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Work & Purpose

How Fast Should You Reply to Work Emails?

Most people expect a reply within 12 to 24 hours — some a lot sooner


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.)

When you get a work email, do you (a) reply immediately, (b) let out an expletive or (c) think on it? And — what if it’s on the weekend?

 
The majority of people (52 percent) who send a work-related email expect a reply within 12 to 24 hours, according to a new survey of 1,500 people by MailTime.com, an app that aims to organize and simplify emails. But 60 percent of people say they will wait two days to reply to their email.

At work, nearly 1 in 5 people expect you to answer an email within 12 hours and almost no one (3 percent) tolerates a week-long wait. However, 10 percent of people say they’re prepared to wait a week for an answer to a personal email.

 
In reality, people respond even more often than that. Nearly one-third of employees respond to emails at work within 15 minutes and almost one-quarter of people within 30 minutes, according to a 2013 survey of over 500 U.S.-based employees by research company Opinion Matters for GFI Software, a software and Internet security company. And 70 percent of workers use work email to send personal emails, too, even though they remain the property of the company and can be easily read by the IT department.

(MORE: 3 Ways to Boost Your Productivity)

It May Depend on Your Age
 
The popularity of instant messaging has put everyone on high alert, says Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success and founder of Millennial Branding, a management and consulting firm.

“People are more demanding, especially Millennials, and want real-time communication, which is why texting, instant messaging and Facebook chat are so popular,” he says. “If you don’t hear from someone in an hour, you immediately feel like they are ignoring you because you’re used to instant gratification.”

 
The answer? Respond promptly.

Waiting 12 hours to answer a work email is one surefire way to lose business and alienate people. “Turnaround demand is at least twice that fast,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of public relations consultancy Bernstein Crisis Management. “I have both landed and retained business because of how promptly I respond.”

(MORE: 8 Technologies Boomers Need to Learn)

The One-Minute Rule

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, spent a year trying out studies and philosophies about what makes people happy: She recommends the “one minute rule” for all tasks so they take up less space in your head. If it takes less than one minute to respond, do it.

 
But that doesn’t mean taking it to extremes and setting an expectation that you will check your email outside of office hours.

Worried about job security, some people never switch off. “There is a sense of courtesy when it comes to workplace communication,” Schawbel says. “If you aren’t responsive to emails, it paints a negative image of you as lazy at work.”

Over 50 percent of adults said they check work messages at least once a day on the weekend, as well as before and after work and when they’re home sick, a 2013 survey of more than 1,000 people by the American Psychological Association found.

(MORE: A Vacation Without Email?)

 
But happy employees know when to switch off. Resisting the lure of the inbox cuts down on bad moods and stress, according to a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published in the latest issue of the journal, Computers in Human Behavior. Some 124 adults — including students, financial analysts and medical professionals — were instructed to limit checking email to three times a day for one week, while others were told to check email as often as possible. Those who checked their emails less often were less stressed.
 

Quentin Fottrell writes for MarketWatch. You can reach him at [email protected]

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