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By Adam Turner   |  
March 3rd, 2021

Striking the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication

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Adam Turner

Adam Turner, SafetyCulture guest contributor, former deputy editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s IT section,has been writing about the technological challenges facing Australian businesses for more than 20 years.

We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to communicating with colleagues, but you’ll never get any work done if you’re constantly interrupting each other over things that can wait.

The boom in communication tools was supposed to drive productivity, but sometimes it seems like the more connected we are, the less we actually get done. No-one enjoys getting dragged into unnecessary meetings which could have been an email. Yet even the new generation of communication tools can steadily chip away at your productivity if not used correctly.

Many organisations put ad-hoc communication systems in place during the rush to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, but eventually these need to be formalised and become part of your business-as-usual.

Understand synchronous vs asynchronous communication

Communication channels fall into two main categories. “Synchronous” communication happens in real time, such as an in-person meeting or a voice/video call. It requires your full attention and immediate responses, well at least in theory.

Meanwhile, “asynchronous” communication is spread out over time, such as an exchange of letters, emails, texts, instant messages or comments in a shared document. Asynchronous communication doesn’t demand that you drop everything and reply instantly, it can wait until you’re ready to deal with it.

Appreciate the benefits of asynchronous communication

Asynchronous works best when you have a quick, straightforward query which doesn’t require an instant reply, such as “what time is our team meeting on Friday?”

Sending this via an instant message lets you dispense with the pleasantries of email or a phone call and just get to the point.

Better yet, you might post the question to your team’s group chat, allowing anyone who knows the answer to reply. That reply is shared with the entire group, eliminating the need for others to waste time asking the same basic question. It also ensures you don’t get trapped in email ‘Reply All’ hell.

Non-urgent, memo-style group messages are also better-suited to asynchronous communications. For example, you don’t need the entire office to down tools and gather around just so you can remind them that the office fridge is cleaned out every Friday evening.

Know when synchronous works best

Meanwhile, synchronous communication can be more efficient and effective when you’d benefit from a free flow of ideas.

A face-to-face meeting or voice/video call is great for nutting out a complex issue such as brainstorming, planning or troubleshooting. Screen sharing and virtual whiteboards are handy for group meetings, so you can both show and tell, plus you can record these sessions to share with others later.

Sometimes you need to play it by ear. If going back and forth via instant message is becoming too cumbersome, perhaps it’s best to switch to synchronous communication mid-conversation – such as picking up the phone or dropping by their desk.

Even for a basic query, you still might turn to synchronous communication if it’s urgent and things are on hold until you get an answer.

Find the right balance for your team

Keep in mind, if you bombard people with any form of communication, you’ve just transplanted the same old problem to a new medium and it could also become a productivity sinkhole.

It’s best to lay down some guidelines to ensure you’re all on the same page and communicating effectively.

Establish expectations and basic etiquette, such as deciding which communication channels are suitable for which tasks, agreeing on realistic response times and respecting boundaries rather than expecting people to be on call 24/7.

These guidelines might vary for different groups and roles within your business, but managers need to listen to their people rather than just dictate the rules.

Allow for compliance and auditing requirements. Even if you’re not in a highly-regulated industry, sometimes it’s easier to avoid misunderstandings and hold someone accountable when you have things in writing.

Also consider whether you need to capture exchanges as part of a knowledge base. Otherwise, it’s easy to inadvertently create internal knowledge silos – where important information is not available to everyone who might need. If you’re not capturing this information, there’s also a risk of losing important wisdom when someone leaves your organisation.

Integrating your synchronous and asynchronous communication tools into your workflow helps capture this information and ensure it is put to good use. This improves productivity by ensuring everyone is on the same page, reducing duplication of efforts and ensuring opportunities aren’t lost.

Don’t just think about communication, think about the end goal of collaboration and productivity. Consider how you can build communication tools into workflows and turn issues into actions, perhaps as part of a broader workflow management platform like iAuditor.

Remember, fancy new communication tools won’t magically solve all your problems. It might also be time to reevaluate your operations and overhaul your workflows to help you get things done. 

Dig into the insights you need to reset your operations and get back on track in 2021.

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