People often feel that when it comes to email they are always on call. But the pressure to answer emails immediately should be resisted, says communications expert Monica Seeley.

Technology is accelerating email response times, creating unrealistic expectations, email overload, errors and costly workplace stress.

A few years ago, a response to an email was expected within a few days or even a week. However, Mesmo Consultancy’s latest survey reveals that today a quarter of us expect a response within the hour.

Over a third of us, expect a reply within two hours and over two-thirds within half a day. Only a quarter of us think a response within one day is acceptable and only seven percent of us are prepared to wait two days.

Graph showing who expects the fastest email response times?

Image: Monica Seeley/Mesmo Consultancy

Today’s always-on culture of email, smartphones and social media means we expect almost instant responses to our communications.

We pressure ourselves into thinking that most email has to be answered and often as soon as it arrives. We are confusing speed of email response with effectiveness and allowing technology to dictate and potentially damage the way we work.

Some examples from clients include requests for meetings sent half an hour before the meeting. Yet critical participants are already in meetings with no access to email. The organiser then wonders why key people are missing.

The recipient may be in a front-line customer service role – for example, a store manager – dealing with a client, yet he or she is being pressured for a reply to an email, often from an internal sender. This pressure for fast responses is just another example of the stress-induced email overload.

Graph showing the time within which an email response is expected

Image: Monica Seeley/Mesmo Consultancy

However much of the pressure for fast replies is in the mind of the recipient. Many senior managers say they are often surprised by how quickly people respond to their emails.

That responsiveness is borne out by the survey, which shows that most respondents – 83 per cent – feel internal senders expect a quicker reply than external senders and 87 per cent believe senior managers expect a faster response than junior managers.

Similarly, more than three-quarters, or 76 per cent, of respondents strongly believe that people picking up email on smartphones such as a BlackBerry or an iPhone expect…

…a faster reply than those dealing with email on a conventional PC or laptop.

The survey also highlights double standards on email response times. Although most of us now expect a response within half a day, almost two-thirds – some 60 per cent – of respondents admitted they only sometimes leave people sufficient time to respond to their emails and only a third – 39 per cent – of respondents think they frequently leave enough time.

Graph showing how much time people allow for responses to their emails

Image: Monica Seeley/Mesmo Consultancy

That is a worrying trend, as emails often need a substantive response. Data needs collecting, case law needs referencing and the faster we respond, the faster the other person will expect a reply.

Moreover, sometimes a delay can mean the problem is either resolved or changes and a very different response is needed.

To help reduce unrealistic expectations and unnecessary emails we need to improve our email etiquette and behaviour. We need to recalibrate people’s expectations. Here are four specific strategic considerations that will help:

  1. Produce explicit response time guidelines. Clearly they need to take account of different types of emails – for example, meeting requests, helpline enquiries and order chasing.
  2. Develop tactics to manage expectations. For example, include a line in the standard signature block about how quickly to expect a reply under normal circumstances.
  3. Educate people about the alternatives to email when it’s urgent – for example, encourage them to talk face-to-face, use the phone, or instant messaging where appropriate.
  4. Encourage people to think ahead and plan what information they need and by when, and then work back to how much lead time they need to give the recipient. The gap between sending the email and expecting the reply should equal the time it will take the other person to do the task, be it simple to complex.

‘Respond in haste and repent at leisure’ has been the mantra of many who have found their email used as evidence in a dispute. Either a wrong or unplanned response can be costly to you personally and your organisation, as many have found.

Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, and has just written her third book Brilliant Email published by Pearson. You can follow her daily email tips and hints on Twitter.