Async vs. Sync Communication: What’s the Right Mix for Your Team?

Muriel Vega
async vs sync communication - what's the right mix for your team? Punchlist blog

One way to make your team’s workflow more productive is to embrace asynchronous communication. But how do you employ this effectively, without losing engagement or causing project delays? What’s the right percentage of async vs. sync in an organization? Today we’ll unpack async vs. synchronous communication, and help you figure out the right mix for your team.

Most agencies and startups operate during a regular “9-to-5” schedule (okay, sometimes 9-to-9) where everyone is online simultaneously. But with 91 percent of U.S. workers working at least some hours remotely these days, you need to be prepared to adjust to time zones, potential hybrid schedules, and getting work done in different asynchronous ways.

It’s a lot to take into account as a project manager. For example, figuring out when a remote team member is available without interrupting their work can cause unnecessary cognitive load. Or keeping your team engaged with projects — and the company — may be difficult when you’re unable to meet often.

So how do you effectively balance async and synchronous communication within your team, without sacrificing culture or clarity?

One option to make your workflow more productive is to incorporate asynchronous communication, or “async.” This can increase productivity within your team by catching everyone in their ideal flow state, and trusting your teammates to get the work done when they’re at their best.

In the long run, it actually reduces burnout as employees don’t have to be switched on all the time. This is something that continues to plague creative teams, with nearly 8 in 10 employees experiencing burnout.

Synchronous communication means that you communicate in real-time. There’s a task, and you write a message about it immediately to your colleague, and they respond within minutes. Conversely, asynchronous communication isn’t immediate — the recipient reads it on their own time, and may respond or complete the task up to 24 hours later.

There are definitely benefits to both. But what is the correct percentage of async vs. sync work in an organization, and what does it entail exactly?  

What’s the Difference Between Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication?

Synchronous Communication

The norm at most agencies is synchronous communication. To put it simply: Meetings, meetings, meetings. In this pandemic era, entire teams jumped to Zoom to keep up with projects, teammates and clients. Synchronous simply means real-time communication, where everyone involved is present at once.

Synchronous communication is effective for collaborative meetings and solving a problem together creatively. The stakeholders need to be present to move forward with a project. Or maybe you need instant feedback on an issue in order to meet a deadline.

Some examples of synchronous communication include:

  • Meetings
  • Live conference calls on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet
  • Instant messaging (with the expectation of an immediate reply)
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Interviews
  • “Water cooler talk”
  • Facilitated whiteboarding session (live)
  • Live workshops & training

However, while this type of communication has its benefits, it can also lead to a lack of inclusivity among those not in the same time zone or office. Synchronous comms can be detrimental for new team member onboarding, as there’s only partial documentation available to review. In short, people can feel left out.

Not to mention, a “quick sync” is rarely quick. Have you ever realized at 5pm that your day is completely lost to meetings? And you aren’t actually able to do any focused work until nighttime? Employees must be careful not to fall prey to old ways. Avoid overbooking synchronous meetings when there are other ways to achieve the same outcome.

Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous is the opposite of synchronous communication. The idea is simple. Async communication occurs when the sender and recipient are not available at the same time, and you need to update each other. Think of it like Email vs. Instant Messaging.

With async communication, you can involve stakeholders in different time zones and retain previous knowledge throughout the company’s growth cycles. Even when you are in the same timezone, everyone’s circadian rhythm is unique. Async helps give teammates the freedom to work during their “peak time” or “flow time,” which is a 60-90 minute window in which your brain is operating at its best.

In this case, you can send a quick scheduled Slack message or a Loom explaining new feedback on a project. Or use a remote collaboration tool like Punchlist to exchange feedback on a website design. Think of this like “passing the ball back and forth,” and these passes may take place during each person’s preferred time of day.

Whichever form of communication you use (audio, video, written, etc.), asynchronous messages must be clear, direct, and detailed enough to avoid creating blockers.

A few ​​asynchronous communication examples are:

  • Slack channel with project updates to make sure nothing gets missed
  • Updating project milestones via a Notion page, Asana board, Monday workspace, Trello board or other project management tool
  • Notion hub for a project
  • Google Drive folder
  • Google Docs where teammates can comment
  • Weekly company updates sent via Loom or recorded presentation
  • Pre-meeting summary agenda via Google Doc
  • Daily scrum updates via Slack bot such as Status Hero
  • Commenting on a web design project or PDF file using Punchlist
  • Any form of messaging where an immediate reply is not required

Going async helps set boundaries and prevents the “shoulder tap syndrome.” This is where you feel constantly pulled away from the project you’re trying to focus on, because someone needs you to look at their item now.

Asynchronous communication also encourages documentation, since you’re inherently recording updates, video overviews, or step-by-step processes. Without this documentation, different stakeholders may fail to see the big picture, and you may double efforts in the future to retrace what happened. Transparency is key. It’s a bit more effort, but async can genuinely encourage more collaboration and productivity within a team.

