Working Boundaries: The Case For Standardizing Email Response Times

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It's Sunday evening, 8:00 pm, do you know what your boss is doing? My team, unfortunately, does. They know I am planning my weekly calendar, emptying my inbox and setting my top three “must do's” for Monday morning.    I am a  hyper-planner who has used this weekly ritual my entire scholarly and professional life. Because I  would like to think of myself as a leader who is dedicated to self-evaluation, I am going to be fully transparent about the lighting bolt epiphany I had last week as I  emptied my inbox and communicated weekly priorities.

 I am filling up their Monday morning In-Box.

You see, my team knows exactly what I am doing Sunday night at 8:00 pm because every week, like clockwork, they would find a stream of emails from their boss needing a response.  My organizational habits and lack of communicating specific working boundaries were likely impacting their work life balance.  Worse yet, I had set an unwritten expectation that on Sunday nights they should be working…like me.  This fact could not be farther from the truth. I have prided myself on always being the leader that understands others have a life outside of work and feel most passionately that, in our 24/7 society, we sometimes have to do work at home, and sometimes we have to do home at work.

My actions, I feared, said otherwise.

Having been on the receiving end of a 3:30 am email from a superior myself a few times,  I realized I had not set expectations with my direct reports that my weekly work patterns did not mean they needed to respond. In my mind, if something was an urgent need I would call or text. But, I realized, I never had that conversation with them. For all they knew, their workaholic boss felt Sunday evening might as well just be considered part of the work week.

According to Forbes, every organization needs a standard response time policy. Without clearly reviewing expectations and setting guidelines, employees are left to interpret based on patterns of behavior. The unspoken “rule” can leave employees feeling frustrated with perceived after hours demands and unable to fully unplug during off hours or vacation time. The below tips can help you and your team create a collaborative email boundary agreement that establishes expectations and maximizes productivity.

  • Discuss the corporate culture: Regardless of the team's rules, the overall corporate culture of email should be examined and discussed. You may not be able to change the corporate culture overnight, but as a team, you can make a small ripple in the big pond by having a standard within your group. By discussing everyone's impressions as to expectations, you open up transparent communication that can build trust and expose perceptions that are not accurate.
  • Pick a guideline for a response:  How fast do you, and your team, feel each other should respond to a routine email.  The response, however,  can mean different things to different people. Responding, following through,  and communicating information are all variables that may have different cultural expectations. Explore with your team what “feels right” to them as it relates to this expectation. For some teams, a 24-48 hour response that the request has been heard ( along with an expected timeline for follow through) is a comfortable range. For others,  it is a must to communicate that if something is perceived as urgent,  a phone call or a face to face meeting is warranted. A complete lack of response can also send a message that the request was either ignored or missed.
  • Review email etiquette: Seven people responding “Thanks!” with a smiley face can seem like a great way to build team relationships but for those managing daily email volumes in the hundreds (or worse) it can feel like nails on a chalkboard. A great resource for Email Etiquette can be found at The Advisory Board. This witty cartoon exposes the most common email misdemeanors and can be a great conversation starter.
  • Hack the email tricks of the productive elite: This year I learned a life-altering trick for Outlook in which I created a rule that deposits all of my “cc” emails into a folder that I view once a day.  My very thoughtful team copies me in instances that they feel warrant me to be informed but not responsive. These emails are automatically filed into a “hidden” email file that I view once or twice a day which has cut down the pavlovian response I feel each time my phone buzzes. I cannot emphasize how life altering this was.
  • Communicate your expectations: This was the component that I overlooked. I assumed my team could read my mind and assume that just because I am sending Sunday night email that I did not expect them to respond. Sunday night email works for me. I don't need to change my habit of productivity but I do need to communicate about it. 

Mobile devices, email, and texting have accelerated communication within work teams that have increased productivity and decreased wait times. The downside, of course, is that we are plugged in...all the time. The more that our work-life boundaries are blurred by technology the more important the conversation becomes to create boundaries and respect the person on the receiving end. Sunday night email works for me. I intend to keep the practice yet will communicate to my team that I clearly do not expect them to adopt my ways. Unless they find it works for them too.

Angela is a healthcare executive, passionate leadership blogger at Leadershipelevateher.com, and loves speaking to groups about leadership culture.  Network with Angela via LinkedIn and spread your inner professional circle.

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Angela Hosking
Eternal-optimist Nursing Healthcare Administrator with a passion for leadership, and change management. Known for igniting and maintaining a motivated work culture, building strong, collaborative, influential work-teams and producing quality outcomes . Influential Leadership Speaker. Blog Author of LeadershipElevateHer.com which is dedicated to growing and empowering women leaders in corporate culture by teaching effective coaching skills to maximize the teams they are building. Independent Contributor for Huntington Post and LeadX.org.