Q: What do I do when colleagues refuse to answer emails? I’ve tried different times of day, urgent designations, and sometimes still get total radio silence. How do people who ignore emails manage in a world where that kind of communication is the norm in business?
A: The culture of emails has changed significantly in the past decade or so. People used to be excited to receive emails—they were limited and carried real information. Fast forward to today, and we see most people getting so many emails per day that it’s overwhelming and no longer exciting—which makes it very easy to ignore the messages we get. Part of this issue is ineffective time management, part of it is a lack of technological savvy and not knowing how to set up inbox rules to help organize, and part of it is just personal priorities and styles of communication. There are a number of reasons why emails go unanswered and a number of ways to address the problem.
Check what kind of emails you are sending. Are they too open ended and require a lot of work on the receiver’s end to answer? Often, people will ask a question in an email like “What day next week would be good for a meeting?” This requires the receiver to open his or her calendar to find availability, cross-reference it with others’ calendars, and then finally respond. Just the prospect of having to do all that will decrease the likelihood of a response. If you have developed a relationship with the person, you could instead offer specific options—”Unless I hear otherwise by end of day, I will schedule a meeting for Tuesday the 13th from 2-3pm.” This removes the work from the receiver while also putting the responsibility on them to offer an alternative if necessary. This way, you can move forward and not have your own planning or process slowed down by the lack of a response.
Make sure that you’re sending emails efficiently and strategically. If you have a lot of items to discuss, group them in a way that makes sense and saves time. Write “I have five things I need your decision on” and then bullet them. Do not send massive narratives that take too long to read or don’t get to the requested action in a clear manner. If you have an important question that needs answering, don’t leave it to the very last line after paragraphs of context—lead with the question and then say “For context around the above…” Small changes to your emailing style can make a big difference.
Most people should expect that their emails won’t be read in full, so it’s important to employ tactics to increase response rates. One thing to try is using eye-catching subject lines: “URGENT – Action needed by 2pm” is more likely to gain someone’s attention than a vague subject that doesn’t convey the immediacy of the need. You can also offer yes or no options that are easy to decide on in the moment—and easy to type a response to if someone is on the road or rushing between meetings. If it’s a regular problem with an individual, after speaking to them directly to say “You are causing problems in my work by not responding, and I need it fixed,” it would be appropriate to copy someone more senior to that person to help encourage timely responses. Don’t feel guilty. It is reasonable to let the senior person know what the situation is and get some support from them. It’s not only rude and annoying when an email goes unread or unanswered, it also slows down the efficiency of work when people aren’t able to get the information they need to move the business forward.
Some people naturally respond more readily to phone calls, voicemails, or texts than to emails. If it works for both parties to leave voicemails instead of emails and it moves the business along, that’s great. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be expected to double up your communication efforts by sending emails and voicemails for every issue. Have a private conversation with each individual you have trouble with about their preferences and what you can both do ensure communication runs smoothly. You can then escalate to their manager if you do not get the response that you need.
We recognize that these individuals are getting too many emails—so is everyone else. The best approach is to read an email and deal with it; don’t read it and save it or assume you’ll get back to it later. If you are not getting emails in a way that is convenient for you, talk to the person sending them. The goal is to make everyone more efficient in an organization.