An Ontario academic and Microsoft researchers claim to have worked out the most common reasons why work-related emails go unanswered.

In a study of “email deferral behavior,” a University of Waterloo PhD candidate and a team from software giant Microsoft, found five main reasons why people tend to put off responding.

The time or effort involved in handling the email, the identity of the sender, the number of recipients on the thread, the recipients workload and the urgency of the email were the five main reasons for delays in hitting reply.

“One of the reasons we found for people deferring handling emails is that when there are multiple recipients the thinking might be that someone else will reply or it may not be clear at once who is required to respond,” said Bahareh Sarrafzadeh from the University of Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science.

The study, co-authored by Sarrafzadeh during her internship at Microsoft Research in Washington State, found that people are more likely to delay responding to emails when handling them involves “replying, reading carefully, or clicking on links and attachments,” while also factoring in a person’s workload and the “importance of the sender.”

“The sender of the email is also a factor. Sometimes you think if the sender is important then the reply will not be deferred, but we found that it could be the opposite,” she said.

“When it is your peer, it’s usually less effort to reply because you already know what the answer is.”

Researchers interviewed 15 participants from a diverse set of job roles for the study.

They then examined anonymized action logs of tens of thousands of users of a popular commercial email client to verify the information obtained during the interviews.

“Our interviews confirmed that deferral is common, with all 15 participants revealing that they are deferring handling messages daily while in our large-scale log analysis with 40,000 users, 16 per cent of them deferred at least one email per day,” Sarrafzadeh said.

The researchers say their model can reasonably predict the intention of a user to return to an email they initially deferred.

The team plans to design a feature to remind email users of the emails they need to return to, enabling them to get tasks done more effectively and in a timely manner.

It is estimated that 269 billion emails were sent and received per day in 2017 and studies show that information workers tend to spend up to 28 per cent of their time reading and answering email, the authors wrote.

The paper, titled “Characterizing and Predicting Email Deferral Behavior,” was published in the Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining.