The Indignity Of Follow-Up Emails

Photographed by Beth Sacca
It’s 3.12pm on a Thursday and your fingers are itching at your keyboard. Your colleague told you EXPLICITLY that you’d hear back about this external funding application on Thursday afternoon two weeks earlier, with plenty of time before the deadline. You talked about it in the office last week! You check the email from them again, just in case. Nothing new, just an old reminder of their proposed deadline. You click refresh. Go stand in the kitchen for a couple of minutes. Click refresh again. And again. Crickets.
And so you’re sitting there with a looming deadline, wrestling with the mortification of sending a follow-up email.
You consider your options:
‘Checking in.’ ‘Following up.’ ‘Pushing this to the top of your inbox.’ ‘In case it got lost.’ ‘Friendly reminder.’ ‘Just a nudge.’ ‘Circle back?’
All of them make you cringe. You feel like a child agitating for something from their parents or a Hinge date that just won’t take the hint. But this isn’t parenting. Or dating. It’s a professional work scenario. Why should you have to be coy about receiving necessary feedback?
This is the indignity of the follow-up email. It’s hard to find phrases that don’t feel needy, cloying or a bit cringe when chasing someone. There is no one-size-fits-all — following up with a colleague is different from a client, which is different from a job application — but finding the right words for the various situations can feel like a job in and of itself.
Especially because the need to send follow-up emails is somewhat unavoidable. Office workers are stretched. The continued waves of redundancies since COVID have altered team structures and the impact of the pandemic itself led many to seek roles in other places, leaving further gaps in teams. Real wages are declining due to the cost of living crisis, increasing the strain on the people left behind. And that same economic crisis is making it harder to hire for those roles. Not replying to every email in a timely manner is hardly surprising, given the circumstances.
Emails in particular are adding to stress. The average number of emails received by workers has been rising for years. This constant flow of messages from colleagues, managers and peers can feel relentless even outside of work hours, with one US study conducted by Wakefield Research for email platform Superhuman suggesting that 38% of office workers want to quit their jobs due to ‘email fatigue’. According to research conducted by a team at the University of California, Irvine in 2016, “the longer one spends on email in [a given] hour, the higher is one’s stress for that hour”. The same researchers noted that people under stress would answer emails more quickly but with less care. As The New Yorker put it, email itself is “making us miserable”.
It would be a bit rich to be incredibly critical of every person who doesn’t get back to you. It may be you chasing your colleague this second but it could easily be you being chased next week. Let she who has replied promptly to every single email cast the first stone.
Whether they have had a sudden shift in priorities, some personal changes or simply forgotten, people are people, not robots. And as annoying as it is, plenty of people (myself included) don’t have the mental capacity to prioritise inbox etiquette over every other demand.
Which seems to bring us to an impasse. Follow-up emails suck but the way we work requires them. We might just have to accept that there are parts of professional work that can be cringe-inducing (looking at you, LinkedIn) and this is one of them.
But at least according to some networking and comms experts, there are some ways you can be more successful in your endeavours.

How To Send A Successful Follow-Up Email

A crucial question to ask yourself is: Does this email actually need a follow-up? Feedback is great but if it’s not crucial to some next step, it’s not really worth the effort of chasing.
Isabel Sachs, founder of career platform I Like Networking, explains that any email that needs an explicit answer deserves a follow-up but you should be patient and kind. “If you emailed before, wait 14 days before emailing again, as sometimes people are away or going through things,” she tells Refinery29. “But I'd say if you have a conversation which was left open and you'd like to have a yes or no, you should follow up. But always be extra kind and polite because we don't know how people are receiving messages that day, what they are going through personally and what cultural differences they may have.” 
How do you send the dreaded email if it’s necessary? David Rice, HR expert at People Managing People, says your best route is concision. "Be polite, keep it short. Be to-the-point with your subject lines and how you start the email,” he tells Refinery29. “The purpose of the email shouldn't be to recap a meeting or share notes.” He adds that there’s no need to give a preamble either. “Don't bother identifying this as a follow-up email, they'll know what you're talking about if you get straight into it and haven't waited three weeks to send this email. Your purpose is to advance a conversation that has already started in some way so don't beat around the bush, do that.”
Ultimately, this is a work scenario and being direct and transparent is not the same as being pushy. Nor is it going to scare someone away. If you are anticipating what other people might think, Isabel suggests the following rule of thumb: Would I say this to the person to their face? Would I be okay receiving this email? And be honest. The more upfront you are, the less likely you are to fall into the cutesy trap of wishing every email 'finds you well'.