I am a freelance software developer and have three clients that I communicate with via email. I have mobile and desktop notifications set up for my several email accounts (work, personal, university).

If I see an email notification, I will generally stop what I am doing in order to respond, even if the email is from a client that I am not currently doing work for (I stop/start my clock accordingly). My average response time is about 5 minutes if I am currently in a situation where I am able to respond to an email.

I feel that I have given my employers the impression that I am always available. Should I be waiting an hour (or a few) in order to respond?

  • Put on hold. If your response time hasn't caused an actual problem that can be addressed, this is purely a matter of opinion and it's doubtful that there's one set answer that can be given. Perhaps a variation on "What kind of response time should I aime for as a freelancer?" is answerable but I doubt it's any less subjective. Perhaps Freelancing is a better fit for this question. – Lilienthal Aug 28 '17 at 9:13

A good practice that I read about a few years ago and now follow is to first turn off email notifications and then only check emails at specific times throughout the day (about once every two hours - adapting around meeting times and "flow").

This does a number of things:

  • It lessens the impact of task switching - you're no longer being interrupted from one task to pay attention to an email notification and respond, and won't have to spend time getting your brain back to the original task;
  • You end up spending a little more time crafting your response because you don't feel the need to rush back to the interrupted task;
  • You won't appear to be "immediately available" to other people as you are not instantly responding.
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  • Let's imagine you are maintaining an online shop. Something goes down and entire site is unusable. In those two hours that you were unavailable your client lost hundreds/thousands of dollars and even more long term. How will you deal with such situation? – xReprisal Aug 28 '17 at 7:16
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    @xReprisal I would have an SLA with specific response and resolution times enshrined - and I would expect the client to call me in an emergency and not use emails which are not a guaranteed delivery medium. Finally, if the site is so critical to business, I would charge them a lot of money to implement automatic failover systems. – HorusKol Aug 28 '17 at 7:34
  • @xReprisal also, what would happen if the event happened when you are at lunch, or commuting to/from work, or it's the weekend? – HorusKol Aug 28 '17 at 7:45
  • You got me with this one :D. Phone calls is what I would go for as well. No matter where I am weekday/holiday I aways have access to website so I make sure that client understands that such calls are very, very pricey. I have not encountered such situation yet. – xReprisal Aug 28 '17 at 7:55
  • @xReprisal 1) If you're a freelancer and are personally being held to an SLA, you should have a retainer or other payment arrangement for being on-call for that client. 2) Never rely upon a single method for mission-critical alerts. Email isn't guaranteed. SMS can get delayed, cell service can be flaky. 3) Rather than turning off all email alerts, set up rules for alerts. – alroc Aug 28 '17 at 11:27

As a freelancer I try and respond asap if it's a paying client. I won't halt work for a non paying one, I'll answer them later.

This has worked well for me.

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Try to match about how long it takes each client to respond to you. Each person has a different time gap. You can always make it faster than each client takes to respond, but make it in a reasonable window.

If client 1 takes 4 days to respond on average and client 2 takes 4 hours to respond on average and client 3 takes 2 days to respond on average.

Respond to client 1 between 2-3 days and client 2 between 2-3 hours and client 3 after 24 hours.

Some people like quick responses, but some take the information slower. Get a feel for how your client anticipates correspondences and respond appropriately. Sometimes it's fine to have a policy of responding within 24 to 48 hours which might help you treat all the clients the same, but be sure to wait before responding unless you are having an in the moment discussion via email.

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    Why would you wait 2 days to respond when you could respond in 5 minutes? I get the idea of not responding immediately, but I don't see the point in delaying it deliberately by more than 1 working day. – Philipp Aug 28 '17 at 7:15
  • @Philipp It really depends on your client. I have had some clients that get annoyed with constant communication and delay things for weeks. I personally don't get it either as I am a pretty quick communicator, but I'm saying feel out each client and try to match their style, if you can communicate quickly and it's not an issue, what is the point of this question? – mutt Aug 28 '17 at 13:48

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