Asynchronous work can transform productivity, but in order to reap the benefits, you’ve got to have a thorough understanding of synchronous vs asynchronous communication.
Aided by collaboration and communication platforms like Jira, Basecamp and Frankli, and fuelled by the increasing popularity of remote work, asynchronous communication has replaced synchronous communication as the default mode for many high-performing teams.
But what’s the ideal ratio of synchronous vs asynchronous work? And how do you know which method to choose? Today we’re answering all of these questions and more, while providing some helpful tips for leaders, managers and employees.
Asynchronous communication is any kind of communication in which employees are not responding to each other in real time. By contrast, synchronous communication is immediate. It features the kind of back-and-forth exchange that can only happen in the moment. Meetings (both in-person and virtual), phone calls and instant messaging are all synchronous forms of communication.
- Employees may or may not be working at the same time
- Employees use their own judgement to decide when is best to respond to questions or requests
- Employees use documentation and software for communicating and collaborating
- Employees may use still use email and messaging apps like Slack, but are not expected to respond right away
- Employees perform their work at the same time
- Employees respond to questions or requests in real time
- Employees communicate and collaborate via meetings, phone calls, instant messaging or communication software
Let’s look at an example. When an employee shares a report they’re working on via Google Slides and their manager responds with feedback an hour later, that’s asynchronous communication. If the employee and manager discussed the report in a meeting, that would be synchronous communication.
Asynchronous work is often associated with dispersed teams in which team members live in different time zones, and companies that promote flexible working. But office-based teams and teams in which employees work the same hours can and do reap the benefits of asynchronous work too.
Let’s look at a few more examples of asynchronous and synchronous work.
- An employee shares a Google Doc with a teammate first thing in the morning. Their teammate reviews the content and adds their notes in the afternoon.
- An employee sends a pitch to their manager via Slack for final approval before presenting it to the prospective client. Their manager responds with approval the following morning.
- A manager uses Jira to assign tasks relating to a new project. Their direct report takes on the tasks 2 days later when they’re done with their current project.
- An employee gives their teammate positive feedback using Frankli. Their teammate responds with thanks after their lunch break.
- 4 employees take part in a brainstorming session over Zoom.
- All employees attend the company’s monthly All Hands meeting. 70% of employees attend in person and 30% of employees join via Zoom.
- An employee asks a question via Slack and their colleague responds right away.
- A manager and employee meet in person to discuss a recent performance review.
Only you and your teams can determine how much synchronous and asynchronous time is required for optimum productivity. Some teams, e.g. customer support, will need to spend most of their time in synchronous work. For those in engineering and marketing, it may be the other way around. Only through experimentation and the close measuring of results can you hit upon your magic number.
Having a ratio or percentage of asynchronous communication to work towards can be helpful, but there’s also a risk of getting fixated on numbers. So it’s best to establish a flexible goal for asynchronous communication. Software company 37 Signals are a great example of this. They provide the guideline, “Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.”
Another example would be: “Synchronous only when absolutely necessary.”
1. Increased productivity.
There’s plenty of research to suggest that asynchronous work is more productive - for example, one study found that productivity was likely to be 71% higher when meetings were reduced by 40% (1).
The interruptions that go along with synchronous communication are another cause for concern. With synchronous communication, employees will often stop what they’re doing to hop on a call, answer a Slack message or attend an unscheduled meeting.
It’s been well documented that interruptions are thieves of productivity - not only is time lost to the interruption itself, but every time we get interrupted we take an average 23 minutes and 15 seconds returning to deep focus (2). One study estimated that unnecessary interruptions, like the ones associated with synchronous work, could be robbing employees of up to 6 hours of productive time per day (3).
By contrast, asynchronous communication allows time for increased focus, which supports other hyperproductive work behaviours like task batching and time blocking.
2. Increased hiring potential.
Companies that master asynchronous communication are better placed to facilitate dispersed and remote teams, which widens the talent pool considerably.
They’re also more likely to offer two of the items that are currently on almost every employee’s wish list - flexibility and autonomy.
3. Increased diversity and inclusivity.
When we only communicate synchronously, we risk leaving some of our employees behind.
People who are comfortable speaking up in meetings and are good at generating ideas in the moment will look like top performers. Meanwhile, those who are more experienced with written communication or have difficulty getting their voice heard in meetings - often women and people from minority groups (4) - might struggle to demonstrate their value.
Striking a good balance between synchronous vs asynchronous communication is a great way of levelling the playing field.
4. Lower employee stress.
Employees who mix synchronous and asynchronous work are forced to make lots of little decisions about how their time is spent - “Should I pick up the phone now or put everything in a shared document that my teammate can review later?”
This encourages mindful working, AKA being consciously present at work and applying focus to everything you do. Although mindful working is a relatively new concept, it’s already been shown to reduce employee stress at work (5).
1. Resist the urge to respond in real time.
Many employees who work asynchronously report feeling guilty for leaving a message unread for a couple of hours, or not being available at a moment’s notice.
