Email serves up a constant conundrum. We need it to get our work done, yet seeing the number of unread missives ratchet up over the course of the day can send even the most steady among us into a sweat. Unfortunately, we are often not our best selves coping with the onslaught and fail to reply.
The problem is that nothing can be more frustrating or cause more bottlenecks in productivity than waiting for a reply that never materializes.
If you’re constantly hitting refresh in hopes that you’ll finally get the answer you seek, it may help to know there are several reasons you’re getting radio silence.
It’s not you
Psychologists say that avoiding a simple task like answering email is often a by-product of anxiety–and a self-perpetuating cycle. “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape,” according to Alice Boyes.
There are other reasons people put off responding, according to JC Christensen, chief experience officer for Symphony Communication Services. “In email, the signal-to-noise ratio is terrible,” he says. Christensen points out how it’s become a notification channel for everything from changes in project management tracking software to document sharing. “It is also where I get my lunch order reminder, Expensify, Amazon, and Uber receipts,” he explains. “Email hasn’t fully figured out how to effectively filter this information for users,” Christensen continues, “and as a result, users now want to spend as little time there as possible.”
Indeed, in Symphony’s latest global collaboration survey, seven out of 10 of the nearly 1,600 respondents say that email makes them feel the most overwhelmed at work and they spend nearly a quarter of their day checking it. That’s higher than the average time spent doing actual work and moving projects forward, the survey found.
But that doesn’t mean people are actually responding, notes Christensen. Context switching is one of the hardest things for humans to do and remain productive, he says, especially when a good portion of work has moved to chat or other applications. “Going into email forces you to shift attention, which adds complexity and an additional ‘cost,'” he observes, “On top of that, email hasn’t yet figured out how to bring the context of a conversation or project onto its platform in a helpful way.”
Jim Link, the chief human resources officer at Randstad North America, posits that there could be yet another reason in play for the other person to ignore the email. A number of companies have recently put explicit policies in place stating employees are not required to answer emails after a certain hour, Link observes. “Even if their companies don’t have policies, many individuals are actively choosing not to engage with work once they come home to achieve better work-life balance, minimize screen time, and decompress from their day,” he explains.
What’s more, Link says, is that is could be a generational thing. “If we break down the frequency of checking email beyond the workday across generations, Gen Z is more apt to check in after work than any other generation,” he says, but they make up only the smallest component of the workforce right now.” He also points out that the content of most after-work email is usually not of immediate importance. “When you know you’re getting emails that don’t require a time-sensitive response, the urge to check [and therefore reply to] those emails drops significantly.”
Or maybe it IS you
“Sometimes, I know it’s because they’re busy and likely getting pelted with communications all day long,” says Ryan Wallace, vice president and general manager of PAN Communications New York. “But then there are times where I myself question if I was clear enough in an ask in my communication to them,” he says. If it’s the latter, he suggests going back over the note to try to make something actionable, “in a way that provides them the easiest chance to reply.”
Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs, concurs. Even if they know you, she says, the lack of response could indicate that they are either too overwhelmed with the amount of information you sent them and they don’t know exactly where or how to start responding. “Or they are unsure of exactly what you need or want from them,” she says.
To combat this in future correspondence, Wallace advises doing as much research up front to ensure the recipient can reply efficiently and quickly. “And don’t forget to give someone options–or an out,” he says. “You never want to paint someone into a corner where they feel obliged to make a hard decision. That’s a conversation for the phone, not email,” he recommends.
If it does come down to needing a phone call, Reynolds says your request should be very specific. Will it be a five-minute or 15-minute phone call? “Make a realistic estimate of the time you might need and let the person know they can contact you whenever it’s convenient for them,” she suggests.
Even though it sucks to be in limbo waiting for that elusive reply, Wallace underscores the importance of courtesy. “If you couch your asks with an option to let them know it is okay to not respond,” he says, it can help the recipient feel like you are empathizing with them for not responding immediately. “That also goes a long way if you do need a response from them in the future,” he notes. “They may become more willing to engage if you’re polite through and through.”