Think of the last romcom you watched.
Likely, the couple broke up near the end of the movie over a silly, avoidable misunderstanding (and then they reunited, of course).
This clichéd movie trope relies on poor communication to create drama and good communication to resolve it. You might say that clear communication is both the bane and saviour of many romcoms— and the latter is certainly true for workplaces.
Communication is key to the success of any team, whether they’re a few chairs or cities apart. Good communication prevents misunderstandings and the chaos that comes with it, which is exactly what you want for you and your team.
There are two main types of communication that contribute to your team’s communication strategy: synchronous and asynchronous (async) communication.
So what’s the difference between synchronous vs. asynchronous communication?
Synchronous communication is real-time communication where you can exchange information with others immediately.
Asynchronous communication is the opposite—it’s communication that doesn’t require an immediate response. You can think of it like having a delay between exchanging information (like a text message vs. phone call).
Despite more workplaces embracing remote life and making asynchronous communication the default, synchronous communication is equally important and in some cases, irreplaceable.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into all things synchronous communication, including:
- What is synchronous communication?
- Why is synchronous communication important?
- When to use synchronous communication: 5 situations when its irreplaceable
What is synchronous communication?
Synchronous communication is real-time communication, scheduled or impromptu, where you can exchange information with others immediately. The immediacy makes it helpful for discussing delicate or time-sensitive issues as well as complex projects. Plus, because it’s collaborative and interactive by nature, it’s good for brainstorming, one-on-one meetings, and socializing — whether online or in person.
What are examples of synchronous communication?
Definition aside, what exactly is synchronous communication in practice? Let’s take a look at some real-life examples:
- In-person meetings
- Walking to someone’s desk to ask a question
- Water-cooler chats
- Phone or video calls
- Live webinars or classes
- Instant messaging (when responses are immediate)
- Voice over internal protocol
Although synchronous communication is necessary and helpful, it also has some challenges.
Communicating synchronously can make people on different work schedules or in different time zones feel out of the loop when they miss a meeting or impromptu team chat. It can also disrupt your schedule when you have to move your focus time to accommodate meetings.
The expectation of having to respond to your colleagues instantly can be stressful and frustrating. In fact, Slack reported, “users spend more than 9 hours per workday connected to our service, including spending about 90 minutes per workday actively using Slack.” That’s at least 90 minutes per day dedicated to synchronous communication that could be spent on focus time, and 9 hours per day spent managing notifications and potentially feeling obligated to stay online outside of work hours (which some do to accommodate those varying work schedules and time zones).
It’s this kind of disruption that sometimes gives synchronous communication a bad rep and why a handful of companies are moving towards an async-first work culture.
While async communication is an important part of team collaboration, let’s take a look at why synchronous communication can’t be forgotten.
Why is synchronous communication important?
While working remotely, you might have noticed how convenient asynchronous communication can be:
- You have more time to review a message before replying
- Everyone feels included in conversations despite time zones or physical presence
- You can snooze notifications to have more uninterrupted focus time
- Work that requires immediate action and you don’t want your co-workers to wait hours, or even days, for a response when a quick phone call can do the trick.
- More complicated projects, when async communication could cause delays and confusion.
- When you’re trying to connect and build connections with people
Since both communication styles have their benefits, the most effective way to collaborate, especially with a remote team, is a hybrid of the two. For example, if you have multiple stakeholders working on a complex project, a phone call or screen share can help clear up any confusion quickly and effectively. Then, you can use asynchronous communication tools to support your team members collaborate on their own time.
When to use synchronous communication: 5 situations when its irreplaceable
Don’t get us wrong, asynchronous communication is incredibly important to collaborate effectively as a team. But there are certain projects or situations when communicating synchronously with your team is invaluable and can’t be replaced. We’ve outlined 5 examples of these situations below.
1. One-on-one meetings
One-on-one meetings occur between a manager and direct report, peer-to-peer, or skip-level. They’re a time to chat about work projects, roadblocks, career development, and share two-way feedback. Most importantly though, they’re a time to build a foundation of trust—the key to working together effectively.