How to Bring Async Communication Into Your Remote Team

Here are a few things to keep in mind. Before you decide to bring async communication into your team, talk to team members one-on-one, if possible, during weekly reviews about how they feel about the change. Not everyone works the same way, and while you have an A-team, not everyone thrives under such autonomy.

Remote work leads to stress over set working hours, despite a time zone difference. Helping team members from HQ share their schedules in separate time zones will reduce stress around notifications, biases, and expectations of matching others. Introducing this strategy is an excellent way to counteract that, but it’s important to ask how people best work, and act accordingly.

Burnout is real, even in the best work cultures. When working with creative projects, it’s essential to let inspiration breathe, and take the time to look at an idea from various perspectives. Helping your employees work during times they feel most productive fosters inclusivity and leads to better work. But also check in that they are finding the right balance.

Tools & Methods for Going Async

So now that your team is ready to implement, since your team isn’t working simultaneously, it’s important to be as clear and detailed as possible when there’s a task.

Incorporate status updates on projects for all stakeholders to read on their own time, and provide feedback in an async way. This will help create documentation. This process helps in every organization — whether you’re a current team member referring back to something that was done, or someone new jumping into the project, or a brand-new team member who is onboarding.

This is where a mix of synchronous and async communication works best. A kick-off sync meeting with all stakeholders helps set a solid foundation for the project. You can discuss the goal, deliverables, and nitty-gritty details before letting all team members move forward on the timeline with asynchronous methods.

Getting the right software tools like Slack or Teams, Google Drive, Asana, and Loom allow everyone to update projects efficiently, so when someone else jumps on, they know exactly where things left off. A few others tools to consider are Notion for the company and department documentation, Calendly to quickly schedule meetings without back-and-forth, and for consolidating video feedback.

Asynchronous Feedback Loop with Punchlist

Use Punchlist to get feedback more efficiently on design projects from team members and clients in different departments, or different parts of the world. No need to hop on a call, or wait until the perfect time to go through feedback over-the-shoulder. Just send the share URL and they can point, click, and comment with precisely what they want changed — on their own time. Each feedback item has a Status dropdown so you can see exactly where things are at, without having to follow up synchronously.

Start small by sending a quick Loom in an Asana task, and set the expectation that your colleague can Loom you back on their own time. Or schedule Slack messages for a few hours from now when your international team members log on for the day, and include a link to the Notion hub for your latest project and comments on what’s next.

It doesn’t take much to incorporate async communication to your workflow, but it is a team effort for everyone to follow the flow and change habits. Ensure the team knows the preferred methods of communicating on each project. And it may take some gentle reminding from you as the project manager, to ensure people don’t creep back into old ways.

How to Manage a Hybrid Asynchronous Team

Your team members must be clear on their expectations with asynchronous communication since accountability lies on them. Make sure that as a manager, you are verbalizing and aligning expectations around deadlines, update frequency, and of course, possible burnout with each employee.

Let your team members know that it is OK to say, “I’m behind since I’ve had too many meetings. Do you mind recording a Loom instead of meeting, and I’ll follow up with questions?” to free up their schedule.

Since operating from different locations may cause “business hours” to shift, and there isn’t a clear stop, it’s important to do weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to understand the progress of the employees, both professionally and personally. These meetings should be synchronous, while many other things can be fully async.

Organizational culture must act as a framework. Within that, you need to have clear communication and a pace for feedback to help team members create work-life harmony. A good check-in on personal development can be the difference between an isolated, unproductive team member and one who feels engaged and inspired.

While a hybrid communication style may work for remote management, it’s not carved in stone. It’s OK to add synchronous meetings to the schedule if someone is struggling with a project or needs more clarity. Use it as a learning tool for future projects. Little by little, see how you can make more items asynchronous, as you introduce new tools and processes.

Find the Right Mix for Remote Management

There’s no one-size-fits-all with synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. It’s important to include your team to achieve the right hybrid mix, increase productivity, and improve mental health. Prioritize action items that move the needle over the default meeting, if you can.

Some managers believe a 60-40 split is the right balance (60% asynchronous, 40% synchronous) for a productive, modern team. Other companies push it as far as 80%-20%, optimizing for deep work and only reserving syncs for weekly planning meetings, company all-hands, and 1-on-1s. Depending on the type of projects you work on, and whether or not you’re managing external stakeholders, this spectrum will vary.

Figure out which work activities truly require a meeting, and which things don’t. Make a two-column list, even. You may surprise yourself at how many items could be accomplished asynchronously.

Whichever balance you strike, continue to communicate the company’s goals, the vision of the project, and collaboration guidelines with your team. This hybrid communication strategy aims not to squash creativity but to increase it. You may also prove that perhaps you didn’t need as many meetings as you once thought.