When consultant and career coach Judith Kallos has a first meeting with a new client, she quickly manages communication expectations: “You can email me any time of the day, but I’m busy and have to get work done, so don’t always expect an immediate answer,” she explains. “And texting, while it can be conducive to some businesses, just doesn’t work for me,” she says.
Welcome to the age of amplified business communications, where multiple avenues to connect with colleagues and clients both online and offline are constantly diverging: emails, texts, virtual hangouts, social media connections, phone calls and, dare we say, face-to-face meetings. The increasingly sophisticated landscape has made it increasingly complex for business folks trying to manage professional relationships. Emma Russell, head of well-being at Work Research Group at Kingston Business School in London, recently conducted an extensive review of literature pertaining to the strategies that people use to manage their work email and came up with a magic number: It’s most effective to check your email every 45 minutes.
Frequent emails can be a time drain that deters you from the real, important work, Russell says. “When we are interrupted, our interrupted task needs to remain open, which is demanding, and we need to make a decision about whether to attend to the interruption or remain on task,” she says. “Whichever choice we make, we have to suspend the temporarily rejected task in mind, ready to return to at some point in the future.” Since our attention span lasts 45 minutes before we need to take a break, we should check emails to coincide with this natural need for breaks, Russell explains.
Another email no-no: firing off communications after business hours, she says. “We need to have time scheduled every day where we can physically recover from work,” Russell explains. “If we are ‘always on,’ research shows that this can negatively impact productivity and well-being.” She believes the habit is particularly detrimental to the state of well-being for individuals in a subordinate role, since it can create pressure to respond to emails outside of working hours.
Some experts, like Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, argue that Russell’s 45-minute email rule is actually too frequent. “When you check your email too often, you become reactive, not proactive,” she warns. “And the more email you send out, the more you’ll receive.” She recommends picking certain times throughout the day to check email, whenever it works best for you – but to keep this to around five times per day. “If you’re answering emails all day long, it will begin to dictate not only your workday but your life,” she says.
Indeed, answering emails is a slippery slope, and blasting off a reactive response could come back to haunt you. When in doubt, wait … and check that email only when you’re ready.
Below, some tips to manage workplace emails:
- Check email in 45-minute intervals, which coincides with natural attention breaks. “We end up being more inefficient by keeping interruptions switched on,” Russell says.
- Avoid reactive responding and send a “holding email” when needed. Example: Thank you – I got your email. I will get back to you when I have looked into this further.
- Refrain from delegating tasks to subordinates over email during non-working hours.
- Train new hires about email etiquette and expectations. Also communicate expectations with clients.
- Action emails after you read them. “Delete, file, reply or create a to-do task,” Russell suggests. “To read it and leave it seems to create overload and a lack of control or well-being,” she says.