This is the first in a series about career-life balance. Our careers often demand much of our attention, but for almost all of us it’s not the only thing in our lives. Yet, for many of us it can feel like we always have to be ‘on’ when it comes to work. In this first article we’re going to address one area that we can make a change towards finding a meaningful balance — email.

Email was originally created to give us a more convenient form of communication, and it does just that. However, email today, especially when it comes to expectations, is very different than it was in those early years. Modern email is faster, and more convenient than ever before. It can also be a constant source of pressure and stress for many.

The cloud, mobile devices and technological advances in software like, instant messaging and email, increase productivity and efficiency — they also raise expectations. Today, the expectation is that digital communications should be answered more quickly than ever — sometimes immediately! These expectations in our professional lives can often spill over into our personal lives. When you don't, the fear is that you can risk hurting relationships — personal and professional.

Managing Accelerating Expectations

As the speed of technology increases, so does the rate at which people expect to receive a response to an email. The Viterbi School of Engineering at USC published a paper showing that most people respond to emails in two minutes. Currently, 50% of responses are sent within 120 minutes of an email being received. The research also found:
  • if a person planned on responding at all, they did so within a two-day window
  • milennials had quicker response times
  • users on smartphones responded more quickly than laptop users.

As new generations move into and up the workforce, expectations will change. Social norms will become corporate standards.

What does this mean for our future?

Currently, 70% of workers expect a response from professional colleagues within four hours. If trends continue in their current line, you can expect this number to drop tremendously. The Toister Performance Solutions' annual business survey showcased a history of accelerated performance and expectations from 2014 onward.

According to the Toister survey, businesses had to respond to customers within four hours in order to keep customers happy. The response time to maintain goodwill had moved up to one hour by the following year. In 2014, only 4% of consumers said that they needed a response within 15 minutes of sending an email. By 2015, 14.5% of consumers expected this level of performance.

The survey also found that 30% of coworkers expected their colleagues to respond to email queries within 60 minutes.

Although technology improves at an accelerated pace year over year, human performance is often the bottleneck in a workflow. Although modern technology makes it easier to respond to an email in an hour, people may not be able to do so. In reality, email is only a small part of the average person’s job.

Finding a Balance

Typically, we’re all putting pressure on each other at the same time. There are only so many emails that an individual can answer within a certain time frame. Someone is bound to be disappointed as expectations rise. Setting boundaries and acceptable rules around email etiquette can help to manage reasonable expectations.

Setting boundaries for yourself, and establishing rules within an organization can help, so that people don’t become overwhelmed with email communications. People respond positively when organizations, or co-workers clearly state policy in regards to email communications.

One of the most effective boundaries that you can set is not answering emails outside business hours. There are exceptions where responses need to be timely, and timing is critical to the outcome. For example, a internet server has gone down and users can’t access the website. Communication between the people solving the problem will need immediate attention. However, the truth is that in most cases, a slightly longer response time doesn’t actually add or take away from the effectiveness of the communication.

In Conclusion

Email is evolving, and the time we spend on it is increasing. Setting boundaries and developing practices that help to manage expectations is the first step you must take in order to avoid email overload.

Main photo by Juliette Leufke on Unsplash