Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication: What’s the Real Difference?

Learn more about the two communication styles used by remote teams. Spoiler: One is definitely better than the other.

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What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication? If you’ve been paying attention to the ongoing changes in the workplace, you’ve probably heard these terms thrown around more often.

Global Workplace Analytics estimates about 30% of businesses have adopted some form of a remote work model by the end of last year. As you can probably guess, with remote work comes an increased need to communicate asynchronously.

We created this guide to show you exactly what’s possible when you approach communication asynchronously, including how to implement it with your team, and tools to get you started. ⚡️

What's the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication?

We spend as much as five hours each day communicating at work. Let’s establish a clear definition of each mode of communication:

  • Synchronous communication happens when teams have real-time communication. Think phone calls, instant messaging, video conferences, or team meetings.
  • Asynchronous communication happens when messages are exchanged at different times, without the need for two people to chat simultaneously. Think email, Slack messages, Asana, text messaging, or shared documents.

With the onset of remote work, asynchronous communication is quickly being adopted as the norm in the workplace. Take Automattic, the creators of WordPress, and its 1,170 distributed employees. How do they get anything done?

Automattic’s CEO, Matt Mullenweg, leans on asynchronous communication to achieve it all. He says the company’s asynchronous approach leads to batch working, which helps with productivity and clearer written communication.

Why should you move toward asynchronous communication?

If we haven't been loud enough about this yet, we are huge proponents of asynchronous communication mode at Float. Not only because studies continue to prove its many benefits, but because we’ve seen the effects it’s had on our team’s ability to be productive, efficient, and make the most of our time at work.

We aren’t the only ones. There are plenty of examples of how asynchronous communication makes for better results in the workplace, and it’s not new news.

For instance, a 2015 Stanford study of 16,000 employees revealed that remote workers are 13% more productive. Another company that switched to remote work in 2012 recorded a $1.3 billion increase in annual value. 😱

Prior to 2020, many companies offered little to no remote work options for their employees. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many teams to adapt how they work and become more flexible in terms of remote and hybrid work opportunities. As a result, employees are overwhelmingly in favor of their workplaces making partially/fully remote options a permanent staple of their business. According to a survey of agency workers, 50% say they feel healthier working remotely than they do in an office, 27% feel no different, and just 23% prefer the feeling of working in an office.

Asynchronous communication comes with lots of upsides, including:

  • Increased flexibility for teams
  • Honest communication
  • Greater transparency
  • Less employee burnout
  • Improved work culture
  • Convenient for remote workers in different time zones
  • An increase in productivity

Float’s Operations Manager Georgie Roberts explains that asynchronous work helps build a more honest culture.

“There are benefits to working the way that we do. For example, we have very few meetings, so when we do connect with each other, it's often motivated by genuine interest, intention, and care.”

A key piece of adopting the asynchronous approach to work is email. As a fundamental building block of communication in the workplace, it’s worth discussing.

Is email synchronous or asynchronous?

Email is asynchronous because it allows you to exchange information independently of time. You send an email, wait for it to reach the recipient’s inbox, and await their response. Once you receive the response, the process repeats itself.

However, it is common to feel pressured to respond to emails immediately and constantly. Productivity expert Nir Eyal argues that most emails we send and receive are not urgent, “yet our brain’s weakness for variable rewards makes us treat every message, regardless of form, as if it’s time sensitive.”

Similarly, tools like Slack can be used either synchronously or asynchronously. You can send Slack messages or a video recording and get an immediate response, or you can wait for a response as the receiver answers at their own pace and on their own time. Teams’ communication style comes down to culture and setting the expectations upfront.

Are tools like Slack going to replace such a fundamental staple as email? We think not. Both tools have their merits for communicating; however, if you are looking to enable an asynchronous workspace, it’s essential to consider other communication tools that promote this and not just lean on email.

6 tools that facilitate asynchronous communication

If you're ready to dip your toes into asynchronous-first communication, here are six tools to help you get started.

Float

Establishing a single source of truth with a resource management tool like Float helps keep project work on track for teams working distributed remote and/or asynchronously.

Features like importing local public holidays based on where everyone lives, and scheduling a status to let everyone else know where you're working from are helpful ways to keep your team in the loop asynchronously. It's an easy and reliable way to automate your team's availability.

Slack

Slack is a direct messaging tool for teams to communicate privately and with each other.

The topic-specific channels in Slack are an efficient way to organize asynchronous communication. Co-workers have the flexibility to sign on (and off!) when they're ready to check on work messages at a time that works for them. Along with its status feature and the ability to automate messaging, Slack efficiently keeps every member of your team in the loop.

If you're using Float and Slack together, you can use the notifications app to sync your Float status with Slack for even greater visibility across applications. Read more about how the team at Float uses Slack to communicate async.

Donut

Did you know you can simulate run-ins with co-workers or coffee break chats? Once you integrate Donut with Slack, it enables you to match co-workers for 1:1 meetings randomly.

Remember, there are no hard rules to follow here. Occasional synchronous meetings can form part of your asynchronous approach. The goal is to cultivate the most effective culture of communication amongst your team, with asynchronicity at the forefront.

