E-mail response time expectations: “The faster the better.”

e-mail inbox managementEver since the advent of e-mail communications, there’s tended to be a feeling that correspondence sent via this mode of delivery is generally more “pressing” than correspondence delivered the old-fashioned way via postal mail.

After all, people don’t call postal mail “snail mail” for nothing.

At the same time, one would think that the proliferation of e-mail volumes and the today’s reality of groaning inboxes might be causing an adjustment of thinking.

Surely, most of the e-mail doesn’t need a quick response, does it?

If 80% or more of today’s e-mail is the equivalent of the junk mail that used to fill our inbox trays in the office in the “bad old days,” why wouldn’t we begin to think of e-mail in the same terms?

But a new survey of workers appears to throw cold water on that notion.

The survey of ~1,500 adults was conducted by MailTime, Inc., the developer of a smartphone e-mail app of the same name.  The survey found that a majority of respondents (~52%) expect a response to their work-related e-mail communiqués within 24 hours of hitting the send button.

Moreover, nearly 20% expect a response in 12 hours or less.

While the survey encompassed just users of MailTime’s app, the findings are likely not all that different for office workers as a whole.

Why is that?  I think it’s because, in recent years, the e-mail stream has become more “instant” rather than less.

Back in the early days of e-mail, I can recall that many of my work colleagues checked their e-mail inboxes three times during the day:  early in the morning, over the lunch hour, and as they were wrapping up their workday.

That’s all out the window now.  Most people have their e-mail alerts set for “instantaneous” or for every five or ten minutes.

With practices like that being so commonplace, it’s little wonder that people expect to hear a response in short order.

And if a response isn’t forthcoming, it’s only natural to think one of three things:

  • The e-mail never made it to the recipient’s inbox.
  • The recipient is on vacation, out sick, or otherwise indisposed.
  • The recipient is ignoring you.

I think there’s an additional dynamic at work, too.  In my years in business, I’ve seen e-mail evolve to becoming the “first line of contact” — even among colleagues who are situated in the same office.  Younger workers especially eschew personal interaction — and even phone contact — as modes of communication that are needlessly inefficient.

Of course, I can think of many instances where e-communications can actually contribute to inefficiencies, whereas a good, old-fashioned phone call would have cut to the chase so much more easily and quickly.

But even with that negative aspect, there’s no denying the value of having a record of communications, which e-mail automatically provides.

And here’s another thing:  MailTime estimates that around two-thirds of all e-mails are first opened on a smartphone or tablet device — so message deliverability is just as easy “on the go” as it is in the office.

It’s yet another reason why so many people expect that their communiqués will be opened and read quickly.

I agree that e-mails are easy and convenient to open and read on a mobile device.  But sometimes the response isn’t nearly so easy to generate without turning to a laptop or desktop computer.

So as a courtesy, I’ll acknowledge receipt of the message, but a “substantive” response may not be forthcoming until later.

… And then, when others don’t show a similar kind of courtesy, I think many of us notice!

Some larger companies with employees who are more geographically far-flung have actually adopted guidelines for e-mail etiquette, and they’ve applied them across every level of the company.

It seems like a good idea to get everyone’s expectations on the same page like that.

Incidentally, the preferred scenario for responding to personal e-mails isn’t really all that different from work-related expectations, even though personal communiqués aren’t usually as time-sensitive.  Respondents in the MailTime survey said that they expect to receive a response to a personal e-mail within 48 hours.  For nearly everyone, waiting a week is far too long.

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