How quickly a colleague responds to our well-crafted email or how quickly we respond in turn usually becomes a factor of how busy we are and how important we perceive the subject to be at a given point in time. We email for a reason and expect a quick answer—we know the message is in the recipient’s inbox waiting to be downloaded or read usually within minutes or hours of hitting the send button—so why aren’t they responding?
Most of us believe one working day is the acceptable amount time we should wait for a response to an email (see the graphic depicting Forrester’s survey of US workplace attitudes taken at the end of 2012.) 55% of respondents stated that one working day was the acceptable time to expect a reply while one third of respondents peg the email lag between 1 and 4 hours. Some emails will need prioritizing above others but we also know that some days you simply cannot respond to everyone as soon as you can—and if you did, it would surely kill productivity as you constantly monitor your email inbox. Managing and keeping on top of email is the thing that causes many problems in our working lives. It's an incredible tool but fears are growing that managing email takes too much of our time. Email can hound you. You want to know what's in there, especially if it’s an email from your boss so you break off what you are doing to read the email. And the more distracted you are by email then the less productive you are.
Perception is the key to understanding how quickly we respond to those who take the time to email us (email spammers and thoughtless “respond all” aside.) There is no firm rule for how quickly we should respond but we all know the unspoken rule is as “soon as you can”. The Forrester data goes on to reveal that 3% of respondents see 5 minutes as the acceptable email lag—and if the job demands real time customer communication, like in a customer contact centre, then that is completely understandable. The more nuanced view is that some e-mails need prioritizing so the best you can do is to adopt the defacto position which is to reply to everyone as soon as you can. Email isn’t just about you, how busy you are or what you feel is important to you at that specific point in time—there’s another person involved (the sender) who e-mailed you for a reason and is expecting your prompt response. Perhaps we need rules not so much on what the agreed time is but keeping those that we communicate with informed as to status—and avoid misunderstandings in the process.