents of the original email was hardly still relevant or valid!

Of course, this is dramatic. With asynchronous communication, all that this means is that the communication is not happening in real time. A real-time conversation would be one where you are on the phone, on a video call, having an in-person conversation or having a WhatsApp chat with a friend in which each person is reading and responding immediately.

How can I convince my team to do more asynchronous communication?

Many teams, especially remote or dispersed ones, may rely on instantaneous and synchronous communication.

Some teams may even point out times when all hands need to be on deck, communicating in real time about tasks, projects and deadlines.

To convince a team to do more asynchronous communications, consider the following steps:

  • Think about which daily types of communication could be made asynchronous, meaning notes left for colleagues to see, or announcements that do not require immediate replies.
  • Think about framing your request to incorporate more asynchronous communication styles or acceptance by emphasizing the need for some specific types of synchronous communication.
  • Start to develop team-approved methods for leaving asynchronous communication with guard rails and boundaries regarding how long colleagues should take to answer or confirm receipt.
  • Lastly, be clear about blockers, meaning items or information that is needed by one employee to carry out a task or project. If asynchronous communication pertains to blockers, be clear about a time and method by which a reply or acknowledgement is required.

What are some synchronous vs. asynchronous communication examples?

Like we mentioned above, a few examples of synchronous communication are:

  • In-person conversations
  • Zoom conferences with live participants
  • A remote interview
  • A phone call between two or more people
  • A live webinar with a Q&A interactive session
  • A WhatsApp text conversation whereby each person is engaged in real time

To demonstrate the difference between synchronous vs asynchronous communication, here are examples of when communication between two or more communicators is not synchronous:

  • An email
  • A WhatsApp text (for a user who does not have the app open)
  • A Slack message that is not seen nor replied to immediately
  • A piece of paper mail
  • A post in an online forum
  • A voicemail
  • A voice note
  • A video message

As you can see in these examples of asynchronous communication, the key indicator for noting if the communication is synchronous or not depends on the live engagement of the second communicator.

It also depends on the length of time between interactions (immediate or non-immediate).

You can see more about communication during remote work at our guide to methods of staying connected remotely.

When does it make sense to have asynchronous communication with my coworkers?

It makes sense to have asynchronous communication among remote or distributed teams if you have other deadlines that are priority, and you have other important communication happening simultaneously.

It also may make sense to focus on using asynchronous communication to your advantage, if you’re working with colleagues and distributed teams in other time zones.

With coworkers or clients in different time zones, you can nearly assume that your communication will be asynchronous. You may leave your colleagues a note at 6pm your time, and they will answer it at 9am their time, which could be 3am your time.

I used to leave messages for my colleagues on our dispersed operations team across the ocean, and I’d do this, knowing that the communication with them would be async.

I’d expect to receive emails from them timestamped 4am my time, which would be mid-morning for them, the following day. I’d also know that I could only have synchronous communication with them during 9am-12pm my time, before they took off for the night.

After their office hours were done for the day, the remaining communications I would leave for them regarding in-progress projects would be “async.”

For this reason, you’ll have to be mindful of being overly detailed in the handoff notes you leave for colleagues in these offshore teams (as an example), knowing that their replies to you will be asynchronous as well.

Are there any negative reasons not to use asynchronous communication?

One reason to avoid using asynchronous communication is that communications “on the back burner” could get overlooked or pushed off indefinitely.

Asynchronous communication does not refer to the importance of a topic or a piece of communication; rather, it refers to the flexibility of replying to more urgent-level tasks first, and replying less-than-instantaneously, thereby asynchronously.

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