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What is asynchronous communication?

And how to make the most of it for you and your team

April 7, 2021
10 minutes read

Definition

A·syn·chro·nous/āˈsiNGkrənəs/(of two or more objects or events) not existing or happening at the same time

Asynchronous communication — async comms for short — is any form of communication that doesn’t require both people to be available at the same time — email is a classic example. Asynchronous communication simply means that the person you are “talking” to isn’t consuming the information at the same time as you are producing it.

Synchronous communication is when you’re talking with someone face to face — or on the phone, on a video call, or even chatting on Slack. You’re both present at the same time, even if you aren’t physically in the same space.

As technology has evolved, there are now many tools with a variety of features that help facilitate communication in an asynchronous way, from sending pre-recorded video or audio snippets and responding to updates using emojis.

In remote and hybrid work situations, managers and teams are increasingly integrating these new and better approaches to asynchronous communication into their work habits and seeing significant improvements in how effective and connected their teams are. Developing a culture that is fluent in async so you can balance the best approach between synchronous and asynchronous helps teams be more productive, resilient, connected, and effective.

Where did the term come from?

The term was originally used in a technical context, referring to asynchronous communication is transmission of data, generally without the use of an external clock signal, where data can be transmitted intermittently rather than in a steady stream.

While the idea of asynchronous communication has been around ever since people began communicating — from wall paintings to messengers running between villages to carrier pigeons — with the big shift to remote work driven by the COVID19 pandemic, people have been especially mindful of communication practices.

Within the context of the workplace, as people came to gain a better understanding of the nuances of different communication styles, combined with the proliferation of async tools, the term asynchronous communication is increasingly used to help parse how people communicate. By being more specific around what type of communication is right for what type of situation, people can optimize their communication interactions.

What are some examples of digital asynchronous communication tools?

There are many, but here are some general categories.

What does asynchronous communication solve for?

While defining when and how to use asynchronous communication is useful for most any work environment, it’s especially important for remote, distributed and hybrid work.

When in an office, there are more formal and informal opportunities to communicate. Whether dropping by a desk, catching up at the water cooler, grabbing a coffee or dropping in on a meeting, communication tends to be more fluid.

But there are problems that come with real-time everything:

  • The realities of modern life mean people aren’t always available at the same time.
  • As work gets more complex and people need to collaborate with larger and larger groups it leads to constant interruptions
  • Interruptions break flow and lead to less creativity and stress
  • People process information in different ways and many need time to ponder a topic before responding. Synchronous communication favors a certain style.

Another issue that can arise with synchronous communication is prioritization; it can be hard to tell the difference between when something is urgent versus important.

If everything is important, nothing is. Conversely when everything is urgent, important things can get dropped. Synchronous meetings tend to fuel urgency, which can be useful. However, reacting to everything as urgent all the time usually leads to sacrificing focus, both in priorities and in actual focus time.

4-quadrant diagram showing how to respond to incoming work requests

If you’ve worked in an office you’ve probably experienced a mix of communication that was primarily synchronous, and then using tools like email and Slack to communicate async. You may have felt this tension between urgency and importance, as well as a lack of focus time.

But when some workers are remote, it’s reversed. You have fewer opportunities to communicate synchronously, and have to be much more intentional about how you communicate in general, and in what format. This can also lead to more focus time, and increased flexibility with when and how you work.

Asynchronous communication, especially when you use the right tools and establish good async habits, solves for keeping the right information flowing in inefficient ways, especially when remote.

When synchronous is important

Synchronous communications are critical to highly-effective teams, wherever they work. While asynchronous communications can augment and replace certain type of synchronous communications, such as status updates, here are situations where sync comms are especially important:

  • Discussing an emotionally sensitive topic — e.g., critical feedback or a difficult decision
  • Discussing a nebulous topic that requires a lot of back and forth or explanation — e.g. diving into creative feedback
  • 1:1s that aren’t focused on tactical work
  • When the speed of making a decision is essential
  • Offsites and team building

Challenges of asynchronous communication

Some challenges of asynchronous communication are obvious, while others might be tougher to spot.

  • Hard to know what’s happening
    Keeping track of what is going on can be difficult. Writing long status reports takes time and pinging people for updates doesn’t scale.
  • Email and instant messaging can eat into productivity
    Email and tools like Slack are really useful, but when they are primary communications tools, productivity can take a hit. Getting constantly interrupted or keeping track of all the traffic, much less responding, can be overwhelming. And because nuance can be lost, it can take longer to resolve issues.
  • Teams can become disconnected
    “How’s it going?” is both a remarkably simple question and a remarkably powerful act. This simple interaction is known as a “belonging cue”, and we have a lot of informal opportunities to renew them in person. If asynchronous tools are only used to communicate functional information, teams can feel disconnected and over time as sense of trust begins to deteriorate.
  • Transparency can decrease
    If much of your comms is locked in email or docs, it silos information and limits access to certain groups, and making your communications opaque.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

When teams develop the right combination of practices, such as what situations call for what type of tool, with tools that were designed from the ground up to make asynchronous communications more efficient and engaging for teams, they can reap a range of benefits.

