Why it’s now almost the norm for people not to return calls or respond to emails

Two years ago I published this blog on LinkedIN and it has attracted more interest and views than any other. In fact I am still getting comments on it now.

A general response goes along the lines of "it’s common courtesy for people to reply to us", but I seriously think that even more so two years down the track, people tolerate this on both sides of the communication; ie many of us are resigned to both people not getting back to us, AND not returning people’s calls or emails ourselves.

Now of course that doesn’t equate to everyone, but I have reached the point where I simply don’t expect that a good proportion of people will get back to me! Self-defeatist? Maybe, but I also don’t get upset about it or make it mean anything.  This covers all sorts of communications, from texting a friend to say hello, inviting someone to an event or party or even (and this happened to me last week) actually wanting to order some products with someone who represents a fabulous brand*.  

Why is this happening? What has happened to our common courtesy? Are the rules changing? Well, I think simply, the answer to that final question is ‘yes’.

In a recent study by Carleton University in Canada, over half of the 1500 participants were spending 1/3 of their time in the office and ½ of their outside of working hours working time reading and answering emails! 30% of these emails were considered as not urgent or important.

That’s an awful lot of time on email! No wonder people get snowed. The study reported that many of the recipients placed unrealistic expectations on themselves around how quickly they respond. Many tried to do that within a day, which I simply don’t think is manageable for many.

There were reports of high levels of work overload and stress associated with it; imagine how much that would reduce if they gave themselves more time to respond? Yes, I know that it might just seem like the back log would build up too much and they would never get on top of them, but there are smart ways they can architect their time. For example, even the simple act of having email on your phone, and tackling them in the 'gaps', say waiting for an appointment or a bus, might change someone’s life dramatically. But not everyone’s lives, because that won’t work for everyone. You need to find a way that works for you!. Keep on tweaking until you find one that does.

Personally what works for me is zero inbox. It still completely amazes me that I practice this, and I fought like a feral dog to resist it for years, but now, one year down the track, not only do I feel I have more time, I also know I am not missing out on any opportunities, because I have set up the system which means I will reply to all emails! Check out Dermot Crowley’s great work and powerful book Smart Work for more information.

I think it’s time to change the rules; don’t expect a reply within 24 hours for non urgent requests and explore platforms like Slack (or walk across the floor to their desk!)  for more real time effective communication.

Now having said that, I haven’t used Slack myself, but I understand for quick questions and more collaborative group tasks, it can work wonders. Not so much for longer or sensitive communications, but it might go some of the way. And if it’s a simple yes/no answer, then a face to face could save you both type time.

I have even seen people autoreply to their emails with the expected time within which they will reply. 

Regarding phone calls, it’s a bit the same.  We don’t want to be responsible for filling up people’s schedules with noise, eg them having to listen to our voicemail. More and more, I hear phone messages where recipients simply request explicitly not to leave a message, and send a quick text instead. Interestingly, if I am going to miss replying to something, it's usually a text or Facebook message; I haven't quite got my system working for all channels.

And here is a really simple shift, which has worked for me.  Follow up!

Just like I mentioned in the original blog, if someone hasn’t called me back or replied to my email, I simply reach out again! Using a system of having an 'awaiting response' list in my task list means I easily keep on track of who hasn't yet replied. Okay, maybe I am contributing to more clutter, but more often than not I am presented with a response which goes somewhere along the lines of “thanks so much for following up on me”. And hey, even if they say something along the lines of "thanks but not interested", wouldn’t you prefer to know?

This is one of those pesky topics that tends to polarize some people, I would love to hear your thoughts. I do think it comes down to the reality that people are dealing with crazier schedules than ever before, and simply can’t manage the luxury of so called "courtesy"! Let's cut them some slack and help them out with gentle prompts, and ask ourselves that very important question; "is my email content truly adding value to their world?" If you can't put your hand on your heart and say "Absolutely!", then maybe it's time to look at more than just email snubs.

*I sent the quick ‘nudge’ email to my wonderful products supplier who immediately responded with a big apology, she had simply not flagged the initial email.  Follow ups work!

BTW - I am on the am Show next Thursday (13th July) talking about bad managers. I cannot believe how many people have shared with me how they have been affected by at least one in their career. It is something that urgently needs to change, particularly considering the associated mental health challenges.

Does anyone you know need a bit of career clarity?

For the next month (until August 9th) I am offering limited 30 minute complimentary Skype sessions for people who are at cross roads with their career, and are wondering what options are available to them. In 30 mins I will ask the powerful questions to challenge what people think they should be doing, or the limitations they are placing on themselves. I can then share some relevant options for them to consider. There is a world of opportunity, it's worth investing half an hour to get some insight into what is possible career and business wise these days. Recipients will get one to three distinct actions they can take immediately which could change the course of their future dramatically. Please email the amazing Trish at trish@laurelmclay.com if you or one of your contacts are interested.

Posted on July 10, 2017 .