We're in an unfortunate equilibrium where it's not uncommon for people to expect under one hour response times to emails. In my view, emails should not be used to communicate information that requires immediate action. Most people I interact with have smartphones; we should agree to use different channels of communication to convey purpose. We're no longer restricted to just phone calls and email.
Disclaimer: Realistically this will only work with people you communicate with often e.g. employees/co-workers, family, and close friends.
tl;dr If you need something to be done in:
30 minutes: call two hours: text today: IM a day or later: email
If you need something to have been done five minutes ago, call my cell phone. This gives you an opportunity to make sure I understand exactly what you need done and you know exactly when I received your request.
If you don't feel comfortable interrupting what I'm doing to make a request to me directly then it probably isn't that urgent and can wait a little while. Be considerate of what I may be doing and that it may take a while to get back in "the zone" after your interruption.
Litmus test: If we were in the same room and I was talking to someone else would you feel comfortable breaking up my conversation and taking me aside? If not, then a voice call is not the appropriate choice.
If you need something done in the next couple hours, send me a text that says something like
call me asap or
call me when you hit a break point.
This gives me time to gracefully wind down what I'm doing and call you back. I think most things that people find urgent fall in this category. It needs to be done soon, but it can wait up to 30 minutes to an hour.
Group text messages are dangerous territory here because everyone will be interrupted when someone responds. If I had my way, people would limit group texts to when they need to broadcast information rather than when they are trying to finalize logistics.
Litmus test: If we were in the same room and I was talking to someone else would you feel comfortable signaling to me to wind down my conversation? If not, then an SMS is not the appropriate choice.
Instant message works well for slightly more asynchronous communication. You're interested in getting a short response promptly, but it doesn't need to be right away. This is less disruptive than calling or texting. This works well when you need to find out a concrete piece of information before you can proceed.
Litmus test: If we were in the same room and I was in the middle of reading something would you feel comfortable leaving me a hand written note? If not, then an instant message is not the appropriate choice.
Email should be reserved for requests that you want addressed within the next day or so. Ideally it would be acceptable for people to only check their email a few times per day.
To differentiate between informational emails, I'd like for people to specify whether
action is required at the beginning of the subject line. Some people think that seeing
[Action Required] prefixing email subjects to be a bit severe, but adding a
indicates whether I need to deal with this right away or whether it can wait until I have
some more downtime.
Most people I know feel like they have too many emails to deal with. Think twice about whether email is the right way to communicate your information. You should expect email threads to be truly asynchronous. I want people to move away from expecting near real time responses.
Litmus test: Is this request something that you would feel comfortable dropping in an inbox on my desk when I wasn't there? If not, then an email is not the appropriate choice.
Regardless of whether this convention works for you, I would recommend having an explicit convention with people that you communicate with often.
Update: This post has been discussed on Journal du Net.
Update: This post was recommended by the Muse.