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We are breaking down everything you need to know about the rules of work communication just in time for Email Forgiveness Day.

How Soon Should You Respond To A Work Email?

In today’s connected world, it seems as if we are expected to always be on; quick to respond to your boss’s early morning text message, fast with an insightful follow up to your client’s weekend email, or snappy with helpful advice to your coworkers last-second Slack message. This always-on mentality is accelerating business growth and advancing careers faster than ever before. 

On the other hand, unlimited access to one another has created a wealth of frustration when the so-called rules of communication are broken. But therein lies the problem: what are the proper rules of communication, what is an acceptable time to respond, and what are the consequences of poor follow-through in a workplace setting? 

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To help answer these questions, I turned to the best communicators I know, hoping to find a common ground in business communication etiquette. 

A prompt reply

On any given day you may receive tens, or even hundreds, of emails. Responding to a portion of these emails can be time-consuming and distracting, but leaving an email unanswered for too long can create significant blowback from the initial sender. 

The feeling of being heard is important to many people and an unanswered email can create more than a moment of frustration. Freeman Bedwell goes as far as saying “…a lack of response shows a lack of respect for that sender.” 

To avoid others from feeling disrespected, Courtney Henderson gives herself 24-hours to reply. “If I know it will take me longer, I send a note confirming I’m on it with a general idea of when I will realistically get to it. That way I still get to it when I can, but they aren’t left feeling like I’ve totally blown them off or like I don’t care.”

While Henderson strives to reply within 24-hours, others are even more specific with their response goals. John Strang, product manager at InspectionXpert recognizes how important it is to promptly reply to his customers, “I’ve had a lot of customer-facing roles and one of the easiest ways to develop trust with the customer is to respond consistently. Early on, I gave myself a rule that I’d not leave work until I responded to all customer emails.” Because of that daily commitment to client communication Strang says, “I’ve been able to maintain inbox zero about 90 percent of the time.” 

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And he’s not the only one that connects inbox zero with business growth. “My belief is that if it’s possible, it would improve relationships and connections in the business place, to have prompt responses always. I think it would help businesses grow faster,” says Johnny Murdock, cofounder at VidArmy. 

Create a system

Murdock continues, “I need to be better at accomplishing inbox zero,” but even he recognizes achieving inbox zero is easier said than done. Makenah Tippets shares her system, “I work in a very customer facing job and we have a goal to respond to all customer correspondence within an hour. I’ve found that setting aside about a 60 minute block for ‘flow time’ where I’m just working on projects, and then a 30 minute block for emails and other correspondence has worked really well.” 

Others are using the features built into their email host or communication tool to simplify their inbox even more. “I have tons of rules set up to filter emails automatically into folders or subfolders,” said Henderson. “This is the only way I find that I don’t just end up constantly stopping and starting to answer emails that could’ve waited.”

Bedwell takes a similar approach to Henderson using rules to manage the type of emails hitting his inbox, “Setting up rules is a powerful tool to obtain zero email status. If you get daily emails from a certain email or provider that doesn’t require a response, or an immediate response, set up a rule that such emails go to a particular folder. It helps keep your email from getting clogged up.” 

Do your part

Lisa White takes it a step further by sending clear, compelling emails that are easy for her audience to manage. This way you’re more likely to get a swift response, because you’ve done most of the heavy lifting. “It’s equally important for the sender to make sure the email is quickly consumable by its recipient.  First, make sure the recipient knows why they are receiving the email. Email subject lines like ‘Question’ or ‘Inventory’ make the reader do all of the work.  Frame the call to action in the email.”

Johanna Stagge, who receives a few hundred emails every day – many of which are of low importance, echoes this approach. “Only include those who need to be included, and think twice before you ‘reply all’. When sending a group email, send it BCC so people cannot ‘reply all,’ even if by accident. And, if it’s longer than two paragraphs, it likely should be a phone call.”

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White sums it up nicely, “Don’t make the recipient work so hard. We send emails to share information and to request information or action.  It’s essential that we make it easy for the reader.” 

Forgiving poor email etiquette

If you find yourself struggling to keep up with the daily grind of emails, DM’s, InMail, text threads, slack messages, or more don’t fret. Gimlet Media (a podcast company) has created a new holiday known as Email Forgiveness Day

On September 30th, all email debt is forgiven, allowing you to reply to any emails that slipped through the proverbial cracks during the past year. Use this opportunity to start unapologetically catch up on your inbox, and start anew. Because as Paul J. Meyer so eloquently said, “Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.”

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