Why synchronous communication fails and how to make it work


Companies with remote employees like to hold on to synchronous communication as long as possible. Why that doesn't scale, and how you can incorporate "what you're used to" in your new workflow as a remote company.

The issue with Synchronous Communication

Synchronous Communication describes all forms of communication where a constant stream of communication is open. Messages are expected to be received instantly, it's therefore often a preferred communication medium for discussions and casual conversations, since it's very close to communicating face-to-face.

Examples of synchronous communication mediums are:

  • Phone Calls
  • Video Calls
  • Instant Messaging
  • Face-to-Face

A key aspect of synchronous communication, especially text-based, is that messages are often expected to be received and read instantly. That doesn't work very well with timezones, and early remote teams (or usually the people in a timezone far away) often have to learn that in a painful way.

The default in larger remote teams is therefore async. Communication forms like long-form text, e-mail or a more thoughtful way of instant messaging (which, in that case, is not instant anymore) works better for day-to-day communication, but does that means that you can't directly talk to your team anymore?

Synchronous Communication in remote teams is NOT dead

Synchronous communication often dominates day-to-day communication in co-located teams:

  • People have standup meetings in-person
  • Instead of messaging, people call or talk
  • Video calls are made with customers or people working from elsewhere
  • Communication between peers happen on instant messaging or in-person

In remote teams, at least after a certain size and distribution, that does not work anymore! With every call, every direct message, every ping and notification, you're risking bothering your team member at lunch, dinner or when they sleep. That's not a reasonable style of work to keep up for a long time.

However, doing things in a synchronous way can be beneficial in some cases. If you need to have a longer discussion that needs a prompt resolution, for things than can benefit from real-time collaboration and finally for socializing, doing things live and face-to-face can feel more natural to people. The focus shifts to asynchronous communication for all things day-to-day, and synchronous in special cases.

How synchronous meetings can be used, and how to make it work

As already discussed, most operational discussions can happen in an async manner. For the smaller part of meetings and discussions which would benefit from a sync meeting style, there are a few things to look for:

  • Meetings always need an agenda and fixed time
  • Face-to-face meetings should be optional-first and only make key people required
  • Meetings should either have a recording, summary or transcript attached for people that can't join

Finally, you need to be able to decide whether a sync meeting should come into place. There's a lot of intuiting behind this, and it's important to not let async communication let you make less productive here. A lot of this has also been discussed in the rest of the article, but synchronous meetings are best used for:

  • Discussions that need a timely verdict
  • Discussions that went back-and-forth too much
  • Socializing and sync calls
  • Casual chats between coworkers
  • Co-Working and Realtime Collaboration (Pair Programming)

Scenarios where synchronous meetings are possibly not suited:

  • Daily Standups
  • All-Hands (even though this can be nice if optional!)
  • Work Questions

Lastly, a common question from local teams: How can I ask someone for quick help asynchronously? The simple, but often not loved solution to this is Documentation and Transparency. If questions are open, they should be in a documentation. Anything else will make you less productive at times.

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