Communication is the mother of all skills, and choosing the appropriate channel for communicating your message is critical to how that message will be received and acted upon.
But not all communication channels are made equal. Among all the visual and written methods we can choose from to communicate our messages either synchronously or asynchronously, we have so many variables to consider: What’s socially appropriate, how fast something needs to happen, how complex the message is, how much detail is necessary, how the recipient prefers to be communicated with, and so on.
I’m often faced with this communication dilemma. Should I just call our partner now? Is it appropriate to send her a Slack message? Hmm, maybe I’ll email her overnight. Wait, we have an in-person meeting tomorrow ... the internal dialogue can be exhausting.
As humans, we gravitate toward in-person, face-to-face, real-time communication — but that isn’t always the best choice for getting work done and respecting one another’s time. Embracing asynchronous communication is a huge piece of collaborating more effectively, no matter where you are or what you’re trying to accomplish.
What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication?
Synchronous communication is communication that happens in “real time” — two or more parties are exchanging information in the same moment with one another.
Synchronous communication can be in-person or virtual, scheduled or impromptu. Some examples of synchronous communication methods:
Video conferences or (e.g., via a tool like Zoom)
Synchronous learning environments such as online programs that use class time for group discussion
Asking the teammate across your desk a quick question
Water cooler conversations
Asynchronous communication is any type of communication that includes a lag between when the party imparting the information sends the message, and when the party receiving the message interprets it.
Asynchronous communication is generally not in person, and it's usually unscheduled (although there are exceptions, such as using an email marketing tool to schedule sending an email at a certain time). Examples of asynchronous communication methods:
Letters or other direct mail (yep, organizations still rely on old-fashioned mail to get business done!)
Text messaging via mobile devices
Video messaging (using tools like Loom)
A tool like Slack can be used either synchronously or asynchronously, depending on whether all participants involved in a conversation are participating in real time or waiting until it’s convenient for them to respond.
What are the pros and cons of asynchronous vs. synchronous communication?
There are benefits and challenges to both communication methods.
Synchronous communication is inherently human; it’s how we interact from birth. (Our mothers don’t send us a text message to welcome us into the world.)
In most workplaces, real-time interactions are the default. Videoconferencing technology has made face-to-face, live discussions accessible even when people aren’t in the same location, so we’re even more trained to expect an immediate response (especially during the COVID pandemic, when so many of us are working and learning from home).
The team at Doist argues that while “synchronous communication should be the exception, not the rule,” there are situations when it makes sense to communicate in real time:
You want to build rapport with people (e.g., in one-on-ones, team meetings or company retreats)
You need to provide critical feedback or discuss sensitive topics
You have a lot of unknowns and you want to brainstorm different ideas and solutions
There are a lot of moving variables and you want to bring everyone on the same page quickly, e.g., a project kickoff meeting
A crisis happens that requires immediate attention
The major downside of synchronous communication is that it can be a time suck. We all know what it’s like to sit in “meetings that should have been an email,” how difficult it is to schedule a live meeting at a set time with a group of busy people, and how meetings can slow progress overall because you have to wait for a time everyone is free ... not to mention that a 30-minute meeting with 10 people actually equates to 5 hours of time.
The other problem with synchronous communication is that it isn’t always the most respectful use of other people’s time. When you tap your coworker on the shoulder to get her quick opinion on something, for example, you may be interrupting her focus — and it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain your focus after a distraction.
Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, is ideal for when your message isn’t urgent.
Your coworker can consume your note at their own pace, on their own schedule — no scheduling or coordination involved. In return, the recipient can think about what you shared with them and provide a thoughtful response. Plus, the tools we use for asynchronous communication allow us to freely append files, links, and other additional context.
It makes sense to choose asynchronous communication when:
You don’t require immediate feedback, and you want to respect your recipients’ tim
You need to collaborate with someone in a different time zone who isn’t at their desk at the same time you are
You need to communicate a message to group of people who can’t all be in the same place at the same specific time, or whom it’s difficult or expensive to get together
You want to provide context before or after a real-time event
You need to explain a complex concept in a way that people can go back and reference later
You’re providing a response to a piece of asynchronous communication you received
You're coordinating an online course that allows learners to complete coursework on their own schedule
Related Reading: Why Your Work Will Benefit From Asynchronous Communication
Video messaging: The best of both worlds
In a perfect world where we had infinite time, we would all meet in person all the time and discuss every detail together. But we haven’t figured out how to bend time just yet.
In the meantime, video messaging is the ideal bridge between synchronous and asynchronous communication — you get the best of both real-time and serial communication methods.
With video, the human touch that synchronous communication provides is still largely present — you can still convey additional meaning through gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal communication. But you can also send video messages in your own time frame, and the recipient can consume it at their leisure. You can attach further context. You can share your screen, and talk through why you made certain decisions about your design, or financial model, or product roadmap.
While there is a time and place for all modes of communication, Loom is ideal for just about everything in between. In my three months with the company so far, I find myself defaulting to it more and more. Once you get in the habit, you’ll be wondering what you ever did without it.