Skip to main content

In an earlier article on Communications, I wrote about the speed of response and what impact the communication method you choose can have:

How quickly does your message need to be sent out and how quickly do you need a response?  Also, consider if your communication needs immediate feedback and live interaction (face to face, phone, video-chat).  Simultaneity is great if we want to toss ideas back and forth in real time, but it can also be inefficient because of scheduling.

I wanted to expand upon that idea because with most clients, one of the first (of many) questions I ask in my “discovery” phase is how quickly team-members are expected to respond to internal and external communications. For most teams, this expectation or norm is never really called out and established. This can lead to confusion, mismanaged expectations, and an “always on” culture that can serve to erode work/life balance.

Another problem with fostering an immediate response culture is that the focus on messaging and responding diminishes the time and focus available for doing deep work. If you have not read the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, I highly recommend you do:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

This explains why I have one client who gets frustrated when he gets immediate responses to his emails from his team. He wants them working on their projects, not sitting in front of their computer, waiting for new email to come in. His feeling is that these team members are allowing incoming email to determine their work, which is a highly reactive approach to productivity. For more information on creating a trusted system of productivity, please read my Productivity article.

What’s the appropriate response time?

So how quickly do you need to respond to internal messages? How quickly do you need to respond to clients or vendors or other stakeholders? The answers will vary from industry to industry, and company to company, but it’s a good conversation to have internally, taking all perspectives into account, and it’s a good standard to broadcast so that everyone knows what’s expected of them, and when they can expect their answers and responses.

At one company I worked for we were expected to respond to clients within 24 hours and expected to respond internally to one another within 48 hours. What I noticed however, is that if I started responding to emails right away, the established time frames become null, and the expectation shifted that I would immediately respond back. This led to those “I didn’t hear from you yet” phone calls and follow-on emails that only served to create more input and more distraction.

It’s important when you set this response time standard that everyone understands it and upholds it within your team.

Urgent Communication

Obviously, there are going to be some situations that demand a response or consideration right now. This is where picking up the phone, instant messaging or direct-to-direct communication might be better. If you do need an immediate response to an email, it’s important to call out its urgent nature and acknowledge the exception to the standard. Of course, use caution: if everything starts to become “urgent” then nothing really is, and the standard is rendered meaningless.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to revisit the time frames you establish as work changes, and you encounter vendors, clients, or other external stakeholders with different response requirements. It may be a monthly check-in that you have with your team “do these response expectations still work for us?” This will not only allow you to adapt as necessary, but it will also allow you to reinforce what you have previously established so that the standard remains fresh in everyone’s minds.

In closing, a few key recommendations:

  1. Set a standard for response time
  2. Be mindful of what’s actually urgent and therefore an exception
  3. Monitor the standard so it stays relevant.
  4. Repeat the messaging as necessary to reinforce the standard.

As usual I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please reach me at [email protected]