You know you need to get back to someone as soon as possible when he or she sends an email labeled “urgent.” You can imagine the other person staring at his screen, unblinking, or obsessively refreshing his inbox, because he’s waiting on you for the final numbers, the approval, the go-ahead, the answer, or the next steps.
But did you know that’s not the only time you need to prioritize writing back? It’s true: If you let a message sit a few days in either of the following scenarios, you risk looking pretty insensitive or unprofessional.
It’s a tough balance for sure, because in each instance, you also want to say the right thing. But it’s important to the take the time to reply.
1. When You’ve Punted Before
Are you familiar with punting an email to manage your inbox? As Muse co-founder and COO Alex Cavoulacos explains:
Send a short ‘Thanks for thinking of me—I’m booked up this month but if you reach out in [some time in the future], I’d love to help however I can.’ Many people will never follow up at all—either because they forgot or because they don’t need your time and advice anymore—so you can rest assured that the people who follow up are the ones who most need your help.
While this strategy will save you from answering all of the people who never reach back, the trade off is that if someone does as you ask—waits however long and then follows up—you really owe it to her to send a response. She’s being respectful by contacting you at a later time, and so you want to show her the same courtesy.
Of course, you may still be too busy to help out (and that’s OK). But you shouldn’t be too busy to send a helpful response—even if it’s giving a short answer, pointing her toward someone else, or providing a link to a resource—and within 24 hours if possible. Additionally, composing a real reply saves you from starting a never-ending “I’ll get back to you later” email chain, which’ll be seen as leading the other person on.
2. When You’re Told Something Personal
Many people find it difficult to share personal information with their co-workers. So, if someone takes the time to share upsetting news with you over email, writing back quickly is always called for.
It doesn’t have to be a lengthy reply, and it’s OK if you’re not 100% sure of the right thing to say. You can almost always lead with “I’m so sorry to hear…” Then, thoughtfully address whatever action item was in the email (assuming there was one, which there usually is) with something like, “Please take your time…” or “Feel free to reach back when you return.”
And if there is a time-sensitive issue that requires you to ask for something tangible, take a few minutes to figure out the most minimal ask before responding.
For example, this is how you could respond to a co-worker who tells you that he won’t be able to finish the board presentation due this week because of a death in the family:
I’m so sorry to hear that your grandfather passed away. I, of course, understand that you’ll be flying home to Pittsburgh, and I hope that time with family brings you comfort.
Please don’t worry about the board presentation. If you could just point me to where what you’d been working on is on the shared drive, I’d be more than happy to finish it.
I hope you’ll feel free to list me as a point of contact on your out of office message, and let me know if there’s anything else I can do.
Even when you don’t have the exact right words—and no one does—replying quickly shows that you care. It makes your concern feel more genuine, and makes it clear you didn’t breeze past this news or add it to a list as you would with any other message.
Yes, we’re all fighting the good fight to reach inbox zero; and I completely understand the urge to want to put off answering that one hard email because you could answer 10 basic ones in the same amount of time. But it’s not worth making someone else feel unimportant—or risking your reputation as a considerate person. So, take the time to reply to a message in either of these categories: You’re not the only one who’ll be glad you did.