DISTRIBUTED: Why Synchronous Communication Sucks

We at Intridea have learned that running a distributed business is half art form, half calculated science. Without clear purpose and direction, a remote team will quickly unravel. That’s why we follow a specific set of principles or “rules” to keep our team as effective and connected as possible. One of those rules is to avoid synchronous communication as often as possible.

Ask yourself this: What is the most effective way to communicate with your team? Is it best to meet face-to-face with employees, present them with a problem and attempt to resolve the issue together in real time? Or is it more productive to send your employees an email, give them a couple of hours or days to digest the information and ask them to respond later when they are prepared with an informed answer?

While it may seem inconsequential, the mode of communication you choose can make or break your company—particularly if you run a distributed business.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Synchronous communication is basically a real-time conversation. For example, if you call up an employee, meet face-to-face or send an instant message to discuss an issue, that’s synchronous communication. Another example would be an online meeting or conference call, when your entire team gets together to chat and offer immediate responses.

Synchronous communication is extremely popular with traditional brick and mortar businesses, where most discussions are handled in-person through conversations and meetings. Usually everyone is in the same location and participates at the same time. Because it necessitates swift answers, synchronous communication often gives an advantage to those who speak fastest—not those who speak the wisest.

On the other hand, asynchronous communication occurs outside of real time. There is a delay or a “lag” between the question and the response. This lag could be any given amount of time specified by the team leader—whether it’s two hours, two days or two weeks. Unlike real-time conversations, asynchronous communication allows your team members to respond when they can focus fully on the discussion.

For example, if you email an employee a question and ask her to respond by the next morning, that’s asynchronous communication. Asynchronous communication also takes place through project management tools, wiki or microblogging platforms. With these tools, the organizer posts a question, concern or document and each employee responds with their answers, suggestions and edits on their own time.

Down with Knee-Jerk Responses

Naysayers of asynchronous communication often claim it is ineffective for urgent matters—but this is simply not true. Although there is a delay between the question and the response, the pause may be as little as one minute. If an issue is time-sensitive, it’s important and reasonable for a colleague or team leader to request a response within a specific amount of time. For example, when you send an employee an email marked “High Importance!” and ask her to respond within the next five minutes, this is still considered asynchronous communication.

Because synchronous communication always calls for immediate answers, it does not afford much time for reflection—which often leads to impulsive, unimaginative and sometimes downright wrong responses. It also creates distraction that forces the recipient to drop whatever they’re doing and switch focus. On the other hand, asynchronous communication gives an employee time to prepare a thoughtful, educated answer as opposed to a knee-jerk response.

Particularly in a distributed business, it’s important to create a business culture where instant responses are not demanded or expected. When your team members have time to respond carefully, it fosters a culture of creativity and productivity and limits the number of distractions they face in a day. These are just a few of the many reasons why business communication should be handled asynchronously whenever possible—especially with distributed teams that are often dispersed across a variety of time zones.

Four Fatal Pitfalls of Synchronous Communication

So, why do we at Intridea hate on synchronous so much? Because teams that rely on synchronous communication fall into these four common pitfalls:

  1. The demand for instant answers, which leads to hasty responses.
  2. Increased pressure on employees
  3. Constant distractions, which forces employees to drop what they’re doing and shift their focus.
  4. Ineffective conversations and meetings dominated by extroverts and chronic interrupters.

We believe asynchronous communication solves each of these common pitfalls. Tune into our next blog to find out how.
Does your company work remote? Keep the conversation going! We’d love to hear from you.