Brian Underwood: The responsibility of an email response

Dispatch: “911, please hold.”

Caller: “What!? (melody of Girl From Ipanema plays)

Dispatch: “911, what’s your emergency?”

Caller: “I was about to say that…

Dispatch: Please, hold.”

Caller: “Unbelievable, I can’t even get 911 to respond!” (music continues)

Dispatch: “911, what’s your emergency?”

Caller: “DON”T put me on hold again; I have a problem.”

Dispatch: “What’s your problem, sir?”

Caller: “You see, I…”

Dispatch: “Please hold.”

Caller: ARGH!

Dispatch: “911, what’s your emergency?”

Caller: Dial tone...

Response time matters. Clearly, life threatening situations depend upon it. And when you really think about it, we also have an obligation in every-day living to give one another timely responses to relevant inquiries we receive. It’s a matter of respect and courtesy.

Getting back to people in prompt fashion is a valuable personal habit to embrace. And when it comes to responding to email, it is also an invaluable imperative for emerging professionals who wish to rise up in the ranks.

According to a 2017 poll cited in the New York Times (Feb. 15, 2019), the average American has 199 unread emails in his/her inbox. That’s a lot of email. Some is undoubtedly spam, others are zany forwards from your Uncle Ned and his cadre of retired buddies, some may be FYIs not requiring a response, a few could be personal, and then there are the work emails.

A comprehensive study by USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers a few years ago (Forbes, November 2015) examined email responses, or the lack thereof. The study, which tracked more than 2 million users exchanging 16 billion emails over the course of several months, revealed that if an email response is going to come, 50 percent of the time it will occur in the first hour. The lack of a response within 48 hours showed that there is a 90 percent chance the email will not be returned.

So, if we look at the example of the 199 unread emails the average American carries, agree this total has a better-than-average chance of spiraling further — if not managed, and apply it to the USC study about response times, it’s entirely likely many e-mails will never be answered. And some of them can ill-afford not to be addressed.

Not responding to Uncle Ned probably won’t bother him too much, but it will definitely affect one’s business relationships, especially the one with the boss, and it will very likely affect one’s upward mobility.

In that vein, a team of researchers from Microsoft in 2016 released a study known as the Organizational Spectroscope (; April 1, 2016), which melded digital communication data, such as email, with such things as job titles, office locations, and employee satisfaction surveys to predict and explain outcomes of interest to employees, HR, and management.

Of the three survey questions studied, the first was “did teams have confidence in the overall effectiveness of their managers.” A strong common thread found a team’s perception of his/her boss’ effectiveness as a manager was tied to response time to emails.

To respond in a timely manner shows one is conscientious, organized, and dependable. How to manage and live up to professional netiquette standards of communication, though often challenging, is doable.

When it comes to responding to the ebb and flow of email amid the press of each unique work day, employing hard and fast rules is a little tricky. A common guideline suggested by many time management experts suggest that a short response is better than no response.

Not responding to a direct question can easily skew a sender’s perception. A brief response, or simple phrase indicating you received the email and will be back in touch, will afford you valuable time needed.

There are several email platforms out there, and each has its own unique settings and features. I use Gmail, and from a practical standpoint, I have found it helpful to use the setting which separates my read from unread mail. It’s not a novel idea, but it gives me clarity of what’s really in front of me, rather than scrolling and weaving through read and unread email.

A great resource for email organizational tips can be found by visiting Miss eM@nners at Her Top 10 Email Organizational Tips are excellent and easy to employ. Several of her suggestions, such as setting up filters to automatically direct junk mail, etc, how to manage your trash bin, and other valuable tips are worth reading.

Now, getting back to that 199, or so, unread email. It may take a marathon session to manage them at first, but with an informed and disciplined approach, one can begin to slowly lift the email monkey that’s hanging around. This is not to suggest it will ward off email tsunamis that tend to roll in from time to time, but it will provide a welcome reef.

We can’t all be first responders, but we can all be good responders.


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