How to manage email when traveling for work

I’m horrible at processing email when I’m traveling for my job. Last month, when I was at the NAPO annual conference, I was once again reminded of my complete inadequacies in this area. I actually thought I had done better this time than usual, but on Monday morning when I sat down at my desk the more than 1,000 emails sitting in my work email account were proof that I had once again failed.

I admitted defeat and immediately sought advice from my friend Nick who works for a hotel chain and travels a good amount for his job. He started by saying, “not gonna lie, it’s tough.”

Want to know what words were oddly comforting to me? It’s tough. If a person who has been on the road a good amount doesn’t have it easy, I guess it makes sense that I wouldn’t have it easy, either.

After talking to Nick, I wrote to more of my friends and eventually posted the following request on Twitter: “Constant work travelers — What are your strategies for processing email when on the road? Share your seasoned advice with me!”

A slew of fantastic advice poured in, and I’m thankful to everyone who responded. Most of the advice identified major themes and philosophies for solving this problem and I’ve summarized this information:

  • Tie yourself to a smartphone. If you want to stay on top of email, you have to keep a smartphone on you. Keep the ringer off and the message alerts set to vibrate.
  • Enable automatic sorting and color coding in your smartphone’s email program. Have a filter that automatically routes all messages out of your inbox and into separate folders where you are copied instead of listed as the main recipient, all newsletters or read-only emails you subscribe to, and all emails from sources you know are not going to be must-respond-now messages. Have your system color code messages from your boss and/or other very important folks so these messages will catch your attention when they come into your main inbox. (If you’re on a Windows-based phone, there are macros and add-ins for Outlook you can install. If you can legally route your work email through Gmail, you can also do this. I was unable to find an app for the iPhone that enables these features.)
  • Check messages during lulls in your schedule. As you wait in the line at the airport, switch between sessions at a conference, or grab a snack, process your priority emails then.
  • Only check work email. If someone needs to contact you about an important personal matter, he/she will text or call you. Check your personal email account on weekends or after you get home from traveling.
  • Only respond to items that can be handled in less than one minute. Delegate as much as possible, delete or archive anything that doesn’t need a response, and only send short messages of less than a paragraph to the priority emails you respond to.
  • Manage expectations. Have an automated out-of-office message enabled on your account that says you will have limited access to emails and no one should expect a response until you are back in the office (be sure to list that specific date). Provide detailed contact information for someone in the office who may be able to handle emergencies, and give that person in the office your cell number so he/she can call you if there is a major event. Also, let your office contact know when you expect to be on flights and/or completely out of connection.
  • Manage more expectations. When you reply to someone from your smartphone, have a “Sent from mobile device, please excuse typos and brevity” signature on the bottom of every message. You might also want to consider posting your return date on your out-of-office message as the day after you return so you have a full day to gather your bearings once you’re back in the office. Under promise, over deliver.
  • Have access to cloud file storage. Not all smartphones allow you to attach documents, so you’ll need to be able to send links to documents stored online with services like Dropbox. If your employer doesn’t allow file posting online and attaching documents to emails is essential to your job, you’ll want to get the smallest, lightest laptop you can because you’re going to have to carry it with you instead of a smartphone.
  • Work on email every night when you get to your hotel room. It will add to your workday, but taking 30 minutes or an hour every night to process the entirety of all your email inboxes and folders will guarantee you don’t have an avalanche of messages when you get back to your office.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that two people said responding to email while traveling for work is futile. One said she looks forward to having days free of the email interruptions and only answers phone calls, and another said he just deletes everything and believes if it’s really important the person will resend the email. I can’t imagine following either method, but certainly understand the sentiment.

Many thanks to Brian Kieffer, Nick Ayres, Tammy Schoch, Jorgen Sundgot, Generating Alpha, Dauerhippo, Courtney Miller-Callihan, Aaron Lilly, Fahryn Hoffman, Zacory Boatright, and Aviva Goldfarb for your advice and contributions to this article. If you’re someone who travels a great amount for work, please share your additional advice in the comments.

14 Comments for “How to manage email when traveling for work”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    Prioritizing, delegating and easy access to files/forms are key for me. Work emails that require no response are scanned and deleted immediately (avoids overwhelms and I can do it while waiting in line). Email that can wait AND require a response from me, go into a folder to address when I return. Email that can be handled by someone else are delegated. That usually brings it down to 5-10 emails that require immediate response/action. I store docs that I access regularly (contracts, letters, invoices, project docs) on a cloud with bookmarked links that I can point to quickly when replying to messages.

    Personal emails are handled in the evening and I have my voicemail messages sent to me in a text file so I can scan the message to determine if I need to call the person back or simply send a message.

  2. posted by erin @ WELL in L.A. on

    These are great tips for daily email management, too. I’m a big fan of Gmail’s “canned response” app available in mail labs. I use it to send quick responses to more frequent email conversations and requests.

  3. posted by Dr Mary Ann on

    Apple iCal has all these capabilities built in. Check out Preferences/Rules.