“Personal matters, coaching, development and mentoring of direct reports requires a synchronous element at times. There is also a place for in-person meetups, which help build the human element of remote work.”– Chase Warrington, Doist
Building that foundation would be difficult without taking the time to truly bond with your coworkers, learning about their weekend, finding commonalities, and for remote teams, humanizing the person on the other end of the screen. One-on-ones also give you the ability to listen to your colleagues’ voice and tone, and read their facial expressions and body language as you move through conversations.
One-on-ones are more effective when they’re synchronous because they can help break the ice and build a better rapport with your direct reports, managers and peers. That doesn’t mean you can’t use do some of the prep work asynchronously using a one-on-one meeting app. If you’re looking to bring some structure to this time, you can check out these one-on-one templates to help you make the most of it:
2. Team building
Team building helps you create meaningful, reliable connections with colleagues while increasing job satisfaction, motivation, and employee engagement.
Whether it’s grabbing drinks after work or tuning into a virtual trivia night, the opportunity to talk to your teammates outside of work about non-work things is unparalleled, especially if you’re working remotely. Team building activities are a good opportunity to learn new things about your colleagues, find common interests, and build lasting relationships.
Now, imagine trying to do all of that through a discussion board. 🙅🏼
“Being fully remote, it’s important to still get in real-time communication with your team. Whether that’s through voice or video conferencing, having that real-time connection is irreplaceable. It’s a way to connect on a more personal level, and it’s one of the main parts I miss about working in the office or in a hybrid setting.”– Devin Pickell, Nextiva
You may still have fun and learn new things about each other, but the conversation will be more rigid, jokes won’t hit the same, and people will be far less engaged when immediate responses aren’t guaranteed. Team building is more fruitful when it’s synchronous and teammates can interact easily in real-time.
“I find sync communication to be critical when we’re collaborating and I want to make sure we’re on the same page, but also when we want to connect and see how everyone on the team is doing.”Andrea Rajic, Gable
3. Difficult conversations
Another fatal mistake in romcoms (and real-life) is breaking up over text. To deliver someone bad news over text is criticized as being inconsiderate and insincere. Now imagine putting an employee on a performance improvement plan over Slack—sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? When it comes time to having difficult conversations, it’s best to do it synchronously.
Here are some situations when talking in real-time is imperative:
- Resigning from your job
- Announcing that layoffs are going to occur in the company
- Discussing mental health
- Navigating workplace conflicts
- Delivering constructive feedback
- Performance reviews
- Board meetings
With these kinds of conversations, asynchronous communication leaves room for ambiguity. That’s where misunderstandings are born. Instead, speak in real-time where both parties can ask and answer questions right away, preventing any confusion, or negative interpretations.
4. Crisis communication
Imagine superheroes planning how to save the world completely over email or text. Seems silly and inefficient, doesn’t it? The consequences of inefficient communication may not be as catastrophic at your workplace, but the principle is the same—don’t use asynchronous communication for urgent, complex matters that require collaboration. This way, all parties can contribute at the same time regardless of where they are and the situation won’t worsen because you waited too long for a response. You also won’t have to waste time waiting for approvals if everyone you need is in the same room (or video call).
5. Onboarding new employees
Joining a new company can be intimidating. Having a solid onboarding experience will help set up your new team members for success and make them feel more comfortable from day one. While there’s a lot you’ll be able to do asynchronously to help new employees get started, such as admin work, reviewing company information and welcome emails, at least some items on your onboarding checklist should include syncing up in real-time. This will help them integrate into the team faster.
During onboarding, you should probably have some synchronous communication. I like the idea of giving a new employee an onboarding buddy that will help show them the ropes and get them to understand company culture better. This way they can form a solid connection through synchronous communication with one person and not get overwhelmed by the entire team all at once.Freya Kuka, CollectingCents
Whether you’re in a one-on-one meeting, team building, having a difficult conversation, solving a crisis, or onboarding new team members, synchronous communication is the key to ensure your time is spent meaningfully and that you avoid misunderstandings.
Synchronous communication allows you to create connections with people you may not otherwise get the chance to connect with, which helps create trust and improve rapport between colleagues. Paired with asynchronous communication, your team is sure to have a sustainable communication strategy that will help you succeed no matter where each person is located.