Communication is the mother of all skills, and choosing the appropriate channel for communicating your message is critical to how that message will be received and acted upon.
But not all communication channels are made equal, and the big question faced by modern workplaces is: should we use sync or async communication to stay in touch?
Unfortunately, there's no set answer. We must constantly weigh up endless variables, including the complexity of your message, how fast we need a response, what's socially acceptable, and your recipient's communication preferences.
I'm often faced with the sync vs. async communication dilemma, and honestly, the internal dialogue can be exhausting. Should I call our partner now? Is it appropriate to send her a Slack message? Hmm, maybe I'll email her overnight. Wait, we have an in-person meeting tomorrow ...
This guide explores the intricacies of sync vs. async communication, helps you decide which is the best for your workflow, and introduces how screen recording like Loom bridge the gap between these communication styles.
What’s the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication?
Trying to decide between sync vs. async comms? Let’s break down the key differences between the two.
Synchronous communication is communication that happens in “real time” — when two or more parties exchange information in the same moment as each other. This form of communication can be in-person or virtual, scheduled or impromptu. Some examples of synchronous communication are:
Video calls (via a tool like Zoom or Microsoft Teams)
Synchronous learning environments, such as online programs that use class time for group discussion
Asking a teammate across your desk a quick question
Water cooler conversations around the office.
Synchronous communication is inherently human; it’s how we interact from birth. (Our mothers don’t send us a text message to welcome us into the world!) And in most workplaces, these real-time communications have been the default, especially pre-pandemic.
There are still plenty of occasions when sync makes the most sense, including when:
You want to build rapport with people (e.g., in one-on-ones, team meetings, or company retreats)
You need to provide critical feedback or discuss sensitive topics
You have a lot of unknowns, and you want to brainstorm different ideas and solutions
There are a lot of moving variables, and you want to bring everyone on the same page quickly, for example, during a project kickoff meeting
A crisis happens that requires immediate attention.
But there are also major downsides of synchronous communication, prompting the team at Doist to argue that "synchronous communication should be the exception, not the rule." The cons of sync communication are:
It’s a real time-suck when you get pulled into “meetings that should have been an email.”
Scheduling a live meeting with a group of busy people is a headache
Real-time conversations can slow project progress if you have to wait for everyone’s availability
It’s not always a respectful use of other people’s time
Context switching, where you jump out of deep work to hop on a call, eats up 20 to 80% of productivity and takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after a distraction.
Asynchronous communication is any type of communication that includes a lag between when someone sends the message, and when the party receiving the message interprets it.
Asynchronous communication is generally not in person and is usually unscheduled (although there are exceptions, such as using an email marketing tool to schedule an email at a certain time). Examples of asynchronous communication methods include:
Letters or other direct mail (yep, organizations still rely on old-fashioned mail to get business done!)
Project management tools (such as Asana, Trello, or Basecamp)
Company wikis and workspaces (such as Confluence or Notion)
Text messaging via mobile devices
Direct messaging (via communication tools like WhatsApp, Twitter, or Facebook)
Video messaging (using tools like Loom.)
Pro tip: we can use a messaging tool like Slack either synchronously or asynchronously, depending on whether participants are treating it like a real-time conversation or you’re waiting until it's convenient for them to respond. Ideally, your company will have a communications policy detailing best practices and setting the tone on expectations.
Here are the main benefits of asynchronous communication:
It’s ideal for when your message isn’t urgent
Coworkers can consume your note at their own pace, on their own schedule, with zero coordination involved
Your recipient can consider your message and provide a thoughtful and meaningful response
It may be the only way for remote workers with time zone differences to communicate effectively without sacrificing their personal time outside of work hours
Communicating out-of-sync can be more inclusive for introverted team members who find real-time meetings draining and anxiety-provoking
It eliminates the risk of burnout caused by Zoom fatigue
It works as a pre-meeting tool, providing context and nuance to reduce the amount of back and forth during your scheduled face-to-face meetings
It allows you to explain complex concepts in a way that people can go back and reference later.