  • Higher quality communication
    • The adage “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” is often true. With more time to communicate in comprehensive written formats, communication is often clearer and more comprehensive.
    • Reading is much faster than talking, so when you have the right async toolset can help you cut to the chase. For example, teams use Range to do async daily Check-ins that cover what they’ve done, what they’re doing, and how they’re feeling. When you read through those prior to or during a meeting, it surfaces all kinds of critical information if a very efficient format — you need fewer meetings, and you can cut to the meaningful conversations faster.
  • Increased engagement
    Teams that develop practices that facilitate connecting every day asynchronously, such as answering an icebreaker question, sharing their mood, or responding to updates with emojis (activities we use at Range), see increased levels of engagement, psychological safety and trust, and in turn, stronger cultures.
  • Increased productivity
    When individuals have more control over their work schedule — they can optimize where and how they work — they can realize significant improvements in productivity. Teams can adjust their schedules to focus on the right work in the right way, and have a better sense of what environment is right for what work.
  • Time zones? What time zones?
    When teams are spread out in different locations, especially across time zones, synchronous scheduling can be especially tough. Activities such as sharing daily status updates asynchronously can keep teams in sync even when they aren’t able to connect in meetings very often, and allows people more flexibility with their own schedules.
  • Fewer distractions, more focus time
    Developing shared practices for when you should hold certain meetings, how your team does status updates, what type of communications should be captured in email vs. Slack, and documenting the practices and updating them regularly can help make everything more efficient. It can tame meeting bloat and lead to much more focus time, without sacrificing knowledge sharing.
  • Less stress, higher quality output
    With more focus time, quality also increases. And when people have more control over their schedule, they improve their work-life balance, which can lead to lower levels of stress.
  • Taking down silos
    When you use async tools that make access to data much more transparent, silos start to disappear, work moves forward faster, and everyone feels in the loop. You can start to see how many meetings you’re having, who you’re meeting with, what main projects you’ve worked on, how your feeling over time — all in one place — you start to get valuable insights into how well a team is operating.


When should my team use async communication?

Deciding when to communicate async depends on the purpose and needs of the communication.

Table showing differences between asynchronous and synchronous work

Building an asynchronous culture

Putting async comms to work for your team in the right way takes practice. Often it requires teams to unlearn work habits based on years of experience and put old tools to work in new ways, or to get the hang of entirely new tools.

Here are a few suggestions for building a culture that understands how to snake the most of async tools and practices.

  • Create a communication guide. A shared, living document is usually a good format, or an internal wiki. Agree on general principles for when to use email, docs, slack, or meetings, and capture them all here. Re-evaluate them every month.
  • Schedule sync time on a regular cadence, so that people always have an outlet for in-person communication — scheduling in-person time actually makes async easier. For example, at Range we use a mix of weekly team meetings, collaboration sessions for each function, and 1:1s
  • After meetings send out notes and actions. Some meeting tools (like Range) help capture notes and actions and then automatically share them with all participants. Other options are assigning a facilitator each time to capture the notes.
  • Encourage team members to set notification preferences for when they plan to be at their desk. They set their working hours in calendar — and they don't need to be contiguous. We call this Windowed Work.
  • Use asynchronous status updates as an anchor habit.
    Establishing a habit of daily async check-ins using a tool like Range provides a rhythm to work for the whole team. In a few minutes, they provide situational awareness of what’s happening and who might need help. They include mood sharing and daily questions, which strengthen team connections every day.
  • Think through you team asynchronous tech stack
    Defining your async tech stack will help you map out if you have the right tools to support your team. For example, at Range we use:
    • Range for daily asynchronous Check-ins, Meetings, and setting and tracking objectives
    • Loom for asynchronous video
    • Email for async messages (we use Slack, but consider that more synchronous)
    • Asana, GitHub, Google Docs, and Mural for asynchronous collaboration

Conclusion

Building an async culture takes some effort because most of us have been working in offices for the majority of our careers, we often default to face to face as the preferred way to communicate. While there are challenges, when you crack the code of the right mix of asynchronous communication tools and practices with the right mix of synchronous communication, it can be a huge win win. Information flows more fluidly, productivity increases, culture becomes a strength (not a barrier), async and sync interactions are better, and teams become more effective and efficient

Putting the time in to get asynchronous communications right is worth it. It can take time, but it puts you and your team in a position to handle whatever change awaits.


What is asynchronous communication?
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