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Recently I have noticed a lot more people beginning to do what I call ‘expectation management’ around their own reachability and response times. I think this is a good idea as part of a larger strategy for keeping stress levels low in a demanding and complex environment, so here are some examples of the kinds of things that might help create some clear space in terms of what your clients/colleagues/family are expecting from you.

Most of us have, of course, used the Out of Office message (OoO) function to let people know about holidays and travel, but I’m seeing this function used more extensively to communicate with those sending messages. Here is a recent example of someone who was clearly trying to free up time to do real work, rather than just be tethered to their inbox:

 

From: Brown, Christine 
Sent: 04 January 2013 16:09
To: Thomas, Sara
Subject: Automatic reply: Travel Confirmation: John Smith – Ref: PQJ7K4 – Travel Date: 07FEB

Thank you for your email.  For a trial period initially I will be reading emails 3 times a day:

8:30am

12 noon

3:30pm

If your enquiry is urgent and cannot wait, please call me on 456-5637 (internal) or 0141 401 5637 (external).

I checked back a couple of months later to see how this was working for them, and the trial period had been extended as the initiative had been received in a supportive manner by her colleagues. The detail on this was that it was only going out to people who were inside the organisation. Clients were still getting normal service (and no OoO message).

In the same spirit, Ben Hammersley, the Wired journalist and author, has found it helpful to simply tell people what he is doing for the foreseeable future, and what they can expect from him in terms of response times. When checking in with him for a contribution to this blog, here is what came back:

 

Hello!

For your peace of mind, I have received your email, and I value it.

However, the tempo at which I reply depends on a few things.

I am currently in California, at GMT-8, for most of the time until May.

I am working on projects – a book, mainly – that require long periods of uninterrupted thinking time. I am experimenting with a very structured working practice. To this end I will be processing at my email only once a day, at 4pm Pacific Time. That is midnight in London, and 1am in Europe.

You will not receive a reply until then.

If your message is much more urgent than that, please text me or leave a voicemail via the messaging routes below. But be aware I might be asleep.

I am trying to come to a more sane relationship with my digital inputs.

Indeed, that’s much of what my next book is going to be about. It is hard to get to the bottom of some things, if you’re trying to stay on top of others.

Thanks for your understanding, and do let me know if it makes you react strongly in any way.

Ben

 

He says he has had no negative reactions at all, and that many people are either not bothered, are pleased to have a slackening of the message tempo forced upon them, or are using a more appropriate medium to get in touch if that is necessary. His sense of the benefits has been that he is more free to do other things, and need only really check mail when he says he is going to. For more of Ben’s thinking on related topics you can see a talk he gave recently at the RSA here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TENPhXc_Tqs)

And it is not just out of office messages that are being used. As an extension of the above, some are even beginning to put this type of message into their e-mail signature, so the message to help calibrate expectations is available with every message received from this person. Here is the signature from an e-mail that I received last week.

Steve Whatnot

BSc(Hons)

Quality Manager

Very Big Company Co

Email: Swhatnot@verybc.co.uk

Telephone: +44 21 622 5618

Mobile: +44 7968 978 703

 

Working part-time 50%: All day Tuesday, All day Wednesday and Friday mornings

 

Simple, and easy for people to see when they might need to see it ahead of time in order to transact outside of the times listed.

When discussing this idea of expectation management in a seminar recently I was told that some have taken this idea of managing expectations to a logical – if quite brutal – conclusion:

Subject: Automatic reply:

Thank you for your message. This note is to let you know that your message is being automatically deleted and will not be read. I will return on April 1st, and if your mail was important please resend it to me after this date.

 

It may or may not be apocryphal, but I quite like the clarity of the message. It certainly takes care of the need to dig oneself out at the end of holiday breaks.

Another of my recent favourites was this one:

Subject: Automatic reply:

Thank you for your message. I am out of the office until 31.12.2099.

 

No sense waiting around for a reply then…. I’m guessing he had lost his job, but in this case I rather liked the understated way used to communicate that change of status.

How about you? Have you found a way to manage the expectations of your surroundings in a way that is both constructive and a pressure relief for you? Drop a line or leave a comment – I’d love to hear about it if you have. With any luck (for me), you’ll get the short and sweet OoO message I’m hoping to write sometime soon:

Gone surfin’

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