Don’t be annoying!
How Fast Should You Reply to An After-Hour Work Message?
Even back in my days as a barista, I got “after-hour” work messages sometimes regarding inventory and schedule changes. I guess it’s safe to say that we’ve all received messages after regular operating hours. Especially when you are a freelancer with a global client base, you are no stranger to receiving work messages around the clock.
So, how fast should you respond to these messages, delivering the best work without exploiting your downtime? In this post, I will share how I approach my “after-hour” work messages.
With my clients and teams located in different time zones, I’m fully aware that there’s always someone working when I’m not. While I’m lucky enough to work with flexible people who are mindful of the time differences and don’t expect me to reply right away, I’d still prefer to be there for them if I can. Rather than adopting a cut-off policy for work messages beyond operating hours, I decide on a case-by-case basis after evaluating the nature and impact of the request. If the message falls under the categories below, I’d try to respond as soon as possible.
- The request can be resolved within 5 minutes via a message.
Sometimes coworkers reach out with a question that can be answered fairly quickly via a message without logging into anywhere to check on my laptop. I’d simply reply while waiting for my tea to brew. Leverage the time nuggets between your downtime events, reply to a work message can also be a “break”.
- The sender is waiting for my input to proceed.
As some work maybe more time-sensitive, clients may be waiting for my input so that they can proceed to the next step. Most work should already be done on my end before the workday ends, and the request wouldn’t take much time. So I would try to reply right away so that the project can proceed with everything ready. Alternatively, if I ignore it, I may trigger a costly delay for the entire team — it makes me look bad, too!
- I need clarification from the sender to fulfill the request.
Similarly, I may need more info to proceed on my end. If I don’t get back to them in time to ask for clarification during their operating hours, there will be a delay on my end. When it comes to “after-hour” messages, we shouldn’t expect others to respond right away. It’s always better to get a hold of them when they are around to avoid possible headaches — it would be a huge productivity boost for the team if everyone adopts this approach.
- I would keep on thinking about it if I don’t reply right away.
There are times when I receive a relatively low-priority message and I could have replied the next day, but I would be hung up for some reason if I didn’t reply. It’s about the perceived downtime sometimes, you are really resting when you are not thinking about work. In this case, I’d reply to the message right away so I could get it over with and get back to my evening.
- It’s easier to address the issues right now than in the future.
I got this tip from Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) when she was on The Tim Ferriss Podcast (it’s one of my fav episodes). “I love doing things for future Liz”, she shared. If I receive a request that is simpler for me to address now rather than later, it would be worth it to create some convenience for the future me.
- I have pre-existed commitment for the next day and wouldn’t get to the message in time.
Let’s say I have a dentist appointment first thing in the morning and won’t be back to work until early afternoon, I’d reply to the message and let my team know when I’d be back online. The last thing you want to deal with lying on your dentist's “bed” with your mouth open is to change the formatting of a presentation.
- If the sender is expecting a confirmation and wouldn’t leave you alone otherwise.
Sometimes the clients are rather persistent or the nature of the message is at high-stake even though it’s less urgent. If you don’t respond to them, clients would send follow-up messages to make sure you received their previous message. In this case, I would take a few seconds to review the request, make sure I have everything needed, and reassure that I’ll get to it as soon as I can. You don’t want to leave the clients hanging and wondering if you’ve “got it” — it’s bad for the relationship.
How about when we are the ones who are sending out an after-hour work message to others?
I like to think about working with people as a process of troubling each other. It’s not a bad thing. We trouble each other means that we help each other. For me, I always aim to maximize the aspect of help and minimize the trouble, and it will be recognized and appreciated.
- Set the ground rules with transparent communication.
Oftentimes before the partnership even begins, I’d assure my clients that I would approach the project in a professional, timely, and transparent manner. I would remind them if there’s a time difference, but they can normally expect a response from me within 24 hrs (except for the weekends)— that’s enough for most clients and projects. Setting ground rules through upfront communication can set realistic expectations, build trust, and improve the efficiency of communications throughout the project.
- Be aware and respectful of other people’s time.
Even if you are someone who replies to work messages 24/7, you shouldn’t expect other people to do the same. Rather than getting anxious about the unread emails, try to avoid the headaches before you have to send someone a message beyond their office hours.
If I’m sending someone a message during my workday and their downtime, I’d tell them that they can get back to me when it’s convenient. If I’m reaching out for something rather pressing during their downtime, I’d apologize for the interruption of their evening/weekend — a simple acknowledgment can go a long way.
If you need confirmation that they’ve received it, include a friendly reminder at the end of your message rather than following up every 5 mins. I’ll be straight with you: it is very annoying!
That’s it! By being mindful of your team members’ time and needs, your kindness and a sense of responsibility will shine through. A professional and respectful etiquette when approaching “after-hour” work messages offers your team peace of mind, knowing that you will get back to them with a thorough response as soon as you can. At the end of the day, the trust you build up along the way is priceless.
Do you agree with these principles? How do you respond to after-hour emails? Drop a comment below, I read everyone.