Email as a barrier to work

Years ago, when I when I worked in an office with other people, I learned that email was a great tool for communicating, and more importantly sometimes, documenting conversations. Popping round to someone's desk and discussing a topic was great, but you had no record of the conversation, and if they were away, on the road, or you just simply spent the day trying to meet at the same point for the 5 minute talk, email was a great alternative.

Today, we use email almost exclusively, and often in preference to, meeting in person or talking on the phone. For those, like me, who work from home all the time, you basically have no choice. It's simply not possible to 'pop' over to somebody's desk, when in all probability that desk is on another continent.

The downside to this is that people are now able to hide behind email. I can email somebody with a query and never get a response. It could be they are just too busy and the mail gets lost among the other emails that are higher priority to the recipient. It can also be a conscious decision to ignore it as unimportant. They don't have to claim it didn't arrive; they simply ignore it and don't answer.

If I'd met them in person, they'd have no choice to answer, but an email can be ignored or even deleted, just to avoid answering the question. If that the answer to that query is critical to my work and project, I've got problems.

As we spread out, more teams start to work at home or in international offices across different continents and time zones where a physical meeting is impossible, this situation has the potential only to get worse.

Is there anything you can do to prevent yourself from being seen as a work preventer through bad email etiquette?

Well, here's what I do:

I have a personal policy of never completely ignoring an email for more than 72 hours. If I can't respond with a full answer in that time, I take 10 seconds to write an email that says 'I've got your email, but I'm busy, I'll be in touch soon'. If I'm snowed under with multiple emails that I should have answered, for example when I return from vacation to a mountain of queries, I send out a general email that says the same thing.

This way, even if you really are busy, people will have either a timeframe or acknowledgement of their request. It's not perfect, but it will probably let them continue their work without worrying about your response.

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