Notion

As a highly flexible tool, Notion is a tremendous asynchronous value-add for documenting processes, making shareable documents, and creating a self-service approach to any need for support or troubleshooting. You can use it to create a Trello-style workflow, create documents from templates, or add your own integrations.

Because Notion is so flexible, teams have the ability to create a highly customizable web of directories, documentation, and everything else your company needs to share amongst its employees. If you're trying to go asynchronous-first, Notion's flexibility is your best friend.

Find out how the Float team uses Notion as part of their asynchronous onboarding for new hires.

Loom

When you're creating an asynchronous culture, think beyond communicating through text. Video calls can be asynchronous, too!

Loom allows teams to communicate with recorded screen shares. Unlike the similarly-named synchronous tool Zoom, Loom lets you capitalize on async communication through video as another way to replace real-time conversations.

For example, our customer success team uses Loom to respond to customer questions more clearly. This lessens the back and forth that often happens with support questions.

Geekbot

Another big part of making asynchronous communication work for you? Regular check-ins with the team. Enter: Geekbot. Once you integrate it with another asynchronous tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams, it becomes easier to keep your team accountable.

Geekbot automates the process of asking questions like:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What have you accomplished so far?
  • What do you keep getting stuck on?
  • What are you working on today?

It helps your team stay on the same page as they make progress on projects, hit bottlenecks, take breaks, and meet deadlines. ✅

How to improve asynchronous communication

Whether you’re taking steps towards async-first or looking to level up your approach, we’ve implemented nine powerful strategies at Float to ship better work and cultivate a solid workplace culture.

1. Make asynchronous communication part of workplace culture

To make asynchronous communication a substantial part of how we work, we take our new team members through a journey that includes:

An intentional onboarding process

Our onboarding process includes a personalized questionnaire sent through Slack. This way, we facilitate introductions and make team members feel welcome.

We also invite them to read through our set of Notion profiles and encourage them to add their own for future hires. Finally, we wrap up the process with a synchronous meeting (yes, we sometimes have them too) with the Float CEO.

Creating light-touch rituals

Collaboration tools like Donut and Geekbot help us establish our “light-touch rituals” or check-ins that help keep team members on the same page. However, it’s important to remember that it’s possible to establish light-touch rituals without taking up too much of your team’s time.

Asynchronous communication is about wasting less time and doing more with a flexible approach to work. For instance, with the help of Geekbot, we set up 15-minute 1:1 meetings with team members to maintain a collaborative and connected culture.

Annual team meetups

Recently, it hasn’t been safe to keep up with in-person meetings, but once the world goes back to some normality, we’ll be intentional about our annual in-person meetups.

The last time we met as a team was in Greece, back in 2019. Once 2020 rolled around, we had to switch to video communication to get together. Still, we wanted to gather consistently, even if things were changing rapidly.

IMAGE OF UPDATED TEAM IN NOTION

2. Onboard teams asynchronously

Here’s a little secret you might not know: We’ve found that the key to a successful onboarding process is relationship building. And yes, that’s possible with an asynchronous approach containing:

🙌 A quick-win deliverable. To build our new hire’s confidence, we encourage them to ship new work within the first eight weeks of starting. This looks different depending on what role you’re hiring for since a developer will ship a different deliverable than a customer support hire.

💬 Onboarding check-ins to monitor progress. We offer ongoing support throughout the first eight weeks to ensure new hires are good fits. We offer feedback, make suggestions, and check-in with them during this time period.

📝 An async onboarding checklist. Our onboarding list isn’t a hurried process. New hires can access their onboarding checklist on Notion and work on completing each step with completion dates as checkpoints.

3. Create a culture of time accountability

At Float, we believe in making the most of our time at work and respecting the time we ask of each other. This belief requires us to establish a clear communication cycle. What does this mean in practice?

We’ve been communicating asynchronously for over a decade. What we’ve found is that infusing our values into the four key parts of the communication process creates a culture of time accountability and helps us establish an asynchronous culture that works.

Sender

As the sender, you’re expected to own your messages, since communication starts with you. By trusting the sender to communicate effectively, we give them agency to own their mistakes and successes.

Is there a major change within a project that deserves to be communicated? This is when senders are expected to relay this change and “close the loop.”

Message

When you’re sending a message, keeping it simple is critical. This is true whether you’re sending visual or written messages.

For example, is there an explanation you need to communicate that would be made more apparent with a short Loom video? That’s an excellent opportunity to use the asynchronous communication tools at your disposal.

Receiver

As the receiver communicating asynchronously, you’re expected to acknowledge a message was received within a few workdays. This also means quality over quantity. We prefer our team members to take the time to thoughtfully craft a straightforward response instead of simply answering quickly.

Did you receive a message that you’re waiting on key information to answer? Put a pin in it and return to it when you’re ready to give the best answer.

Feedback

Finally, don’t be afraid to chase excellence. We expect our team members to play like champions, which can be encouraged by documenting the process.

