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You Are Supposed to Answer Your Email; Immediately! (Really?)

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As I was finishing a conversation with a couple of my team members, my boss saw me, walked over and said, “You haven’t answered your email.”

I told him I hadn’t been in the office for a while so I hadn’t seen the email. He pointed to the Blackberry attached to my belt and asked if it hadn’t notified me. When I told him I did not have it set to do that he was surprised and demanded I explain how I would know when there was a new email from him.

My boss was a bit of a technophile and liked to fully use any available technology. He carried his Blackberry in his hand, constantly checking it for anything new and he thought his leadership team should do the same. He could not understand why I would not want to drop whatever I was doing and check out the latest email.  Fortunately, in those days only a few of the senior leadership had a Blackberry so we could not subject our teams to this nonsense. Today’s technology makes it possible for a leader to stay constantly connected to the entire team and reach out to them any time of the day or night.

However, just because leaders can reach out at any time, doesn’t mean they should. Leaders should give conscious thought to how they manage technology.

  1. Encourage your team to set certain times to answer emails, and not continually check it. Don’t expect email to be a means of urgent communication. If it’s that important, try the telephone, or better yet, use an old fashioned technique and actually go to the person who has the information you need and ask them.
  2. Text messaging is a great tool. If you want your spouse to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home, by all means send a text. And yes, it may be the only way to communicate with your kids. But, at work, consider texts the same as email.
  3. If possible, turn off that interoffice instant messaging system, or at least set it to “Do Not Disturb” when you need time to focus. Otherwise, just like with email, each time a message pops up on the computer screen your concentration is broken which costs you several minutes to re-focus. That time can quickly add up to hours’ worth of lost productivity. Resist the urge to use IM for socializing or trivial communications. Once you go down that path you invite the same in return.
  4. When your team members go home for the day, leave them alone. Yes, you can probably reach them in several ways but don’t. Just because you’ve decided to sacrifice free time for the company, doesn’t mean you should expect your team to do the same. That also applies when team members are on vacation. Your team will be much more productive if they have uninterrupted down time. Some European countries, and even Brazil, have passed or are exploring rules that would prohibit emails after hours. Companies are also starting to use technology to embrace this concept. In Germany, Volkswagen has programmed their servers to prevent delivering emails to employees after their normal work hours. If you have a global virtual team, be cognizant of time zones. If available on your email platform, set your email to delay delivery until you know your folks are at work.

Once you’ve set these policies, follow them yourself. When I was on a headquarters staff in the Air Force, the general I worked for decreed that he would not read emails after 6:00 PM so we were not to send any to him after that hour. We took this to apply equally and so made no effort to look at emails in the evening.


Apparently, his prohibition did not apply to emails he sent, a fact we learned the next morning.

Give your team a break. Technology is a wonderful thing and certainly does increase efficiency and productivity. But, when improperly used, it can have the opposite effect.


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