Holding doors, saying “please” and “thank you” and practicing good table manners—most of us are well versed in these common social etiquette behaviors. But as technology and work arrangements evolve, the rules governing workplace communication etiquette may need to do the same. Do you have to respond to an email within a certain number of hours? How long do you have to send a message back to a colleague? And if your first communication goes unanswered, when should you follow up?
While norms and rules might vary by company, here are some general best practices for clear and concise communication.
The danger in not outlining communication expectations
Stress. Burnout. Having to be “always on,” even during off-hours. A BBC Worklife headline once referred to it as “The crippling expectation of 24/7 digital availability.”
Courtney Leyes is a Tennessee-based partner with Fisher Phillips, a nationwide labor and employment law firm. She often feels the need to immediately respond to emails.
“I try to respond as quickly as possible internally—internal referrals and reputation is important to me—and same for externally, the latest being 24 hours,” she says. “In my line of work, failing to respond could mean I lose out on a case or matter. A lot of these deadlines are self-imposed, and I wish I didn’t feel the need to immediately respond, but this would be quite the habit to break!”
As for Microsoft Teams messaging, Leyes doesn’t feel a need to respond right away.
“I use it mostly internally to bounce ideas off my friends,” she explains. “And send Schitt’s Creek gifs. No one holds anything against anyone if they don’t respond.”
General best practices for workplace communication
So what exactly are some good rules of thumb around communication efficiency?
- Try to respond to emails within 24 hours. If you don’t have an answer, say you’re working on getting one and you’ll respond with further information soon.
- Pick up the phone in lieu of an email if the tone or subject matter could be misinterpreted.
- When you need to send a follow-up email, the Harvard Business Review recommends front-end actions to get your initial email answered more quickly. Those include a strategic subject line, utilizing simple language and asking clear and direct questions. In general, you should send a follow-up email one week after the first email, though this could vary depending on how time-sensitive your request is.
- Respond thoughtfully to group emails, rather than feeling pressured to respond first.
- For messages, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman recommends using the status message as a guide for when to respond. “When your status is showing as online, your coworker or supervisor is likely expecting a quick response (within minutes),” she writes. “Consider making use of the ‘do not disturb’ or ‘busy’ feature when you need to work uninterrupted for blocks of time. After you wrap up your work day, take advantage of the various status options available, such as ‘away.’”
What can companies do to improve workplace communication expectations?
Leyes isn’t the only one who feels the need to respond to emails quickly. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant told The New York Times about a series of experiments conducted by researchers Laura Giurge and Vanessa Bohns that demonstrated an “email urgency bias.”
“When people received emails outside work hours, they thought senders expected faster replies than they did,” Grant writes. “The more recipients believed they needed to respond quickly, the more stressed they felt—and the more they tended to struggle with burnout and work-life balance.”
So how can companies alleviate their workers’ stress? It comes down to communication.
“Just saying something like ‘This isn’t urgent, so get to it whenever you can’ was enough to alleviate the perceived pressure to respond quickly,” Grant explains.
He also cites evidence that when managers are explicit about their communication expectations—including target response times—their employees report being more productive and effective in their daily tasks.
Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, writes in a Harvard Business Review article that teams should schedule a meeting to define their own communication norms. She offers a list of questions to guide the discussion, including:
“What’s been the most collaborative experience you’ve had in each of these channels?
- IM (Microsoft Teams, Slack, Skype, etc.)
- Video calls
- Texting (if applicable)
Based on these positive experiences, what are the norms that we want to set up for each channel?…. As you set up these guidelines, think about message length, complexity and response time.
- How long is too long for an IM message?
- Do we want to put a limit on the number of people to include in a group IM?
- When (if ever) is it appropriate to text someone?
- What is the expected response time for emails?”
Set personal communication boundaries
Don’t be afraid to set your workplace communication boundaries, and share them widely.
“Being a mom, I have tried to set boundaries with my clients and colleagues,” Leyes says. “Five to 8 p.m. is my time unless there is a federal government raid, or someone is bleeding. For the most part people respect my boundaries, but there are some folks who follow-up if I don’t respond right away. I try not to hold that against anyone, given that we’re all trying to compete for attention.”
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.