With a tool like Notion, we keep track of possible project changes, suggestions, and solutions. As input is gathered and built upon, we eventually arrive at a solution.

4. Help teams overcome procrastination

Overcoming procrastination is a problem every team deals with to some degree. Yet it can be hard to get to the core of why we procrastinate.

Doist’s explanation of our tendency to procrastinate highlights some interesting points. According to Doist, do what it takes to make the task you’re procrastinating about feel less uncomfortable. The aim is to lessen the friction between you and the task.

From there, you also want to identify the most motivating solution for getting something done—whatever that might be for you. Mental reframes help you see your work in a different light. For example, if your to-do list feels like a heavy burden you don’t want to deal with, think about it as the means to the feeling of accomplishment you want to feel.

Lastly, Doist’s guide explains that you want to psychologically encourage yourself to care about your “future self.” This implies doing the work now so your future self can feel cared for.

These are all solid strategies. Yet not every approach to procrastination is foolproof. It takes experimenting with different methods to find a system that works for you.

5. Schedule asynchronous check-ins

Check-ins become that much more vital if you’re managing a remote team. Scheduling and automating your check-in process makes it so that it isn’t another time-consuming addition to your to-do list.

With a combination of tools like Slack, email, Geekbot, Loom, or Donut, you can create check-ins that run in the background so you can work on higher ROI tasks. As your approach to an async mode of communication evolves, you can always go back and modify your automated check-ins to fit your needs.

Note that evolution and experimentation are part of the async process. The more you pivot if something isn’t working right, the faster you can arrive at a streamlined workflow.

6. Get rid of rigid work hours

Dare we say it? A 9-to-5 approach to work is outdated. And yes, there’s plenty of data, as well as examples, to back that up.

A comprehensive New Zealand study suggested that decreasing a 40-hour workweek to a 35-hour workweek either increased or maintained productivity levels. Unilever is currently testing a four-day workweek for the same pay in the quest for better work-life balance and increased productivity. That’s not all. Take Microsoft as yet another example of the oncoming change in the traditional 9-to-5 approach to work. Employees were given Fridays off, and their meetings were no longer than 30 minutes. The results? Sales increased by 40%!

Companies like Kickstarter, Shake Shack, Basecamp, Buffer, Toshiba, and even Shopify are either considering or in the process of implementing their own modified workweek trials. At Float, our team is empowered to work the hours that they are most productive. This supports our company culture of living our best work life and helps us to make the most of our time.

There’s plenty of evidence that a 9-to-5 approach to work isn’t for everyone and that forgoing rigidity for flexibility makes for more productive teams. So, consider your work hours as you move toward an asynchronous approach to communication. Are they too rigid? Can you experiment with a trial process and track the results? Can you gather employee feedback on what their ideal workweek would look like?

7. Create a self-service knowledge base and documentation

We can’t emphasize enough the need for a single source of truth—which can take the shape of a knowledge base or documentation—to make asynchronous communication a reality for your team.

Building an informative database that explains tasks and answers basic questions that come up during a team member’s day is invaluable to efficient communication while working on slightly different timelines.

This can include documenting things like:

  • Processes
  • Project work guidelines
  • Instructional videos
  • Infographics
  • Audio files
  • Support docs

The best part of creating a centralized knowledge base is that your whole team has access to the exact same source of truth every time you update it. At Float, we use Notion as a compass for who’s who and where’s what. Our team resources and documentation are written and categorized in a self-service format that is easy to digest by everyone on the team.

8. Invest in team-building activities

Team-building activities aren’t only for a group of people that can meet face-to-face. You can invest in team-building activities for remote teams too! 💪

Team-building activities increase the trust factor and psychological safety that teams need to ship better work. Building rapport is a big part of the puzzle. What does investing in team-building activities look like? It can involve flying to another country (we visited Athens in 2019) or something much simpler like:

  • Have your team members solve puzzles together
  • Gather your team for an escape room challenge
  • Host a brainstorming session
  • Have your team participate in a virtual trivia night
  • Host virtual sessions where co-workers can learn more about each other

9. Use tools that promote asynchronous communication

The final step towards becoming async-first is making an effort to incorporate tools that promote asynchronous communication across your team. Without these tools at your disposal, it’s more difficult to establish and maintain an asynchronous mode of communication that empowers your team to get more done.

Additionally, eliminate or (at least minimize the need for) things like immediate phone calls that need time-sensitive responses. As you establish asynchronous communication, it might take going back to the drawing board and not being afraid to experiment until you develop an approach that works with the unique needs of your team.

At Float, we’re constantly trying our best to refine our approach to communication and collaboration.

Pair asynchronous communication with Float

The benefits of asynchronous communication are clear. Your team communication doesn’t have to be your Achilles heel when they’re meeting deadlines and shipping work. If your team is having trouble with your current communication channels, it might be time to lean into an asynchronous approach to work.

As a resource management tool, Float helps keep projects on track, wherever and whenever your team gets work done. Features like availability management, scheduled status, local public holidays, and capacity planning help professional services teams create a bulletproof project workflow for asynchronous work.

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