The expense of synchronous communication in companies

It is clear there is only so much synchronous communication a person can participate in. There is a natural limit to the amount of time you can spend coordinating with others in real-time, and ultimately, the rhythm of your workday defines the upper limit.

The problem is that the need for synchronous communication competes with the need for productivity.

Sometimes when I hear a colleague lament that they “spent the whole day in meetings again” or they’re halfway through a “meeting marathon,” I think to myself: Don’t they have anything else to do? And I don’t even let myself start thinking about the cost. After all, since there are always several people involved in coordinating synchronously, it all adds up.

Synchronous communication has its place

But no, this isn’t supposed to be one of those manager’s pleas to their employees. In my opinion, synchronous communication is important and valuable for the company, and I don’t think of meetings as business theatrics per se.

If the topic really is relevant for those taking part, and on the flip side, those taking part are important for the subject, a meeting can be a very productive thing. In fact, agile teams need regular meetings; for them, they are a prerequisite for productive teamwork.

But synchronous communication is expensive because the capacity they require is a scarce commodity. I want to foster an understanding of the fact that I turn down some offers to discuss things in person.

Synchronous communication in meetings has its place, but not all the time.

Meeting rooms – they can stay empty more often, as far as I’m concerned (image: Pixabay with CC0 license)

Asynchronous communication offers more flexibility

My point is that in many cases, communicating asynchronously is by no means detrimental to a collaboration – that is, via chat (if you consider it to be a non-synchronous tool), in a wiki, as part of comments on Jira issues or, as far as I’m concerned, via email when talking to external parties.

There are clear advantages to this type of communication: Asynchronous communication can take place anywhere with anyone. I can participate in much more asynchronous communication, much more frequently. I can communicate when I want and as much as I want because the person I’m talking to doesn’t have to be available at that precise moment. In the evenings, I can comment on a microblog post or a Jira ticket from the comfort of my own couch and take part in the discussions. And it only takes the person reading it a fraction of the time to do so.

It’s not one size fits all

True, this approach can go pear-shaped sometimes. I have seen Jira tickets and wiki pages with ridiculously long (and long-winded) discussions in the comments. Perhaps it would’ve been a better idea to sit down together for half an hour to find a solution to the issue?

On the other hand, everyone has experienced a meeting, where you sit there and think: What am I doing here? This topic isn’t really important enough for me to invest half an hour of my time. Leaving a comment on a wiki page would’ve done the job too.

In reality, no single perfect approach makes sense for all team members in any situation. Teamwork is complex. The ideal way of doing things is not always clear in advance. But it is advisable to strike a balance.

Is it important for me?

The next time someone says to you, “Let’s sit down and talk about it…” my advice would be to think about whether it’s really so important to you that you are willing to use your limited capacity for synchronous communication for it.

As an employee, I owe it to my company to try to work effectively – and if I can do it efficiently as well, then all the better. Sure, many meetings are effective. But when you look at the cost-benefit ratio, most of them can be placed in the “waste of time” category.

Active and conscious choices

Asynchronous communication with wikis, Jira, and messenger apps help to prepare meetings, evaluate them, and in some cases render them superfluous. Not using this potential could be a significant disadvantage for companies in the coming years; it could even turn into a full-blown economic problem.

And so I recommend starting now. Begin by making more active and conscious choices – firstly for yourself and then within the company – about what you do in person and in real time, and what you can do digitally and asynchronously.

Of course, every employee needs to find a middle ground for themselves. But that starts by not simply accepting every meeting request without hesitation and being confident enough to say no when necessary. The fact is that our capacity for synchronous communication is limited. That’s why we need to choose carefully when we use it.

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Further information

“I intend to…”- Why modern companies need a culture of empowerment
Reducing off-the-record business communication
The Seven Imperatives to Keeping Meetings on Track
5 Simple Tricks We Use to Make Meetings Suck Less
Science Has Some Suggestions for Making Meetings Productive