The Email Etiquette Playbook: We asked 700+ workers how to write a professional email

Despite being one of the main things we spend our time on, few people are ever taught how to email. And you can probably tell.

While some people shoot from the hip with reckless ‘reply all’s’ and a lack of formal language, other emails sound like letters from the frontline of WWI. (Dearest X, I hope my email finds you well. It has been a fortnight and I still have not received your latest status report…)

Language aside, what’s often worse than what gets written in these emails is how we deal with them. Most companies assume employees know the best ways to email (spoiler: they don’t). And with no universally accepted email etiquette playbook, our relationship with our inbox is (ironically) rife with miscommunication.

With no universally accepted email etiquette playbook, our relationship with our inbox is (ironically) rife with miscommunication. Click To Tweet

If you’re a manager frustrated with miscommunication or a team lead trying to make your collaboration more productive, here’s what you need to know. 

What we learned from 700+ workers about workplace email etiquette

To understand how people actually think about workplace email etiquette, we sent a survey of 25 questions to more than 700 workers (500 RescueTime users and 200+ non-users). The respondents range from freelancers to employees at massive companies.

Here’s what we discovered.

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If you send emails outside work hours your team will too

If you’re like most people, you probably have a bad habit of taking your work home with you. And email plays a big role in that. Whether it’s innocently checking your inbox in the morning or replying to a message before bed, email blurs our work-life balance line.

It’s probably no surprise then that most people check their inboxes frequently throughout the workday. But just how much?

While a small majority of people say they only check email once or twice a day, two-thirds of people check at least once per hour and nearly 30% of people have their inbox open all the time and are checking constantly.

How often do you check your inbox

And this doesn’t stop when the workday ends.

In fact, 60% of people say they check email both before or after work hours.

Checking emails outside of work hours

Checking emails outside of working hours is one thing. But what about the expectation to respond to them?

61% of people said they reply to work emails outside of work sometimes, often, or almost every day.

Only 11% said they never do.

Replies outside of work hours

When we dug in further, it seems like the debate around outside-of-work-hours emailing is a bit of a chicken and egg situation.

Even though the majority of people are checking and answering emails outside of work hours, 68% said they don’t expect responses to work emails on evenings and weekends.

And for those that do, there were some common reasons why:

“If I’m responding to someone else emailing me outside hours.”

“If it’s urgent or time-sensitive.”

“Priority of projects can warrant whether they should get a response after hours.”

“If I know it’s someone who will respond.”

“If I’m messaging someone in a different timezone.”

What it seems to come down to is that if you check and respond to emails outside of work hours, your coworkers will too.

Email chains are a nightmare and no one agrees on the right way to handle them

One of the reasons we spend so much time in our inboxes is that it’s unclear what we need to do. Emails aren’t just tasks you can check off. Each one needs to be decoded and assessed before you can make a decision on it, especially in long email chains.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, we lose 27 minutes a day just checking if emails require an action. Yet despite this, there are no clear rules around when, how, and even if you should respond to an email chain.

Collaboration is a key part of any company's success. Yet few people respond to emails with purpose. Click To Tweet

While close to 50% of people we spoke to said they don’t respond to emails not directly addressed to them, the other half say it depends (meaning they have to spend time reading them first).

Many people we spoke to said they assume a CC is an unspoken “FYI” and aren’t a direct action item.

While others said their companies don’t use CCs with consistency and so they have to decipher each one to see what’s expected.

“People don’t make a good distinction between who the email is addressed to and who is CC’ed”

Even worse, the majority of people say it’s OK to use Reply All “if everyone can benefit from the information”—another situation that causes our inboxes to get clogged with unimportant messages.

What about answering and asking questions in long strings of email?

While some of these issues come down to trigger-happy emailers, it’s also due to a lack of clear formatting rules.

When you’re already lost in a string of CCs and responses, it’s difficult to pick out or ask for actionable steps. Again, this is a place where the majority of workers are split.

  • When it comes to asking questions: 38.5% said you should use @ to call out individuals (for example, @jory, please respond to this). While 17% said to use some other form of formatting and 12% said they just assume the person they want to see will see it.

