It's Saturday afternoon. You're taking a walk. You want the exercise, but that's also when you do some of your best thinking.

And then it hits you: the answer to a logistics problem you've been struggling to solve. So you pull out your phone and dash off an email to the head of your shipping department.

To you, that email is like an entry on a to-do list. An idea you don't want to forget, a task you plan to follow up on Monday. Within moments, you've forgotten all about it.

Until 30 minutes later, when she emails a long, descriptive, and comprehensive response.

"She didn't have to email me back," you think. "There's nothing we can do about it now. She could have waited until Monday."

Actually, she couldn't wait until Monday. Not in her mind.

Research slated for publication in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes shows that co-workers significantly overestimate how quickly senders expect replies to non-urgent emails -- especially those sent outside "normative" hours like nights or weekends.

The researchers call it "email urgency bias," a phenomenon caused at least in part by the fact that response speed has increasingly become a proxy for dedication and hard work. (The same way many managers see working long hours -- call it the "butts in seats" bias -- as a proxy for productivity.)

Another reason relates to closure. Sending that Saturday email gives you a sense of closure. You've thought outside the box. You've cracked the code. Boom: It's done.

Your head of shipping doesn't feel that sense of closure; in fact, receiving the email triggers her own desire for closure. Which means she has to respond.

The quicker the better, both because she thinks you expect it and also because then she, too, can try to put the matter aside until Monday. 

So how, if you like to email people at night or on weekends, can you make the situation less stressful for recipients?

Include your response expectations in the email.

  • "Please don't feel the need to respond today. We can talk about it on Monday."
  • "I know you have a busy morning tomorrow, so if you can get back to me by the end of the day that would be great."
  • "We're meeting with the client next Friday, so let me know by Wednesday what you think."

What happens when you clarify your response expectations? The researchers found that -- unsurprisingly -- email urgency bias disappeared: The expectation for response time between senders and receivers was almost identical.

In addition, receivers' reported stress levels decreased and their overall sense of well-being increased.

But then there's this: Even if you say that you don't expect a response until tomorrow, some people will still think they need to respond more quickly. That you'll be impressed by their commitment. Their dedication. Their desire to exceed expectations.

Which means, if you send non-urgent emails outside of normal work hours, that some of your employees will never really get the chance to disconnect.

So put yourself in the shoes of other people and, at a minimum, start adding response expectations to your emails.

Better yet, stop sending non-urgent emails outside of normal work hours.

Write them, but schedule them to deliver at the start of tomorrow's workday. Or on Monday morning. Or take notes, and write those emails first thing in the morning. 

Sure, that won't be easier for you.

But it will be better for your employees.

And isn't that what matters most?