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How to Decide When to Use Sync vs. Async

Last week, I had the chance to participate in a webinar alongside Whereby and InVision exploring a question at the core of the transition to this new era of modern work: How do we optimize the balance of async vs. sync time?

If you or your team is asking yourselves this question, it means you’ve already come to the conclusion that both sync and async are critical components of our increasingly distributed, modern work world. 

At Loom, we’re in a similar position. We know async and sync are both integral for effective collaboration, personal balance, and productive focus time. But despite that belief, it’s still difficult for us to implement this consistently across a growing, all-remote team of 175 people. 

One way we’re working to operationalize this is by creating clear guidelines for when and how we balance the use of sync and async at work. By setting expectations, it gives individuals the autonomy to make the right decision for themselves and their cross-functional teams. It also provides a level of consistency and clarity organization-wide, establishing a team norm. 

Here’s one example of how we visualized this for our team:

When to sync vs. async graph

If your team is looking to create your own etiquette around whether to use sync and async at work, here are a set of questions to consider.

1. How many participants are involved?

First, start by considering who your audience is. Is this organization-wide? Team-wide? Or just for 1-5 people? This won’t tell you immediately whether it requires sync vs. async time, but it’s an important factor in figuring out the needs and parameters of the meeting. 

  • When async is fitting → If this message is something everyone in the company needs to receive and comprehend, but sync time may be prohibitive for aligning everyone’s schedules.

  • When sync is fitting → If the topic requires a real-time exchange of dialogue and/or waiting for the next company-wide meeting is too far from now.

2. How much interaction is required?

Once you know how many people need to be involved, consider what you need from that audience. For example, some situations require high levels of interaction and may necessitate sync time. 

  • When sync is fitting → Brainstorming ideas on a creative asset, coming to a decision on an outstanding question, or aligning as a group on a collaborative project. 

  • When async is fitting → When interactions require little real-time interaction, such as receiving a non-actionable update, greenlighting a next step, or learning a new software tool.

Pro tip: We all know outlining an agenda makes a better sync meeting. But more importantly, stating the outcome expected of a meeting allows the audience to focus on getting to that goal at the end and ensure you’re not leaving without it.

3. How urgent is this?

This might sound painfully obvious, but the timeline for your meeting is a key determining factor for async vs. sync.

  • When sync is fitting → f you are in the midst of a crisis communications situation or a major outage impacting customers, you very likely need to get on the phone or Zoom — there’s no room for lag time.

  • When async is fitting → If you don’t need a response within minutes, async communication allows the recipient to process and respond to the message when it works within their schedule. 

Pro tip: Create an internal system for denoting the urgency of async comms so your audience knows how to prioritize it against their other tasks and meetings. At Loom — like many companies — we use a tagging system with Priority Levels P0-P2; P0 needs a response ASAP, P1 has a specific deadline, and P2 is at your leisure. 

4. How complex or nuanced is this topic?

This is a big one for unlocking the best mode of communication when combined with questions 2 and 3. If you are sending a simple, two-sentence update, async chat apps are a great option. However, if you’re conveying a more complicated topic and don’t require immediate action, async video can be a particularly useful tool. 

  • When async video is fitting → Explaining how to use a new software, providing nuanced feedback on a job candidate, or sharing a walkthrough of a financial report. Writing those topics out in typed communication would take considerably longer, and doesn’t include the added visual element of a screen capture and cam bubble. Recording content like this with async video also allows you to easily share and scale that knowledge within an organization instead of having to repeat yourself or send separate, similar messages. 

  • When sync is fitting → On the flipside, if the topic is complicated but does require action or immediate input, sync time may be necessary. Pro tip: In situations like this, send an async video in advance of a sync meeting as a ‘pre-watch, walking the participants through the information they need to know. That way, your live meeting time is shorter and more effective. 

5. Is there a risk of misinterpretation? 

In our increasingly distributed, hybrid world, misinterpretations are bound to happen. Tone is often the first element of communication to be lost or muddled in written text. Even something as simple as using a period vs. an ellipses vs. an exclamation mark can convey a completely different tone. 

  • When sync or async video is fitting → If there’s a risk that something will be misinterpreted (especially if it could have a negative impact on morale or productivity), skip written comms and err on the side of either sync time or async video. Deciding which one depends on the urgency, but both options allow for greater clarity and precision, as well facial expressions and tone of voice.  

These questions can help serve as a basis for forming your own decision-tree around async vs. sync, but ultimately, every organization, team, and individual will need to define their own guidelines. The size of your team, nature of your work, and level of distribution all play into your team’s unique needs. Also, those team needs will change over time. Take the time to do this thoughtfully, and then adjust and refine iteratively as you learn in regular intervals. This one step will put your team on the path to unlocking flexibility, balance, and productivity at work. 

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