One Day, One Week: What’s the Rule for Answering Emails?

September 20, 2013 Veronica Maria Jarski

I recently received a phone call from a potential guest blogger asking me to hurry and respond to an email that he sent. The previous day. Which was a Saturday. At first, I was a little annoyed but then wondered, “Is the caller’s expectation justified in today’s hyperconnected world?”

A recent Toister Performance Solutions study asked survey takers, “How quickly should a business respond to email?” A total of 61% of survey respondents said they expect a response within 24 hours; 18% expected a quicker response—within four hours.

The survey takers’ expectations seem to be the norm. In an Job Doc column, Peter Post, author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business, says, “Typically, the book on responding to emails is either the same day or within twenty-four hours.”

Though people who email a company expect a response within 24 hours, however, most folks have much higher expectations for responses from their co-workers. According to the Toister Performance Solutions study, “nearly 75% of people expect their co-workers to respond to their emails within four hours or less.” Some 48% of survey respondents expected an email response within four hours while 26% expected one within one hour.

Are those expectations reasonable?

To find out, I asked my colleagues, “Do you have a self-imposed rule for answering emails? How quickly do you respond to one?”

The answers varied. Some colleagues respond to emails almost immediately.

“24 hours? More like 24 minutes. But I am always doing triage in my head. Some can wait (I give them a red flag for follow-up) but others just can’t.” (Daniele Hagen)

“I have this self-imposed ‘must reply now’ rule, which can be a blessing and a curse. I’m highly OCD, so if my inbox gets out of hand I can’t function. I like to deal with the email and move on as quickly as I can.” (Courtney Bosch)

“I try to respond immediately because I tend to forget (not that any of you have experienced that) if I don’t. I don’t know that it’s a rule so much as a necessity. I do use red flags for emails of VERY low importance that I want to revisit…” (Corey O’Loughlin)

“I tend to read and respond if the email requires a response right away. However, I did take a time-management course that really recommends you only read your email three times per day: when you get in, lunch time, and before you leave. This leaves you with productivity time to get your job done while still reading emails every few hours. So, responding right away is all a matter of perspective to when you actually read them vs. when you received them.” (Dana Ironside)

Another colleague followed the “24-hour rule” in replying to emails.

“(I respond) within a business day. Sometimes, I write a response, however, and because I want to review the contents for tone or content, I don’t send it right away, only to discover it languishing in my drafts long after I thought it had gone.” (James Kelly)

A few folks said the turnaround time depends on the context of the email.

“For me, it depends on the amount of work required. If I can resolve right away, something that I just need to convey that I’ve read, or something high priority that I need to set expectations for, I usually respond within 15 to 30 minutes. If it’s lower priority or I’m working on a high-priority project that I can’t jump off, it might be a couple of hours. If it’s something hard, or that takes a lot of work, or that I need other people to respond to first before I comment then it gets flagged so I don’t forget to tackle the project (because everything read/done goes into an archive file right away, because I can’t deal with visual clutter). For those, I usually acknowledge the sender, but it may take quite a while to actually get back with the project/data/details/thoughtful recommendations. In my head, this system works, though too much stuff falls into the ‘I need to respond right away’ category.” (Jo Roberts)

“Context dependent for me… When a key client (or prospect) or my boss, my reply doesn’t wait. I do, in general, ‘live in my inbox’ and so tend to be like O’Loughlin and Courtney. At times, I try to force myself to allocate a chunk of time each day when I avoid the inbox to concentrate on selling. Our sales role doesn’t often require us to get into ‘deep projects’ needing uninterrupted hours of focus, so I gravitate back to the inbox as so much of my sales activity is there anyway.” (Tobias Schremmer)

So, readers, what’s your rule for answering emails? Do you give yourself 24 hours to respond or answer immediately? Or do you have a system set up for answering emails? Share your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear about how you folks handle your email.

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