In a previous post, we discussed the benefits of asynchronous communication but don’t get the impression we’re down on synchronous communication—each has its time and place when managing remote and distributed teams.
Keep reading to uncover the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication, the pros and cons of synchronous communication, and best practices for your remote team.
Synchronous communication is any communication that occurs in real-time. Sparking a conversation with a coworker because you see them in the lunchroom is synchronous communication, as you are sharing the same physical space and responding to questions as soon as they’re asked. But sharing the same space doesn’t automatically make the communication synchronous.
Calling someone on the phone and engaging in a conversation, or sending and replying to a few rapid fire messages in Slack, are also examples of synchronous communication because as soon as a question is asked, it’s responded to. There is no delay.
Synchronous communication refers to any communication that occurs in real-time; as soon as a question is asked, it’s answered. Asynchronous communication is the opposite, and it requires more patience. When you engage someone with asynchronous communication, you know that your question won’t be responded to immediately, but rather when it’s convenient for the person you’re communicating with.
We all use a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous communication in our daily interactions.
Take making a phone call. If the person you’re calling picks up and engages in a conversation with you, that’s synchronous communication. If they don’t answer the phone and you leave a message, that’s asynchronous communication. The person will get back to you, but not immediately.
Synchronous communication comes with both advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, communication is a lot more expedient. As soon as you have a question, you can have it answered. Sharing the same physical workspace as your coworkers makes synchronous communication simpler, as all you need to do to get someone’s attention is walk over to them and say hello.
But with continuous synchronous communication, you’re always on call, which means you could be interrupted at any moment.
Synchronous communication with remote teams is a bit more difficult to achieve and manage, especially if team members live across multiple time zones. A colleague in another country won’t be able to answer your question right away if it’s 2 am for them, and they’re fast asleep.
While it’s more convenient and gratifying to have every question you ask answered immediately, it does lead to constant interruptions, which is a major drain on productivity. A study cited by the American Psychology Association found that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”
How can you achieve deep focus and concentrate on tasks if you can be interrupted at any moment? If you spend all of your time responding to Slack messages or simply anticipating notifications, when are you supposed to get your actual work done?
Not all communication needs to be synchronous. Firing off a few quick questions may not seem like a big deal, but every question or request you make of a coworker is another interruption that pulls them out of their own work. Your questions, concerns, and requests are important, but they may not be as urgent as you think. Before messaging a coworker, first ask yourself if it can, and should, wait.
If you have a question for someone that doesn’t require an immediate response, make a note of it in an agenda list for that person. An agenda list is an in-tray for all of your questions, thoughts, requests, and concerns that involve interacting with another person. It allows you to track anything that you might need to discuss with others without interrupting them. The next time you see them or schedule a meeting, you can remember to address it then.
Sometimes people will fire off a question or thought because they’re worried they’ll forget about it if they don’t. Agenda lists stop that from happening by keeping all of your thoughts, concerns, and information requests in a safe place. When you prepare the next meeting agenda, you can build space in the meeting to address the items on your agenda list. Planning ahead in this way spares your team from interruptions and allows them to keep their focus on the task at hand.
Meetings are a necessary part of every workplace, whether your team is distributed or not, and they can’t function effectively without synchronous communication. But the communication can’t be synchronous if every attending member isn’t up to speed on what’s going to be discussed during the meeting.
If you’ve organized a meeting but fail to invite a key member, then decisions will have to wait until that person can be contacted, which means there can’t be a free and open exchange of information. Meetings are not a space for asynchronous communication.
Effective meetings utilize clear and collaborative meeting agendas to set expectations and prepare all attendees in advance. Preparing in this way means that every team member knows exactly what to expect from the meeting and what is expected of them. When everyone is gathered together on Zoom, you can get straight to business and leave the meeting with clear action items.
Regularly assess your meetings to determine if they’re effective. Do you have a recurring meeting that’s lost some of its relevance? Do you find that there are attendees who don’t have anything to contribute? Evaluate your meetings on a continual basis to ensure every meeting is efficient and necessary.
📚 How to know if you’re having too many meetings.
Any communication you have with your teammates will be strained and awkward without developing a rapport, which may get in the way of synchronous communication. What happens if the individuals on your distributed team delay responding to messages because they feel intimidated or nervous about engaging with teammates who they don’t really know?
Building rapport means developing a friendly connection with another person, such as when you bond with a teammate who likes the same sports team or movies as you or shares your sense of humor. Asking about someone’s interests and expressing enthusiasm is also an effective way to build rapport.
Getting to know the people you work with will help you understand their communication preferences and work habits, making it easier to know when a good time to communicate or collaborate with them is. To help a distributed or remote team build rapport with one another, you need to be intentional about it, which is why we developed a list of the best virtual team building activities to engage your team.
Giving your team the chance to let their hair down around each other and have some fun will help everyone feel comfortable around one another, enabling an easier flow of synchronous communication.
As a manager, building rapport with your direct reports and coworkers is a little easier, as you can do so with a regular one on one meeting. These meetings are a great opportunity to express constructive feedback as well as a chance to get to know the work habits, communication preferences, and hopes and dreams of the individuals who make up your team, enabling you to better tailor your managerial style to their needs.
WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. With WorkPatterns, you can manage meeting agendas with clear schedules and action items, build rapport with virtual teammates, and communicate effectively.