The Pros and Cons of Asynchronous Communication
With the rise of mobile work, you may have heard the term “asynchronous communication” thrown around strategic planning sessions or the blogosphere. This type of communication is commonly brought up in the ‘future of work’ conversations, but it’s more than a buzzword. It’s a form of communication you likely engage in every day. So, what is it?
Definition of asynchronous communication
Asynchronous communication is an exchange of information where the sender transfers the information without synchronizing the schedule with the receiver. In simpler terms, it is an exchange where one party provides information without the other party responding immediately.
Asynchronous communication examples:
- You read an email in the morning that your colleague sent in the previous evening.
- Your friend replies to your text message two hours after you sent it.
- You answer a question on your company’s messenger platform 20 minutes after your colleague sent it.
In each example, the communication is sent with an expected delay in the receiver processing it.
The opposite is, of course, synchronous communication, where the sender and receiver are simultaneously involved in the exchange.
Synchronous communication examples:
- You participate in a team meeting in a conference room.
- You have a discussion with your boss over the phone.
- Your colleague stops by your desk to ask you a question.
These expressions derive from the telecommunications field, but they have become popular to differentiate the two styles of communication that are practiced in office and remote workplaces.
Pros of asynchronous communication
Remote work teams launched this term as a buzzword while they shift to predominantly ‘asynch’ exchanges. Online offices are discovering a range of benefits to this approach that strengthens teams and improves efficiency. To understand why this communication mode is appealing, here are the top benefits of this communication style.
1. Time to process
Using asynchronous communication allows the recipient time to process the information. The sender does not expect immediate acknowledgement or response, and therefore, the recipient has room to fully consider the new information. This space allows the reader to reflect and digest the new data.
Most importantly, this communication style minimizes interruptions. With no instantaneous response expected, the recipient can reply when their schedule allows. Therefore, the worker has fewer interruptions in their workflow, which improves concentration and individual productivity.
2. Time to prepare a response
In a meeting or conversation, people often feel obligated to immediately chime in with a thoughtful response to a prompt. These responses may not be well-thought-out or consider all the relevant factors.
Alternatively, in asynchronous communication, the recipient can prepare a thoughtful response. The recent information can be integrated with prior knowledge to reply with a complete response. This communication style supports high-quality responses with strong written communication.
3. Time to edit a response
The immediacy of synchronous communication leaves little time for self-editing. Without editing, extraneous or irrelevant details can be shared, and the exchange of information can take longer than necessary.
Asynchronous communication can be completed through text, visuals, audio, or video. Once a response is produced, it can be reviewed and revised. The editing process is critical to generate excellent writing or other media because it allows information to be distilled to its most clear and concise form.
4. Documentation as a default
Synchronous communication requires two people to actively exchange information. This exchange is often verbal and therefore is recorded first in the participant’s memory. While some meetings and phone calls result in minutes or action items, much of this information can be lost.
Alternatively, asynchronous communication requires the information to be recorded in a medium between the two people. This medium could be the text of an email, the audio of a voice memo, or many other formats. In each case, the information has been documented. The information exists outside of human memory. Basecamp, an async-first company, clarifies the value of this documentation by stating, “Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn't make it, or future employees who join years from now.”
This documentation is extremely valuable to track progress and guidance or to record internal processes. Through asynchronous exchange, the record production is not an additional task but an inherent outcome. This thorough documentation can reduce miscommunication and increase organizational transparency.
5. The right mode for the right time
In nearly every workplace, both synchronous and asynchronous communication are practiced and are necessary. However, through the increased understanding and use of asynchronous communication, many teams are better able to prioritize communication. ‘Asynch’ becomes the default for communication, and therefore, more information is shared with more thoughtful, edited responses.
With asynchronous as the default, the communication that truly requires immediate response can be appropriately completed synchronously. One-on-one meetings with a supervisor, urgent client complaints, and other matters that benefit from immediate communication can be completed accordingly.
Through prioritization of communication style, the mode that will achieve the best results is selected within a team. Effective communication improves team alignment and reduces inefficiencies.
Cons of asynchronous communication
Asynchronous communication has its limitations, as well as its perks. Synchronous communication’s direct, real-time, and interactive qualities are valuable when used thoughtfully.
Lack of community
The beauty of asynchronous communication is that team members can work independently, both in time and geography. This freedom comes with the trade-off of direct interpersonal interactions. There is no small talk after an in-person meeting wraps up or grabbing lunch at the local sandwich shop. Synchronous communication, which is often face-to-face, more easily allows for interpersonal relationships to be developed. Strong connections are critical for a productive team. These valuable relationships can be built while using asynchronous communication, but it requires additional thought and consideration. Many remote teams host annual company retreats, online happy hours, or daily stand-up meetings to encourage remote worker relationships.
Lack of spontaneity
If a team is facing a lot of unknowns or a big, unwieldy problem, a classic in-person brainstorming session can be a valuable process to collect and iterate on solutions. Synchronous communication allows for immediate back-and-forth. Patient reflection can be beneficial in many situations, but it does not allow for the spontaneity of ideas meeting and evolving in real-time.
Lack of immediacy
Asynchronous communication requires patience and planning. These qualities are generally virtuous but have practical limitations. Asynchronous communication cannot handle urgent situations. If a client requires an immediate reply, synchronous communication is required externally and internally. There are times when urgent or sensitive matters require synchronous communication, and it’s important to be able to recognize and respond accordingly.
Dusting off ‘asynch’ for the future of work
Asynchronous communication is not new but has become a valuable tool as workplaces navigate effective communication in an era of constant connectivity. Remote workers have re-discovered the benefits of this communication style and have become enthusiastic ambassadors. Yet, no matter what your working style, asynchronous communication can be beneficial. We’re already using it, but actively understanding and differentiating will achieve these benefits in your workplace.
About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.