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How long should e-mail wait?

Posted on | November 7, 2007 | No Comments

Perhaps a better title to this blurb might be “How long does buried junk live in the Slashdot Firehose before dying?”. I submitted a simple question a few months, back, its in no danger of being run, so I’m asking it here.

How long do you wait for replies to e-mails before wondering why you have not received a reply? This question has been asked many times before, however trends involving how we use technology change rapidly, so I’m asking the question again.

Recent studies have described a technology overload in the work place. Workers must attend to many more things at once, e-mail, instant messages, 2 or sometimes 3 phones ringing, more if you administrate a network. Studies show that people feel guilty if they don’t check work e-mail on off hours, even holidays. I know someone who ducked outside of his own mother’s funeral to answer a stupid question from a co-worker on his blackberry.

I’m really wondering, what is the expected time for a reply to an e-mail? If I don’t answer something within 24 hours, will the sender automatically think that I’m ignoring them, or that the message somehow got lost? Sure, you would naturally assume that the importance of the message dictated its place in your personal information triage, however I don’t think that is entirely true.

I receive, on average, 100 – 150 emails a day that (should be) replied to the same day. An additional 20 – 30 might be able to wait a few days, some can go as long as a week. However, we all have (roughly) the same expectancy of when a reply (of any importance) should come in. For most people, this seems to be about 12 hours. Some who e-mail me frequently often re-forward an e-mail that has gone without a reply for more than eight hours just to be sure ‘it did not get lost or buried’.

I wish that we could add a “Reply expected within” field to e-mail, at least I’d know when I’m dealing with someone impatient who might keel over from an anxiety attack if I go to lunch before replying :)

How long before you feel brushed off, ignored or lost in transit?

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