How to ask for a response in an email chain

  • When it comes to answering questions: 37% say you should respond in-line, 27% said it’s better to start a new email with your answers, and 36% said you should do both.

There’s a gap between when we expect responses and when we send follow-ups

We send (and end up on) a lot of unnecessary emails throughout the day. But we also don’t have a consistent plan for the ones that matter.

When it comes to expectations around response time, 40% of people said you should reply within a day (with 25% saying under an hour).

Work response expectations outside work

However, when it comes to following up with our emails, the majority said you should wait anywhere from 1-5 days.

Follow up timeline

There’s a fine line between being professionally persistent and straight-up annoying with your email etiquette. Yet, chasing up responses is part of being a professional emailer.

When it comes to how many follow-up emails to send, almost 50% said you should send just 2-3 follow-ups before giving up while another 35% said one is enough.

Follow up number-min

However, 10% said you should continue to follow up with someone until you get a response from them!

Clarity is more important than formality

The confusion around email etiquette extends beyond just how to send and respond to messages. While few people were taught how to write a professional email, what constitutes a “professional” email these days anyway?

Of the people we spoke to, only 57% said formal greetings (like Dear or Hello…) are necessary for work emails. 

Greetings in work emails

And what about ending your emails? While signature blocks used to be an expectation, today, only 55% of people say they use them consistently and another 26% say only some of the time.

Signature blocks in work emails

What about emoji, exclamation marks, and spelling mistakes?

Emoji, exclamation marks, and other more casual writing styles used to be taboo in the workplace. But is that still the case? While most people said it depends on the context of the message, many made a strong case for making “professional” writing more casual.

When it came to using emoji, only 40% said you should never use them. Instead, 35.6% of people say it’s OK to use emoji in your work emails with another 22.5% saying it’s ok sometimes. (Mostly in one-on-one communications with coworkers you know but never with your boss.)

Emoji in work emails

Exclamation marks are another point of contention. However, the majority skewed towards saying they’re fine to use with 71% saying Yes! and 11% saying sometimes.  (Only sparingly. Once per email at most.)

Exclamation marks in work emails

Finally, there’s the question of spelling and grammar. Here, we saw a clear majority, with almost ¾ saying proper language use is essential. 

However, the big caveat here was that spelling and grammar only matter if they impact the message. No one felt using the wrong “there, their, or they’re” is a fireable offense.

More than 3/4 of people have never spoken to a coworker about their communication expectations

Despite all the confusion, varying preferences, and hard-held opinions about the right way to email, no one really talks about it.

A solid 76% of people we spoke to say they’ve never spoken to a colleague or manager about their email response-time expectations.

Ever spoken about expectations

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The email etiquette playbook: Your company guide on how to write a professional email

Email etiquette post

We believe technology like email—despite its many advantages–has made it harder to do our core work every day. And while it’s easy to place blame on the individual, companies are just as much at fault.

If you want to increase your productivity you need to be deliberate and purposeful in your approach to email. And that means having a clear guidebook on email etiquette that addresses the biggest issues, such as:

The more you check and reply to emails outside of working hours, the more your coworkers will do the same. While for the most part people said they didn’t expect a response outside of work hours, the majority still check and reply to emails when they’re not at work.

Most people see email as a fast form of communication (but don’t express that clearly). Expecting a response within the day is normal. However, most people haven’t spoken about the specifics of their expectations with their coworkers or managers.

CCs and email chains are a huge source of confusion and should be used with care. Almost no one agreed on how to consistently handle Reply Alls or asking for actions in email chains.

In many workplaces, professional emails are becoming more casual. We no longer see emoji, exclamation marks, and spelling mistakes as signs of being “sloppy”. Instead, they’re just another by-product of our communication-heavy days.

Clarity is key but most people rely on common sense or others ‘just knowing what to do’. Spell out expectations and set clear processes for everyone to follow. Communication is all about clarity. And even things ‘everyone should know’ sometimes need to be said.

Collaboration depends on clear communication

It’s safe to say that all of the confusion around communication comes down to a lack of clear expectations.

If you want to successfully collaborate, your entire team needs to be deliberate and purposeful in your communication. So before you shoot off that email, make sure everyone’s on the same page.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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