  4. posted by Julie Bestry on

    This year’s NAPO conference was where I drew the line in the sand. I have no mobile devices and have always struggled with feeling a little too Luddite or Amish because of it. 51 weeks out of the year, my desktop computer serves me perfectly well and I process email down to a generally empty inbox each night. But during this last travel week, thanks to weak cell signals, I received voicemails hours after they came, and only saw tweeted messages and emails at night, when I could use a borrowed laptop. Web mail for my business account is awkward, and forwarding to Gmail so I can respond “from” my actual business account makes me feel like it’s 1997.

    It’s still hard for me to imagine investing in a smartphone when I don’t text, don’t need it the rest of the year and my chubby sausage fingers still can’t type fewer than two characters at a time, but an iPad is now non-negotiable. Yes, “it’s tough” but I no longer feel quite so alone. Thanks, Erin!

  5. posted by katrina on

    That’s a good list Erin.

    I’m rather fiercely attached to the idea that work and personal emails should operate through completely separate accounts or addresses.

    Twitter, facebook etc should only be directed to a business email account if it relates to the business. Otherwise it just shouldn’t be activated for the business account.

    Personal accounts for chatting should be sent to a separate email personal address, perhaps even one that is separate to the general personal email account. The idea being that if something is mega-important then the person will phone you directly.

  6. posted by Paula on

    I agree with Katrina about keeping separate email accounts for work and personal. Just because you’re on the road doesn’t mean you don’t want to keep up with friends, as well.

    But why set the phone on vibrate for incoming email? That’s too distracting, especially if one receives lots of mail (and I’d say 1000 mails – and that’s only the unprocessed ones – in one week qualifies as “lots”). Just like at home, it’s best to actively control when one will check one’s inbox (e.g. save 30 minutes in a 60-minute lunch break, preferably AFTER lunch otherwise one won’t get to it; while waiting on line; right when one gets back to one’s hotel room before dinner) and then process, taking time to sort, delegate, etc.

  7. posted by Nick on

    In addition to the “Please forgive the spelling errors” and “this was sent from a SmartPhone” tag, I use my iPhone’s Siri to dictate and respond to as much email as I possibly can. Usually just a few sentences will satisfy (or at least hold off)any burning fires.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Paula — On most smartphones, email is only passively checked a few times an hour. (It’s not like it is on your desktop computer, which checks every 30 seconds.) For most people, I don’t think a vibration three times an hour is that much of a distraction. At least it’s not for me. If someone has their email system set to passively check more than a few times an hour, I would certainly change this setting. I agree, it would be very annoying to get notifications more than three or four times an hour.

  9. posted by Carnie on

    I totally get that this is a problem (for me, too), and appreciate the effort taken to compile these responses. I am a person who processes 100s of e-mails ALL DAY LONG in between other ongoing tasks and large creative projects. I am on lots of professional mailing lists. I have several e-mail accounts (biz + personal). I stress out over how much incoming mail is left over each day.

    But when I read this post as a whole, with all its many little tips and hacks, I got to the end and thought, Really? Am I so important in this giant and multifaceted wheel of life that I need a DETAILED PLAN and timer to stay on top of my work e-mails? Am I going to put my friends and personal life completely on hold just because I’m on a business trip? NO. If anything, I will need to unwind and connect with non-work people when I’m at a conference or event where my workday is much longer than usual. I’d be PISSED if I missed the e-mail inviting me to a birthday dinner the day I come home.

    I prefer to give focus and attention to what is happening in front of my face (keynote speakers, meeting people/clients, business meals) than staying 100% on top of e-mail. I’ll deal with it when I get back. The best tips are a good out-of-office disclaimer that tells people not to expect a detailed reply until then, and to keep my calendar completely clear the first day home.

  10. posted by Scott Roewer on

    I may have missed it, but did you talk about POP vs IMAP accounts. I find those who are rocking the POP accounts, have double the amount of work when they return to their desk. They may have emailed and purged while on the road, but without the IMAP setup they have to redo it when they’re back at their desk. I heart IMAP.

    I’m just “OK” with the please excuse my type-error comment. I prefer something more comical such as…

    Typed by thumbs and sent by gadget

    If the reader doesn’t understand there may be a type error – well screw’em.

  11. posted by Frank on

    One of the best ways to catch up on all that email is to use the in-flight wi-fi. Most domestic flights have gogo inflight internet. Using the downtime of flying to address all your emails before you return to the office will allow you to hit the ground running when you get back. It’s priceless.

  12. posted by Mez on

    I haven’t tried this but it looks worth try for filtering your mail on ipad or iphone

  13. posted by earthmother65 on

    This post really struck a cord with me, since I get over 100 emails a day at work, so when I’m traveling to all-day meetings or going through intense projects like this past week, the backlog easily hits the 1000+ mark. Hotel nights are one solution but probably the most important is to accept that they will NOT all get my attention. I do a quick glance and prioritize my husband, my boss, and my direct reports. The rest…que sera’, sera’ 🙂

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