It can be hard to break the habits of a working lifetime, but by responding to emails at lightning speed and leaving your Slack notifications on at all times “just in case”, you’re actually turning asynchronous work into synchronous work.
2. Embrace written communication.
More often than not, written communication is the solution to the problems presented by asynchronous work.
By adding notes to a shared document, you can avoid an unnecessary call with your manager. By including a written agenda when proposing a meeting, you can reduce the meeting time.
Remember that embracing written communication does not always mean writing a lot of words or going into a lot of detail. You want communication to be more efficient, not less, so practice providing only the information that’s necessary and editing your comms before pressing send.
3. Make the most of sync time.
In order to reap the benefits of asynchronous communication, we need our synchronous communication to be as productive as possible.
There are lots of ways to do this. Maximise meeting efficiency by sharing relevant documents in advance. Jot down questions for your manager and ask them in batches.
The goal here is to optimise the hours you spend collaborating with teammates in real time. If status updates can be completed in 10 minutes, they should be. But meaningful discussions, e.g. one-on-one meetings, should be given a meaningful amount of time.
4. Beware of performative work.
Many employees have been conditioned to carry out performative work, the kind of work you do purely to show others that you’re working. If you’ve ever had a manager who didn’t trust you to get your work done, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Performative work might include attending a meeting even though you’ve got nothing to contribute, or suggesting an idea that you know is weak simply because idea-sharing is rewarded with praise.
This type of work has no place in a high-performing team. Learn to identify it so you can break the habit.
1. Establish guidelines for your employees.
Maybe the ideal response time for customers is 30 minutes but for teammates, it’s 12 hours. Maybe you want every Monday to be a fully async day. Maybe you want to encourage employees to use voice notes when discussing technical bugs instead of video calls. Maybe your teams would benefit from a sync call every morning at 9am.
Establishing a set of guidelines around synchronous vs asynchronous communication is a great way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Just make sure to seek employee feedback on these practices so you can judge whether or not they’re having a positive impact.
2. Use OKRs to communicate deadlines and priorities.
Asynchronous work requires employees to make regular judgement calls about what activities deserve their immediate attention. In order to do this, they need to understand what their priorities are, and be aware of any internal or external deadlines that relate to their work.
The best way to do this is with OKRs. When employees and managers work together to create personal goals that align with team and company goals, it creates a useful framework for making these decisions.
For example, if Task A relates to a Priority 1 or P1 goal with a deadline in June, and Task B relates to a P2 goal with a deadline in March, the employee can make an informed decision to tackle Task B first.
3. Bring balance to your feedback.
Of course customer support teams should receive positive feedback for fast response times. But it’s also important to ensure sure that synchronous work isn’t disproportionately praised.
When crafting feedback, avoid heaping praise on employees for less meaningful activities like meeting attendance or empty inboxes. Instead, think about individual goal progress and behaviour that models company values.
4. Model trust and transparency.
Asynchronous work requires leaders and managers to trust that their people are working efficiently and give them the freedom to manage their own schedules.
In turn, leaders and managers must be transparent with any information that might impact the employee’s work, and crystal clear about their expectations.
A culture of trust and transparency is essential and it starts with leadership teams, whose behaviour so often defines company culture.
Focusing on outcomes rather than inputs is a huge part of this, and it's made easier by using the OKR goal-setting framework we mentioned in point #2.
5. Provide communication and collaboration tools.
Productive async work requires supporting technology, be it project management software like Basecamp or communication tools like Frankli’s feedback channels.
Invest in a couple of tools that help your people to connect and collaborate in their own time, and watch your teams' productivity levels skyrocket.
Deciding when to use synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication can be challenging, as there are really no hard and fast rules.
In most cases, employees must review the relevant information and use their judgement to decide which channel works best.
But there are a few basic guidelines that can be helpful when making these all-important decisions.
When to use asynchronous communication:
- When collaborating with a teammate who is working different hours to yours
- When employees who can’t be present for a synchronous meeting will need to reference the discussion later
- When you don’t need an urgent response
- When you want to provide a level of detail that's better facilitated by long-term written communication
- When working on a project with people who can’t get together all at once
- When you want to separate yourself from a project and return to it with fresh eyes later
- When you need time to flesh out your feedback
When to use synchronous communication:
- Highly impactful discussions, e.g. strategy sessions
- When building relationships with people
- When welcoming new team members
- When responding to a crisis or emergency
- One-to-one meetings between employee and manager
- When sharing information that will be difficult for people to hear
1. Harvard Business Review, Dear Manager, You’re Holding Too Many Meetings. 2. Gallup, Too Many Interruptions at Work? 3. Washington Post, Work interruptions can cost you 6 hours a day. An efficiency expert explains how to avoid them. 4. Harvard Business Review, Help Your Team Beat WFH Burnout. 5. The New York Times, How to Be More Mindful at Work.