We live in an age of constant connectivity. As a result, it's easier than ever to send written communication. It's also easier than ever to respond to messages. 

Which begs the question:

Exactly how long should it take to respond to an email?

That's the topic Richard Moran addressed in a recent post for LinkedIn. Moran is a venture capitalist and bestselling business author, who most recently served as CEO of management consulting firm Frost and Sullivan.

According to Moran, there are general guidelines that you won't see written down in an employee manual, but which apply in the modern workplace:

"An e-mail needs to be returned the same day. Probably."

"A text should be returned within an hour. Probably."

Break these rules, says Moran, and you risk receiving the worst label at all when it comes to work.

Not sloppy. Not lazy, or clueless.

You risk being called:

Unresponsive.

"An unresponsive coworker sends out tacit messages to others that I am too busy to respond or that you are not important enough for me to respond," says Moran. "Either way, neither is a response that will endear you to coworkers."

Moran went on to say that with the pace of the workplace moving so fast, a good rule to follow is "the quicker the response, the better."

Hmm.

There's a lot to unpack with this opinion. Let's break down the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good

There's actually research to support Moran's assertion.

For example, research firm Gallup found that engagement was highest among employees who had daily communication with their managers.

"And when employees attempt to contact their manager," said Gallup, "engaged employees report their manager returns their calls or messages within 24 hours."

Responding quickly to written communication helps to build trust in your relationships. As I've written in the past, it's one way to exercise emotional intelligence in the real world:

Consistent communication allows you to stay in touch with another person's reality. You become quickly aware of their highs and lows, and how they deal with them. Further, you send the message that what's important to them is important to you.

But, and it's a big but...major problems crop up when you try to respond to every message as quickly as possible.

The bad (and the ugly)

While I support general responsiveness to written communication, emotional intelligence is more than building relationships. It also involves learning to manage your own emotions.

That includes setting your own priorities, instead of letting others dictate them to you.

"We, collectively, get less done, add to our own stress, and set a bad precedent around 'presence' (both at work and at home) by being hyper-responsive," wrote Allyson Tessmann, a Sales Engineer based in Boston, on LinkedIn. 

"Setting some boundaries on when you're heads down in work, when you're getting R&R, and when you're available to respond to emails doesn't equate to being unresponsive," Tessmann continued. "It's about maximizing your productivity...The whole point of email is that I can contact you directly, even if I may not be able to get ahold of you in person/by phone right at this moment. It is, by its nature, supposed to be for people to be able to get back to you when it is convenient for them."

Tessmann hits the nail on the head. 

What I see more and more of today are leaders and teams who are so concerned at being responsive, they often give thoughtless (or wrong) answers...which can lead to hours of lost work time at best--and complete disaster at worst.

Additionally, hyper-responsive individuals tend to live in a state of constant distraction. You check emails constantly, even when working on tasks that require careful, undivided attention...or while at meetings (or lunch) with your colleagues.

Which, of course, to those colleagues makes you seem...

Unresponsive.

The final answer

To Moran's credit, he did say that "acceptable and exact response times today are a moving target with lots of variables that dictate the right answer." 

And that's exactly right.

Because the correct answer to: "How long should it take you to respond to written workplace communication?" is...

It completely depends.

It depends on you.

It depends on your colleagues.

It depends on your clients and customers.

And, it depends on your priorities.

To correctly answer the "How long should it take" question, you need to figure out (or establish) the norms and expectations that work for everyone. If taking an extra day or two to respond to an email will result in a superior response, most people will be willing to wait. 

Of course, you won't go wrong following Moran's final piece of advice.

If you're too busy for an appropriate response, says Moran, a quick, five-word message just might do the trick:

"I got it. Stay tuned."

Published on: Jul 3, 2019
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