What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous Communication

I’ve been working remotely for nearly six years and have been building Friday for the past three. A large portion of my career has been spent working outside of a traditional office setting; I frequently think about how fortunate I am to be able to do this (what a time to be alive!).

Most of my day is spent communicating asynchronously – it’s something I’ve taken for granted, but I’d like to explain how async communication works. In addition, I believe this form of communication when coupled with traditional (synchronous) methods can give teams superpowers and unlock more productive teams.

What is asynchronous communication?

First up, what is asynchronous communication and how does it work?

The technical definition of async communication is:

Asynchronous communication is the transmission of data, generally without the use of an external clock signal, where data can be transmitted intermittently rather than in a steady stream.

What does this even mean? It’s a good question and I’ll try to explain below (or you can watch the video):

Asynchronous communication is when two (or more) people can communicate without the requirement that they be “present” at the same exact moment in time.

Think about a meeting at work. The people who attend the meeting need be present (in a specific location) at the same exact moment in time, otherwise, the meeting doesn’t happen. This meeting is an example of synchronous communication.

Asynchronous communication examples:

In these examples, one person can communicate in a way that doesn’t require the other person to be present at the same moment in time. For example, if you send me an email or a Slack message, I can read it later and reply.

The internet has made asynchronous communication possible; you probably communicate in an async manner a lot more than you think.

Synchronous communication examples:

  • A meeting onsite at work
  • Zoom, Skype or another form of video conferencing
  • A phone call

In these examples, people must be present at the same moment in time. This isn’t rocket science.

Now that the basics are done, let’s dig into how asynchronous communication can make work better. 

An easier explanation

A friend recently recorded a conversation about asynchronous vs. synchronous communication that we wanted to share. He refers to the difference as "my time" vs. "our time." I think this is a wonderful analogy.

Benefits of Asynchronous Communication

1.) Flexibility when you can respond

The most obvious benefit to asynchronous communication is that it gives more flexibility to when people can respond. For example, a major benefit to working remotely is that it allows people to manage conversations around a “flow state.” If I’m in a state of flow and someone sends me an email, I can reply after I’m done.

This is especially helpful for people on a maker’s schedule; being able to manage communication around the work itself can improve productivity significantly.

One quick note – if people are using a form of async communication (email, Slack, etc) and expect an immediate response, it destroys the value of this form of communication. Many workplaces operate this way, which is unfortunate.

2.) Persists (or is saved) by default

Imagine for a moment if your email inbox didn’t have any past emails in it. In some sense, that’s how synchronous communication works. Communication happens, and there’s no documentation that exists (unless someone takes notes).

Asynchronous communication (especially the stuff online) is documented by default. For example, if I send an email, the record exists and can be referenced years from now. 

Once again, this is obvious, but incredibly powerful as it creates a running log of communication that happens at work that can be referenced over time. It serves as a form of communication redundancy.

3.) Can be more honest

How often have you seen a Twitter or Facebook conversation get nasty? It’s amazing what people will say when there’s a bit of abstraction that exists; it causes a new level of honesty, sometimes going too far the other way. This is technically called the online disinhibition effect.

This is something we learned over the years building Friday – teams will give more honest feedback asynchronously than in-person. For some people, it’s easy to be honest in a 1-1 meeting with their manager, but for others, they hate being put on the spot.

If you’re a manager and you aren’t collecting feedback in an async manner, you’re missing out on a lot more data and insights.

Downsides of Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication will not solve all your problems. In fact, it can create new problems that you need to deal with.

The biggest problem is that it can be easy to be misunderstood as it lacks the richness and it can take longer to resolve these issues. We wrote a post on how you can reduce miscommunication when communicating asynchronously that will help.

How to balance both forms of communication?

Asynchronous communication is not going to solve all your workplace communication woes. Like most areas of life, finding a balance is key.

For example, there are times when you might be communicating over Slack with a coworker and you feel like you’re not making any progress. They may have misunderstood what you were trying to say, which may cause conflict.

In these scenarios, we recommend jumping on a video or phone call. 

A major advantage to synchronous communication is that the real-time nature gives you more data points to observe and process the message in real-time. 

For example, it’s tough to understand body language over an email or Slack, while it’s easier to tell in-person.

Synchronous communication is also helpful when you need to collaborate quickly (like brainstorming sessions). There are certainly times when a group of people being present unlocks better insights.

Whiteboard Sessions

Knowing when to navigate between these two forms of communication is an important skillset to have, especially as a new manager. Otherwise, you may find yourself lost in a Slack or email thread.

Wrapping Up

Asynchronous communication when used correctly can help your organization level-up in a new way. Just remember, there are times when you need an old-fashioned in-person conversation to happen too.

Missing Tool