How quickly should you respond to an email?

More than two thirds of us expect co-workers to respond to emails within four hours or less, according to a recent email response time survey. Perhaps its no wonder that so many workers can't go five minutes without typing away on their smart phone or losing focus on an important task to answer another message in an endless series of email exchanges.

Of course, the results are a bit skewed by Generation Y (born 1977 or later). Members of this generation aparently do their best Veruca Salt impersonation when it comes to receiving email, since 43% of them expect a response within one hour.

People have a little more patience when it comes to receiving a response to emails sent to a business. Companies should always try to respond to customer emails as quickly as possible, but 75% of us are willing to wait at least a day:

The survey also asked how quickly we expect our friends to respond to email. Here, we're a bit more lenient, with 88% of survey participants saying they thought they should receive a reply within 1 or more days.

I conducted the same survey last year (see the 2011 results), so have there been any changes? The short answer is no, not really. The only thing noticeable was members of Generation Y have grown slightly more impatient, since 35% of them expected co-workers to reply to email within one hour in 2011, but that number has risen to 43% in 2012. 

What does all this mean?

Service, whether it's external to your customers or internal to your co-workers, is all about expectations. Should our co-workers be more patient? Certainly, but the reality is right now they're not. Do people misuse email? Yes, but screaming at your computer won't change that.

While we can't change others, we can lead by example. For businesses, I wrote a short post on managing customer service email three years ago that still feels relevant today. The top tip? Track email response times and set a goal of 1 business day for everything. (You can read it here.) For individuals, I wrote a post on 10 ways to avoid email overload. (Read that one here.) Perhaps the most important lesson there is to have the discipline to use email correctly rather getting sucked in to becoming part of the problem.