Related reading: “Why Your Work Will Benefit From Asynchronous Communication”
How to Decide Between a Sync vs. Async Workflow
Now you know that both async and sync communication are essential for effective collaboration, it's time to create your own etiquette around when to use each in your workflow. Ask yourself the following questions to decide whether async or sync is the most effective medium to deliver your message.
1. What’s the size of your audience?
First up, decide how many people your message needs to reach. Do you need to present to your entire team or company? Or perhaps communicate with a single coworker or handful of people? Your answer won't tell you immediately whether you require sync vs. async time, but it will help you establish the parameters and logistics of your meeting.
Choose async: if you need your message to reach a large audience, or if scheduling a meeting that everyone can attend is too challenging.
Choose sync: ifthe meeting topic requires a lot of dialogue, or if the next scheduled company-wide meeting is too far away and your message can’t wait.
2. Do you expect high levels of interaction?
Visualize how much input you require from your intended audience. Do you need them to sit back and listen to your message? Or do you expect them to engage in a lot of dialogue with you and other meeting participants?
Choose async: if you're delivering a project greenlight, weekly check-in, or other non-actionable updates.
Choose sync: if you need your audience to raise concerns, ask questions, brainstorm ideas, and generally collaborate on action items in response to your message.
3. How urgent is your message?
Ask yourself if your message is time-sensitive to help you figure out whether to use synchronous or asynchronous communication.
Choose async: in day-to-day work, which doesn’t require an immediate response. This gives your recipient the time to process and provide thoughtful feedback.
Choose sync: when there's no room for lag time, perhaps due to a major outage impacting your customers, a sudden employee termination affecting your team, or any other crisis that demands immediate attention.
Pro tip: As part of your company communications policy, we recommend setting up a system, so your audience knows how to prioritize your message alongside the rest of their workload. Loom uses a tagging system with Priority Levels P0 to P2. P0 = requires a response ASAP; P1 gives a specific deadline; P2 is non-urgent and gives you the freedom to respond at your leisure.
4. How complex is your message?
Think about the length of your message and what it involves.
Choose async: for a variety of use cases where you need to explain complex ideas, including IT walkthroughs, employee onboarding, or providing feedback on a job candidate. If you can summarize your message in a couple of sentences, then async chat tools are a great option. But if your message has more nuance, and you need to explain or demonstrate something, then async video will be your go-to solution.
Choose sync:if the topic is complex and you can't sum it up in a couple of sentences, and you need immediate input or feedback from your message recipients. You may want to check they've understood the nuance of the topic and respond to their query.
5. Is there a risk of misinterpretation?
There's nothing worse than a message being lost in translation. Who can forget the confusing tweet sent by former President Trump, which read, "Despite the constant negative press covfefe?" What did it mean? Perhaps we'll never know!
But from typos and grammatical errors to misunderstood tone and unfortunate emoji usage, communication breakdowns are frustrating. And they can cause huge problems, especially in remote teams where there are fewer opportunities to interpret body language and facial cues.
Choose written async if: there’s little chance of the recipient misunderstanding the message and you’re comfortable getting your point across in a direct message or email.
Choose async video or sync if: you feel your tone of voice and facial expression will help to convey your message. Choose between sending a video or arranging a real-time meeting (in your physical work environment or via video conferencing tools) depending on the urgency of your message.
Video messaging: The best of both worlds
Video messaging solutions like Loom are the ideal bridge between synchronous and asynchronous communication.
With video, the human touch that synchronous communication provides is still largely present — you can still convey additional meaning through gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal communication.
Send video messages in your own time frame for the recipient to consume at leisure. And scale your message by sending it out far and wide rather than typing numerous messages or trying to arrange endless meetings.
Need to attach further context? No problem — include links to docs or share your screen as needed. It's the perfect way to elaborate on why you arrived at certain decisions about your design, financial model, or product roadmap.
While there is a time and place for all modes of communication, Loom is ideal for just about every situation. In my time with the company, I've found myself constantly defaulting to it. Once you get into the habit, you'll wonder what you ever did without it.
Sync vs. async communication: which is right for you?
Still not sure whether to use sync vs. async communication? With Loom, we take any head-scratching out of the equation. We support both forms of communication, whether in the office, at home, or on the move with your smartphone. Sign up for Loom for free, and you can benefit from state-of-the-art communication on all fronts today.