How to improve productivity using synchronous and asynchronous communication?

2020 was a year of buzzwords such as remote work, asynchronous communication, and crypto. While these were ideas that were already on our radar, the pandemic breathed new life into them and they are likely to change the way we work permanently.

Take async communication, for example. Just like remote work, async communication is being hailed as the way forward.

But is async communication really the future of work? Is it the remedy for everything that’s wrong with the current way we communicate? And are we ready to permanently break up with the synchronous way of talking to each other?

In this post, we will answer the above questions plus a few more:

  • What is synchronous communication?
  • What is async communication?
  • It’s not synchronous vs asynchronous
  • Getting the sync-async combo to work for you

What is synchronous communication?

Synchronous communication is the live, real-time, and simultaneous communication where people talk to each other in the here and now. Think of in-person meetings, Zoom calls, phone conversations, water cooler gossip, or job interviews as some examples of synchronous communication. These situations require you and other participants to interact instantaneously.

Synchronous communication significantly cuts down the duration it takes to go over a topic as against asynchronous communication channels. But the biggest criticism against synchronous communication is that it robs people of their productive time. The pressure to respond to a flurry of chat messages immediately, for example, can be a constant source of distraction for a productivity-loving product manager.

According to the research findings published in the Harvard Business Review a few years back, meetings steal about 80% of everyone’s time in an office environment—depriving them of the actual work. The research authors aptly call this phenomenon a problem of “collaborative overload.” This is a big reason why asynchronous communication is getting all the attention lately.

What is asynchronous communication?

Asynchronous communication is a more paced-out, staggered, and relatively relaxed way of interacting with each other. Think of the old-school telegrams, postcards, email, or voice messages—for example. These communication channels don’t compel you to respond to the sender right away. You have the luxury to reply at your convenience—of course, depending on how urgent the situation is.

The downside to async communication is it prolongs the communication process and might lead to multiple back-and-forths. Ironically, the asynchronous style of communication is found to boost productivity despite the time it takes to carry out an interaction.

Switching between synchronous and asynchronous

You can sometimes turn a synchronous communication medium into an async communication at your own discretion. Collaboration and productivity apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams are notable examples that facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Async communication has peaked especially after the pandemic came barrelling into our lives. The onslaught of coronavirus forced us to continue working while quarantined inside our respective homes—completely throwing our routines out of sync. The blurred lines between our personal and professional lives made us correspond to work-related communication at different times.

With nearly 88% of the organizations (according to Gartner) being okay with their employees working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work and async communication have become an accepted part of offices worldwide. These days, it’s unlikely for your colleagues to frown upon you even if you respond to their Slack messages 24 hours later.

The popularity of remote work and async communication is not entirely new. Studies done even before the pandemic have time and again found that people are more productive when they work from home—which, by design, implies asynchronous communication to a large extent.

The realization that cross functional collaboration can happen from people’s home offices without losing their productivity streak has encouraged more organizations across the globe to embrace async communication as the new work culture. It has also led many experts to claim that async communication is, indeed, the future of work.

But it’s important to practice caution when you hear such overly optimistic viewpoints without looking at the big picture. Asynchronous communication is certainly a great way to boost productivity or allow globally distributed teams to be more inclusive about their time-zone differences, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way out. For a lot of organizations, synchronous communication offers amazing advantages to keep up with the fast-paced business environment.

It’s not about sync vs async communication

Synchronous communication is often a source of time-suck—especially office meetings. Consider these staggering statistics from a few years back:

  • In the US alone, approximately 55 million meetings happen every single day
  • If you’re a manager, on average you’re probably meeting 12 times per week
  • As an individual contributor, you will attend an average of 8 meetings a week
Why meetings suck?

Synchronous meetings also require you to be available at the same time—sometimes in the same space—and be acutely aware of the conversation taking place. In an office setup, most problems that seem to demand your urgent and immediate attention may just be hijacking your time and focus. This is a nightmare not just for on-site teams but also for distributed teams who find it hard to squeeze in time to do actual meaningful work.

That’s not the case with async communication. In an increasingly remote-friendly world, asynchronous communication lets everyone mind their own schedule and be on top of their priorities.

Business teams love async communication because it takes off the pressure of not having to respond to a message as soon as you see it. This gives you more control over your schedule, the option to prioritize your work at your own will, the time to think, or add depth to your response. The organizations that embrace asynchronous work culture believe  that it doesn’t matter how fast (or slow) you reply as long as the work gets done on time.

Why it’s not one size fit all

Asynchronous communication is not for everyone—it requires maturity and a systematic approach to facilitate paced-out communication. Async communication also gives people the freedom to delay a conversation at will—which often leads to misinterpretation, misunderstandings, and conflicts. And async communication is an absolute waste of everyone’s time if you can just tap your colleagues’ shoulders to discuss a topic or pick up your phone and talk about it in five minutes.

Synchronous communication is how we naturally interact with people around us—our friends, family members, colleagues, and even customers. It’s a lot easier to read the room, for instance, when you are having a live discussion. Customers prefer synchronous correspondence because it offers instant gratification. For business teams, this conversation style offers the advantage of getting real-time feedback and adjusting their communication style on the fly.

