Delayed interaction with email: It’s a triage thing.

It happens all the time because it’s part of human nature.

In the business world as in any other realm, it can be frustrating when emails that need a reply languish in a state of suspended animation.

And it happens a lot. A workplace study conducted recently by Dr. Bahareh Sarrafzadeh of the Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in concert with several Microsoft co-researchers, has found that putting off responding to incoming emails that need a reply happens in more than a third of the cases.

Titled Characterizing and Predicting Email Deferral Behavior, the research was compiled from interviews with Microsoft employees involved in product development, product management, software development and administrative management.  All participants in the research used the Microsoft Outlook platform on a daily basis.

Dubbing it “email triage,” the study defines the phenomenon as “the process of going through unhandled email and deciding what to do with it.”

Email deferral (as opposed to moving an email message to the trash folder), occurs because “people have insufficient time to take an immediate action, or they need to gather information before they can act on a message,” the study states.

Among the factors typically weighed during triage include these questions that people ask themselves:

  • Do I know the answer?
  • Does it require any task to be done?
  • What is the level of complexity involved?
  • Can I handle it independently?

So, the reasons for putting off a reply are perfectly reasonable ones. The problem comes after the fact, because delaying an immediate reply can sometimes turn into complete inaction.

The reasons for this are understandable as well — even if they are inconsiderate to the person who sent the original e-communique:

  • If other people are copied on the incoming email, the recipient may assume that someone else is handling the issues raised.
  • Emails that contain attachments – particularly larger documents – are often put off for scrutiny at a later time, thereby delaying a response.
  • Emails that don’t specify a deadline for receiving a response can easily get pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Thus, a delayed response often means procrastination — or simply “out of sight/out of mind” forgetfulness as other business tasks intervene.

The published research paper can be viewed in its entirety here.  Bear in mind that the University of Waterloo research studied email triage behaviors in a business- and project-management environment. It’s even more dicey when we think of sales- and marketing-oriented communications.  If more than one-third of business management emails aren’t getting timely attention, we can be pretty certain that the engagement with other e-communications is lower still.

But there’s a cost to all of this delayed action (or inaction).  In the “business of business,” putting off providing a response contributes to a loss of project or organizational momentum. Sometimes all it takes is inaction on the part of one or two pivotal players to make an important project initiative grind to a complete halt.

That doesn’t work well for anyone.

Sitting on my desk now, I have no fewer than five projects that have limped along for the better part of two years, simply because at too many points along the way, email responses that should have taken days (or mere hours) to be received have taken weeks or even months instead.  Recurring queries to see if the projects are still active or relevant are answered in the affirmative … but then the waiting game continues.

What about your experiences? Does email triage hurt your own personal productivity or that of your office?  What have you done to get around the hurdles?

One thought on “Delayed interaction with email: It’s a triage thing.

  1. Your point about email attachments certainly rings true. I manage to lead a life relatively free of task pile-up, but the presence of a PDF file filled with data still fills me with terror and spurs procrastination.

    Managing PDFs remain a curiously frustrating adventure in overshoot, undershoot and slipping sideways in touchpad crosswinds. The public needs a better format. After struggling with Adobe, I feel I should be awarded wings for landing there successfully.

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