Real business story

Do you know the difference between asynchronous and synchronous workplace communication?

The speed of doing business and remote working have meant that companies are increasingly relying on non-real-time communication. But does this mean businesses might be missing out on the benefits of more traditional connections?
asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication has become a much more regular way of working

You need to speak to a colleague, a client or a supplier. Do you pick up the phone or arrange to meet face to face? Or, on the other hand, do you email them, send a text or use a service such as Slack?

These days it’s increasingly likely that you’ll go for the second option. The growth of apps and digital devices means that “asynchronous” communication, in other words communication that is not in real time, such as email, text and team working apps is on the increase while the use of synchronous communication has been reduced.  Instead of getting together to discuss a report we can now all contribute to it in our own time, via systems such as Google Docs.

Changing ways of working

But how should businesspeople and those leading SMEs choose between “asynch” and “synch”? Nick Holzherr, CEO of cooking app, claims that 80 per cent of his communication is more effective when it is conducted asynchronously.

“This morning, for example, I reviewed the latest designs for our app,” he said.  “In the past this might have been a meeting where the designer talks us through the designs and listens to each stakeholder verbally provide feedback to the designs. Instead, the designer recorded a five-minute screenshare and video walkthrough and posted that into a Slack channel with a link to the design files. Stakeholders provided feedback by commenting directly in the cloud-hosted design file – we use Figma – and linked to files as references in the feedback.”

He calculates that this method reduced the meeting time from about an hour to just 15 minutes. “With asynchronous work answers are often more considered and thoughtful and the feedback is more actionable for the recipient,” he argued.  The process of communication is generally less disruptive for all stakeholders, which allows everyone to be more productive whilst achieving a better work/life balance.”


Nick Holzherr has found the tasks where he thinks asynchronous communication makes much more sense

Avoiding distractions

According to David Robinson, managing director of Red Evolution, a full-service website design and digital marketing agency, opting for asynchronous communication can allow people to focus on a project and avoid getting distracted.  “If you have to stop what you’re doing to answer a phone call or an email, getting back to what you were doing can be really difficult,” he believes. “If it’s asynchronous then it’s less intrusive.” Coronavirus has increased the frequency of the Red Evolution team communicating with new prospects by email, at least in the early stages, rather than travelling to meet them.

Although the team has a regular Zoom meeting every morning, it’s increasing geographical spread with a new office opening on the west coast of the USA, for example, means that non-synchronous communication has an advantage.  “We also had a colleague working in Singapore and that meant that when we started here in the UK, she would have already done a ton of work for us,” explained David.

“Where people are working on the fusion of ideas to create ‘in the moment’ high value innovations or where they are grappling with intellectually or emotionally complex challenges, synchronous communication (aka dialogue) delivers higher value,” commented Andrew Mawson, founder and managing director of management consultants Advanced Workplace Associates.

It’s particularly useful when people are working to tight timescales where the risk of misunderstanding via communications such as email might cause mistakes or delays. “Synchronous face to face, in the same space communication is the pinnacle of the communications hierarchy and enables true human interactions,” argued Mawson.  However, he suggests that for basic transactions, requests, simple briefings and situations where you want to define and record a clear brief and where immediacy isn’t vital, asynchronous communication works well.

Work/life balance

Convenient, though, it might be, async can also lead some staff to work longer hours and blur their work and home lives.  Business leaders need to think how to manage this risk. Alongside this, experts argue that async can cause users to miss out subtle but important elements of communication such as social cues and body language. Even in a phone call, tone of voice and the style of delivery can provide additional information which we pick up on subconsciously.

“Seeing people in person also allows senior teams to better monitor employee wellbeing. From a management perspective, you can tell when staff are unhappy or under stress, and can take immediate steps to support them,” pointed out Leeson Medhurst, head of strategy at workplace design and build company Peldon Rose.  “Interaction is also far quicker in face-to-face meetings, leading to improved collaboration. People are able to convey their opinions and ideas easily and in a more succinct manner, saving time.”

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Human interaction

Elliot Goulding, director of Probuild, a recruitment consultancy specialising in the construction industry is a fan of synchronous communication. “We met a new MD of a growing construction company this week, he had done a small amount of business with us in the past over the phone but needed a reliable recruitment partner that understood the way he worked,” he said.  This investment of time brought a good return.

“Straight away he would have got the impression that we were normal relatable guys rather than slick talking salespeople,” says Goulding. “He would have taken from us that we can have a laugh whilst doing business and still get the results he needed. For us, we got to see that as a new MD he took the time out of his day to meet a partner and leave an impression on us that we can then pass on to candidates to get the right cultural fit.”

Blended communications approach

Guild is a messaging platform aimed at professionals but the company behind it accepts that different communication channels are important for different purposes. At the top of its “Hierarchy of Messaging” is in-person which meets the need for social bond, trust and alignment among other elements, it says. Other layers include workflow comms, which is good for productivity, efficiency, validation and reassurance while, at the base of the pyramid is email, which meets the need for security, safety confidence and compliance.

“We rarely ask ourselves ‘Why do I use email?’ or ‘Why do I meet people face to face?’ Meetings and emails are essential internal and external business communication tools, as are professional social media networks such as LinkedIn,” said Guild’s head of marketing, Michelle Goodall. “As we introduce more digital tools into the internal and external communications mix, such as project management, workflow communications, messaging and video conferencing, it’s useful to consider the purpose of that medium and tool as well as the communication, business and personal needs that can be met by that specific medium. It’s also helpful to frame thinking around where specific media perform better than others and when it’s appropriate to ‘hand off’ to another medium or channel.”

Joanna Swash, group CEO of Moneypenny, a company which answers outsourced calls, live chat and digital comms, points out that remote working and lockdown have accelerated async but advised: “To get the best out of your people, your most valuable asset, you need to acknowledge that everyone works differently and approach this with an open mind and be sensitive of peoples time and needs.”

A pragmatic approach combined education is clearly important. Andrew Mawson said: “I would recommend that organisations educate their people on the situations in which different synchronous and asynchronous styles of communication are required and then create guidelines to guide people so that they choose the right medium for the tasks they have to deliver.”

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Lessons learnt

Whatever approach you favour, times are changing and leadership teams need to realise adaptions may be necessary.

Working patterns, personality types, job roles – they all play a factor in how individuals best work.

While digital technologies have sped up communication, it's important to remember the value of face-to-face interactions.