Imagine being able to see your prospects’ facial expressions or sensing the displeasure in their tone and voice when running a discovery call, for example. However, this doesn’t mean we should default to synchronization at all times. Just like the mandatory two-hour commute to the office, synchronous collaboration can be a waste of time if you impose it as a protocol. Collaboration for the sake of collaboration is often counterproductive to everyone.

Take smaller bets and see what makes more sense to you

The best way to know which of the two communication styles suit you best is to put them to test. Synchronous communication is critical for meetings that involve critical business decisions, customer conversations, in-person discussions, or important 1:1 interactions.

On the other hand, async communication is better suited for situations that involve training, coaching, or mentoring. Self-paced coaching lets you train people in a way that suits them best while allowing you to give specific, contextual, and detailed feedback. We suggest you put both styles of communication to practice at a small scale across your organization and adopt the one that suits you the most.

Use case: Sales Coaching

Let’s take sales coaching as an example. Traditionally, sales coaching happened in real-time—the new salesperson would shadow a more experienced salesperson on their sales calls and make shorthand notes on the go.

How to accelerate sales coaching?

There are a few problems with that model of synchronous training. It’s not scalable. Also, it’s not guaranteed that this coaching style is best suited for everyone—some sales reps are self-starters, others are visual learners, while the rest might need more hands-on coaching.

This is an area where async communication is more beneficial. You can use Avoma to record, transcribe, summarize all your meetings and calls so that every conversation becomes part of a searchable database for asynchronous learning.

Here’s how it helps and scales sales coaching:

  • Asynchronous learning: Your sales leader need not block out time to sit in on your rep's calls 
  • Accelerated learning: Your new reps don’t even have to listen to the entire call. They can choose to listen to the specific topics of discussion that they think are critical, and in their preferred speed such as 0.5x 1.75x or 2x. For example, they can listen to only the discovery section, demo section, etc., so that the listening process in itself is smarter. 
  • Asynchronous feedback loop: Once your reps start to take up sales calls independently, they can receive asynchronous feedback specific to their calls and meetings. You don’t need to schedule an exclusive meeting to give feedback. Instead, you can simply comment asynchronously on the conversation transcripts to keep the feedback loop going.

Getting the sync + async combo to work for you

Like the remote-vs-office-work debate, people sometimes tend to make the mistake of looking at sync vs async communication from a very polarizing, black-and-white lens. But the reality is—they are complementary and not mutually exclusive communication styles. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication are means to the end—the magic lies in balancing them both to achieve the bigger goals like team alignment, growth, or revenue.

Instead of boxing communication styles into rigid sync vs async categories, business teams should look at them as continuous, self-evolving, and co-existing processes that feed into one another and enhance productivity.

Take recording and transcribing your meetings as an example. If you use Avoma’s conversation intelligence platform to record, transcribe, and analyze important conversations in your organization—you can put the sync vs async discussion to rest. That’s because the recorded conversations are the best of both synchronous and asynchronous worlds.

Let’s look at some examples of how the sync-async aspects combine to help your entire organization:

Sales conversations

Take the case of your sales call between your rep and the prospect. Be it a sales discovery call or a follow-up, these conversations are always going to be synchronous. But, it doesn’t end there.
Here are the some asynchronous possibilities after the sales meeting/call:

  • Insights for new sales reps:They can create playlists for discovery calls, objection handling, pricing discussions etc. and learn by listening to those conversations at their own pace. 
  • Insights for marketers: Having access to these sales calls can turn out to be a gold mine for marketers helping them unearth patterns such as the most common customer pain points , the most compared competitors, etc. Marketers can use these information nuggets to create content that cater to these frequently asked prospect questions.
  • Insights for customer success: Listening to sales calls or having access to notes (conversation summaries) helps them get a good understanding of the customer’s use cases, history and all key information that can help enable a smooth sales to customer success account handoff

Customer Success conversations

Now if you consider customer success calls, it’s a given that these meetings are going to be synchronous. But the asynchronous takeaways for peers across the organization in terms of signals for potential customer churn, feature requests, and customer feedback are quite handy.

  • Insights for product teams: Product teams can look at the leaderboard of feature requests across all customer success conversations and aggregate those insights into the product roadmap and prioritize upcoming features.
  • Insights for peers in customer success: Tracking conversations for keywords indicating potential churn such as ‘leadership change’, ‘ in-house development’, etc can help CSMs plan and better position the product towards customer goals. 

Summing up...

Don’t get caught up in the “what’s better: sync or async communication” dichotomy. Depending on who you are talking to, it can turn into an endless debate with no fruitful outcome.

Synchronous and asynchronous are only different communication styles that organizations choose based on several factors like their company culture, the size of their team, the team members’ location, and so on. But what’s more important is for you to realize both these communication aspects intersect and feed into each other.

At the end of the day, your focus should be to have systems that can facilitate smooth communication and tight collaboration between the teams—be it through Slack DMs or your conversation intelligence using Avoma.