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Email Etiquette for Road Warriors and the People Who Work With Them

Traveling executive seated in an airport lounge responding to email and returning phone calls

As the quantity and quality of our options for virtual meetings surpass Jetsons-level expectations, one might expect that in-person meetings and work travel would decline. Not so. According to a report from the GBTA Foundation, the education and research arm of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), global business travel spending reached $1.33 trillion in 2017, advancing 5.8 percent over 2016 levels, and is expected to expand to $1.7 trillion by 2022 (updated: July 1, 2019).

That’s a lot of time clocked at the airport lounge for a lot of executives, and a whole lot of hastily pecked out emails sent while shuffling like cattle through security and/or dealing with flight delays. Much has been written on workplace email etiquette, (see our recent blog about appropriate email sign-offs) but anyone who travels frequently for work knows that emailing can reach new heights of aggravation and inefficiency when certain, small considerations aren’t taken before pressing send. Whether you are the one who is traveling, or the colleague back in the office communicating with your road warrior colleague, bear these simple yet effective tips in mind.

When you are the one on the road

  1. Set Expectations. If at all appropriate, give the person you are emailing/responding to a heads up that you are traveling and for how long, and thus might be slower than usual to respond. It will help them tailor their communication with you, understand any time zone differences, and adjust expectations.
  2. Stick to the subject. Oftentimes we are emailing with the same colleague or client on separate projects or topics, with two separate email subjects and strings, such as “Water Buffalo Account Issues,” and “Re: Bob Loblaw’s trip to Borneo next Tuesday.” When you are pressed for time it can be tempting to switch to a question about Mr. Loblaw in the Water Buffalo string because it is the easiest one to access from your phone, or vice versa.
    This one is tough to stick to if you are really pressed for time running to catch a flight, but it can be problematic and more time consuming in the long run because 1) your recipient might not realize you have switched subjects and have to ask clarifying questions, taking up more of your already limited time and 2) when you need to see the email string on the Water Buffalo account in a week or a month or a year, you won’t be happy when you can’t find the conclusion to the conversation because it is hiding in the long since deleted Bob Loblaw string.
  3. It’s an email, not a text. Avoid extreme shorthand and texting vernacular, especially when texting with a client or someone with whom you are not especially familiar. It lacks professionalism, can be construed as brusque, and leads to miscommunication. The best advice is to picture the content of your email on your company’s letterhead. If it wouldn’t pass muster there, don’t send it as an email.
  4. Beware autocorrect. We’ve all experienced the unfortunate autocorrect malfunction, ranging from innocently amusing to downright embarrassing. Consider turning off autocorrect in your phone’s settings while you are traveling, knowing that you are less likely to catch that embarrassing verbiage before pressing send because you are at the front of the security line all of a sudden and need to send your phone through the x-ray.

When emailing someone on the road

  1. Avoid the paperclip. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid sending attachments, and certainly not large files, to someone who is on the road and not likely to be in front of a laptop before they finally get back to their hotel room. Consider copying and pasting the pertinent piece of information directly into the email so your recipient can easily find it without too much clicking and loading in spotty reception areas.
  2. Snoop the calendar. If you are sending an email to a colleague whose schedule you can access, take a look at it before sending anything that needs immediate attention, or worse, really bad news. If you see that they are catching a flight that leaves at 2:55pm EST and you need something reviewed or approved, don’t send it at 2:45pm EST expecting that they will be able to answer your question thoughtfully. You’re likely to catch them right as the flight attendant comes by to make sure their cell phone is in airplane mode for take-off. Think ahead and send it well before, or wait until they are wrapped up if you can.
  3. Short and sweet. Brevity is always best in email communication, and particularly so when emailing someone on the road. More likely than not they will be reading their emails in short bursts in the car service to the airport or between meetings on their phone. Don’t make your email recipient sift through 100 words when 10 would have sufficed.
  4. Subject. It’s always best to have a clear, concise, and on point subject line, but that is particularly important when you need to get a road warrior’s attention. A subject line simply reading “Question” isn’t as likely to be opened as quickly as “Tambourine Presentation Question,” and having a clear subject line makes it easier for someone on the road to find an email quickly once they’ve got a quiet moment to actually respond.
  5. Show mercy with the cc. No one likes getting stuck on an email string as a cc: recipient that has little to no relevance to them, and that goes quadruple for someone on the road who has emails stacking up at a breakneck pace. Before you hit “reply all” think first as to whether or not everyone really needs to see the rest of the conversation, and consider showing extra mercy to your colleagues on the road.
  6. The curse of the red exclamation point. That red exclamation point was designed to alert the recipient that an email is, in fact, urgent. We all have that colleague who makes liberal use of this feature, who believes that everything from a bomb in the building to birthday cake in the conference room is worthy of high alert. Don’t be that guy. Save your road warrior colleague from the frustration that comes with opening that email with the red exclamation point first, only to find out that what YOU consider urgent is something that could have easily waited.

Much of this advice is really “Email Etiquette on Steroids,” which almost always boils down to thinking through how your communication will be perceived by others and/or putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Communication gaffes caused by lapses in email etiquette are only multiplied, magnified and set on fire when one or more of the parties is dealing with the challenges of working from the road and across time zones. Let’s all email a little nicer.

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