The original genius of email was that the sender could launch her missive at a time convenient for her. The recipient could read it at a time convenient for him. Both parties could compose their thoughts without the immediate time pressure that being on the phone requires.
So much for that.
Thanks to smartphones in our pockets, email is always with us. When it comes to email response times, "The expectation has gotten worse because of this availability at your fingertips," says Aye Moah, chief of product and cofounder of Boomerang, which makes email productivity software. When people can respond immediately, it raises the question of exactly how long it's okay to wait to respond to an email.
The bad news from analyses of millions of emails is that people do expect swifter responses. The good news, however, is that you can manage this expectation, and buy yourself time if you need to.
First, the expectations. Unlike in the days when you had to get to a computer and use a dial-up connection (thus tying up your phone line), most people do respond to email quite quickly. Boomerang’s analysis has found that the average response time is 23 hours, but that’s because there is "a very long tail of people responding very, very late," says Moah (e.g., the guy who went on vacation and didn’t put his auto-responder on). The point at which 50% of responses have been sent is much sooner: two hours.
Other research has found similar numbers. A paper from researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering found that the most common email response time is two minutes. Half of responders in this study responded in just under an hour. About 90% of people who were going to respond did so within a day or two. Perhaps not surprisingly, younger people were quicker to respond than older people. People who responded on mobile devices responded much quicker than those using laptops.
The expectation is accelerating. Toister Performance Solutions, which helps organizations with customer service, does an annual survey on how swiftly customers expect businesses to respond to their emails. In 2014, a four-hour response time was deemed good (the point at which about 80% of people were happy). By 2015, this had moved up to about one hour. In 2014, only 4% of people said they expected a response within 15 minutes; by 2015, 14.5% expected that.
As for coworkers, the expectation is for a swift reply as well. More than 70% of people expected a response from coworkers within four hours; a bit over 30% expected a response within one hour.
This starts to become difficult to achieve. You can easily be driving somewhere for an hour during the day, or presenting in a meeting and hence unable to respond. Even if you are available, responding to more complicated requests might take several minutes, which means you could not respond to too many of these within an hour. Simply doing your job means you will be disappointing someone.
The good news, however, is that this realization is liberating. You simply cannot please everyone, and hence you don’t have to try to please everyone. In an era of immediate responses, "It’s harder for us to hold back and say, ‘I will respond when it is appropriate for me and when I have time,’" says Moah, but "I think there is a movement to hold back the tide."
Some companies have set an expectation that email will not be sent after hours. If the 50th percentile on email response time is around two hours, you can still be within the realm of normality in the 50th-90th percentile (somewhere between two hours to two days). Expectations can also vary from person to person, which means that if you email certain people frequently, over time you can train them to know that a longer response time is standard and not a sign of a problem.
As for people with swifter expectations? They will often identify themselves by their follow-up emails ("Did you get my email?") sent at just slightly longer than their expected turnaround time (Boomerang found that this is not a bad strategy for getting a response—25% of people did respond to a follow-up email). In the future, these people can be sent a short note within their window saying that you received their email and will respond at a time you name. Often that is enough to solve the expectation problem. It is like an old-fashioned secretary telling a caller that her boss is in a meeting, but will return a call at 3:30 p.m. To be sure, email was built to avoid that whole protocol, but in an era of instant responses, it has become necessary again.