The Future of Work: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous - Unpopular Opinion

It's time to tackle a difficult question in the world of work. Synchronous or asynchronous?

When COVID-19 struck, businesses were forced to adopt a crisis-induced remote work model.  It was a sudden and frantic shift, as companies tried to keep the lights on and keep employees safe. Now, in 2021, as both employees and companies have realized the tremendous benefits of remote work, many businesses have permanently switched to a remote-first or hybrid work model. Unsurprisingly, technology has played a significant role in enabling this new climate, but how businesses recreate themselves around technology may be even more critical to their success. This article will discuss two major conflicting ideologies in the remote work transition:  synchronous vs. asynchronous collaboration environments.

What Does Sync and Async Mean?

You may be asking yourself, “synchronous vs. asynchronous… what does that mean?” Let’s run through some examples:

Asynchronous (Async) Model:

Asynchronous communication in the workplace, whether remote or not, implies that a time delay in response exists between the sender and receiver, who may be another colleague or a client. This could include forms of communication such as email, messaging apps, and sharing content on cloud-based platforms. Asynchronous communication includes all forms of communication that do not occur in real-time.

Synchronous (Sync) Model:

On the other hand, Synchronous communication in the workplace implies that there isn't a time delay in response between the sender and receiver. Some synchronous forms of communication include telephone calls, video chats, in-person meetings, coffee break conversations, and many other face-to-face communications. Synchronous communication includes forms of communication that happen in real-time.

The Rise of Async

As companies shift to a purposeful, C-Suite-driven remote-first model, they face a myriad of new challenges. For example, how do you effectively onboard and integrate new hires? How do you deal with employees in different time zones? How do you continually disseminate information, processes, and culture in a constantly growing and changing organization?    

Many looked to the companies that had already adopted a remote model prior to the pandemic, such as Gitlab and Automattic, the developers of WordPress, to replicate their approach. Gitlab has championed an async model for years and even has a Remote Playbook to aid companies in their transition. Their manifesto is clear: Written and recorded information through official channels is superior to live information in any form. Gitlab is a tremendously successful company, founded in 2014, now valued at $6B after revenue grew 74% last quarter. Gitlab’s success might be proof that the asynchronous model is a success. First, however, it’s important to fully understand all that goes into establishing such a model and the challenges that come with it.

Problems With the Async Model

There is an immense organizational and tooling overhead.

Companies like Gitlab have had years to refine and build upon their policies and strategy to achieve an async model that works. When starting from scratch, if you consider all of the technology involved and processes that must be abided by, you can practically fill a book explaining how things should be done (i.g. Gitlab’s Remote Playbook linked above.) You need the right tools, and they need to be deployed, integrated, and used in the right way. This alone is no small feat, and quickly training new employees, or updating existing employees if the organization goes through significant changes, is tremendously challenging. Let’s look at some examples.

Intranets, a staple in an asynchronous model, are software designed to improve group collaboration, increase overall corporate communication, and reinforce fundamental business values. In practice, however, those improvements are rarely realized. Intranets are not user-friendly, are costly and time-consuming to deploy and manage, require substantial admin oversight, and generally go unused by employees. According to a study done by Prescient Digital Media, just 13% of workers report utilizing their intranets regularly, while 31% have never accessed it at all. 

Another common async tool is the corporate wiki, such as Confluence. Employees utilize corporate wikis to develop and share business information collectively. But, according to Quandora, just 1% of participants actively create new material in wikis, 9% of all users modify content, and 90% of all participants merely read it. Aside from not being as engaging as promised, corporate wikis have bad user experience, lack proper knowledge sharing, and are prone to outdated and incorrect information.

To summarize the challenges with static data stores: Companies need to purchase, implement, and manage the tool, and then effectively encourage their employees to use the tool consistently. Of course, many of us have experience with intranets and wikis, and might have found value using them. But to be able to rely solely on them for information is a massive project.

Complexities of communication & collaboration

True collaboration does not follow a simple call and response, question and answer format. New challenges have unique subtleties that render old solutions obsolete. In other words, searching a static database to solve a problem isn’t going to work. When employees need to go back and forth on a topic, async is slow. For example, if an individual has a question and has to wait 24 hours for a response, that is 24 hours of lost time. This might be a relatable point-- have you ever been emailing back and forth with someone, seemingly not getting anywhere, and decided just to call them to get on the same page? That’s async vs. sync. 

There’s a human relationship element to this as well. When employees can synchronously interact with their colleagues, they are more productive. A study by MIT found that synchronous communication was the most effective method in developing team cohesion, resulting in a 10-15% increase in individual productivity. Conversely, they found that text-based interactions, the primary method in an asynchronous environment, were the least effective.

Talent problems

70% of employees say having friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy work-life, per a study by Officevibe. Simply put, asynchronous work does not lend itself to relationship building, and potential employees that want relationships at work don’t apply to work at async companies. Those that do realize it’s not a good fit and leave. It’s a self-filtering model that leaves a lot of good people on the table. During a time when competition for top talent is at an all-time high, companies that shift to an async model will run into recruiting challenges and employee attrition.

What’s the Solution?

Async culture is an important piece of a remote strategy, but alone it isn’t enough to provide an efficient work environment.

On a remote team, there should be a balance of communication. This balance should be asynchronous for simple questions and answers, paired with synchronous interaction for true collaboration and relationship building. Companies that incorporate a holistic strategy reap the benefits of both models.

Video calls and meetings are great for these occasional moments of synchronous collaboration; it provides an opportunity for socializing, complex discussions, and relationship building. Audio communication is another great way to drive synchronous communication. According to research on the benefits of audio, fear of an uncomfortable encounter may lead to a misguided preference for typing over chatting. However, a feeling of closeness seems to arise from hearing another person's voice rather than seeing them.

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