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Find the right mix of sync and async communication for your team

Conversations at Work

Conversations at Work | Photo by ROOM on Unsplash

At Flock, we love talking. We are a small distributed team, so we talk to each other often.

Brainstorming ideas on group video calls, sharing project updates in a Flock channel, or even some back-and-forth on email - we use every tool we can to communicate more effectively. And like any team that has access to modern collaboration tools, the ability to connect with each other effortlessly (and instantly!) over any distance is something we take for granted.

But there’s a big downside to all real-time communication: you and your teammate(s) need to be awake for it; this is not always feasible when your team is spread across the globe. Instead, we use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication to bridge distances and work together more effectively. 

What is Synchronous Communication?

Put simply, synchronous communication (sync) is when all participants are present simultaneously. Video conferences, in-person meetings, and conversations in Flock are some examples.

When we communicate synchronously, we expect real-time responses. It allows for a fast exchange of ideas and helps build camaraderie, especially in remote/distributed teams. Unfortunately, it also leads to frequent interruptions when people are working and their productivity takes a hit.

Realize your team's potential to do great things! Check out our guide to effective team collaboration.

It sounds counter-intuitive but consider this: you are working on a project with a tight deadline (it’s due tomorrow!) for an hour or two when a colleague calls you to discuss another project. 30 minutes later, both of you have a plan of action for the new project that is not due soon. You take a short break and get back to your earlier project. Another hour passes (if you’re lucky) before your manager reaches out on Flock to chat about an upcoming team outing. You spend a few minutes on it, and it takes you a few more to get back to what you were doing earlier. Rinse and repeat with a few more interruptions, and before you know it, half of your workday (or more?) goes into conversations that take away from your immediate priority!

What is Asynchronous Communication?

Asynchronous communication (async) happens when all participants aren’t required to be present at the same time. Emails, comments on Trello boards or Google Docs are some examples.

Communicating asynchronously allows people to respond and act at their own pace. In other words, you don’t have to drop what you’re doing to respond to a message; you can continue to focus on what you are doing. 

So on your project with a tight deadline, colleagues can share details on the new project over email, which you can respond to later. And the lack of a “reply immediately” expectation means that whenever you get around to reading that email, you have more time to formulate ideas and think them through before you contribute to the discussion.

The tricky part is finding the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication for your team. We know it’s not as easy as it sounds. Many of us are ‘inbox zero’ fanatics even when there is no need for it. And most of us can’t help but reply to a message on Flock as soon as we receive it, so here are a few pointers on finding the right mix for your team.

1. Set the right expectations for where and how your team communicates

List the communication channels/tools your team uses along with dos and don’ts (and use cases) for each. It’s important to have a common understanding of where and how you could talk about different topics. For example, if it’s not urgent, it shouldn’t be on team chat.

Consider project announcements as a use case. Because such announcements often contain quite a bit of information, you may prefer sharing them over email because there is no need for an immediate response. On the other hand, using Flock channels for operational announcements - “Bad traffic jam on the interstate! Work from home.” - is the fastest way to get that information to colleagues that are probably on the way to work.

2. Get buy-in and feedback from your team

Discuss the “rules of communication” with your team and get them to agree on best practices. Functional groups within the organization will have unique requirements, so you’ll need to fine-tune the rules for them too. As always, run a pilot group or two to ensure everything works as expected and collect feedback. Pay attention when someone says, “This meeting should have been an email!” If moving some asynchronous conversations to synchronous channels (or vice versa) may result in more effective collaboration, just do it. 

3. Show, don’t tell

Changing habits is hard, so you’ll need to lead by example. With tight deadlines, it can be tempting to switch to a faster channel of communication even if it’s not as effective. Don’t pick up the phone to call a colleague at half-past midnight if a brief email will work just as well. Finally, the more consistent your team becomes at playing by these rules, the faster they will realize the benefits of a structured approach to team communication.

We’ve found that a good blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication is what makes us most effective. From emailing long-term objectives to chatting about a quick text edit, our success comes from knowing when to communicate and how.

Your team is probably used to communicating and collaborating in a certain way, but if you can make it easier, why shouldn’t you? Go ahead, try Flock with your team today, and find new ways to make communicating easier for everyone.

Communication

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