Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Collaboration

Over dinner, I had a conversation with my kid on how asynchronous communication took over our lives.

“We didn’t always have text messages, you know”, I told her.

“So you only had WhatsApp?”, she scoffed.

“We actually had to talk to someone every time we wanted to say something”.

The unappealing concept took a second to process. She rolled her eyes, “Well, that was a million years ago”.

I guess it’s more like 25. But who’s counting. Anyway, she concluded that “it wouldn’t work for gen z”.

Asynchronous communication means that you communicate and don’t expect the other side to immediately respond. In asynchronous collaboration, you work and enter information that needs to be communicated on your side whenever you want, and the other side(s) can respond to the information you provided in their own time. You jointly work on completing a task, but not necessarily at the same time.

Synchronous and asynchronous communication examples
Synchronous and asynchronous communication examples

GitLab is a collaboration tool for software developers. They have a nice definition for it:

Asynchronous communication is the art of communicating and moving projects forward without the need for additional stakeholders to be available at the same time

Software companies have been early and enthusiastic adopters of async collaboration. I believe it’s going to be the default for everyone else too.

There are benefits to adopting asynchronous workflows. 2020 helped make it clearer, when the ability to contribute to a project or mission even if the team couldn’t be at the same place became an evident competitive advantage for many businesses. But even when synchronous collaboration is an option, moving some tasks to async mode is a good idea.

  • It gives team members more flexibility to manage their time and decide when they work on a task. There are always constraints (for example, the task may need to be finished by a certain deadline), but async mode helps navigate within the constraints without adding the pressure of coordinating meetings, calling people at potentially inconvenient times or hunting them down for a quick conversation in the hall.
  • For some tasks it yields higher quality results — especially when there’s individual thinking or planning involved, and some team members may do their part at a different pace. When you use a collaboration method that was designed for a specific purpose, it can also introduce structure that encourages more methodical thinking.
  • Async collaboration is usually automatically documented, which could become an important advantage. Being able to go back to information entered by the team often saves time (maybe helps avoid another call to that person), allows easier ramp up and makes it possible to learn from past communication. Over time team collaboration data can become a gold mine.
  • Async collaboration can help assure everyone’s voice is heard, especially in highly hierarchical or siloed teams. It gives people time to think about what they communicate, and makes it possible for more people to contribute without having to be quicker or louder than everyone else.
  • Async collaboration is easier when there are multiple stakeholders, and when synchronous collaboration means getting 5 people in a room or a zoom call (ever had a call with missing stakeholders to update them about the meeting they missed?).

Is synchronous communication better than asynchronous? Yes. Face to face is by far the best way for human beings to communicate, especially when building a relationship. On my first post-covid travel, I met with people that I’ve been working with remotely for a few months. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is how we should be engaging with people.

And yet, it doesn’t make sense to demand synchronous communication for all work collaboration. For certain types of work collaboration, async can result in a happier team, higher quality and efficiency.

  • For updates and routine planning of work tasks.
  • For the daily coordination of multiple team members.
  • When there’s added value in automatically logging collaboration data (documenting decisions, keeping people in the loop etc.).

And lastly

  • When synchronous could be ideal, but life gets in the way. 🐱‍👤

What do you think?

Co-founder and CEO @Chiefyteam @MayaBerLerner | chiefyteam.com