The beauty of Out of Office replies

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st out of office new . Outlook's Out of Office template

Lee Suckling

Until last week, I’d never used Out of Office on my e-mail account. It’s a bit of a “two-finger typer” concept in a fast-swiping, smartphone-using world. Who doesn’t have their phone with them at all times? Who is actually leaving their inbox unchecked for more than two hours at a time?

I receive Out of Office auto-replies almost every day, however. They usually say things like, “I’m away for X period of time” and “I’ll respond to your e-mail when I return”, or, “I have intermittent access to e-mail” and “I will try my absolute best to reply to you ASAP”.

The former usually comes from a mid-level worker keen on ridding him or herself of all professional responsibility whilst laying flat on a beach. The latter is for those afraid of offending someone with non-reply and/or pure Fomo: Fear of Missing Out.

A third option is not to use Out of Office at all, instead to turn your phone to roam when you’re in another country (or use a local SIM card). People who do this exhibit an undeniable need to control their surroundings.

They want to remain wholly connected, even when holidaying in beautiful foreign lands, as this keeps their e-mail tension at bay. It also allows for workaholism to thrive and the façade that you’re always accessible, always working, and always reliable.

Some take pleasure in all of that. Until last week, I did too. I revelled in being eternally reachable; always able to respond to work opportunities, to stay updated and in control, and on top of my e-anxiety.

The Friday before last, when I was preparing to set off for eight days to the middle of the Pacific, I found the Out of Office setting in my e-mail account. I knew I’d have WiFi at the hotel, but it’d be pricy.

So I set up a time-specific message that would be sent to anyone who contacted me: I’m not in the country. I’m checking my e-mail sometimes, but I’ll only respond to (life-changing/people-dying) emergencies. Your problems can wait until next Monday.

I had a little more tact, of course. There’s etiquette to Out of Office messages. You don’t want to come off rude or brash, but neither do you want to appear a drippy mess of guilt and regret for going on vacation.

You have to keep Out of Office messages brief. Just a simple explanation of your absence, when you’ll be back (to minimise repeat e-mailers), and, if applicable, who to re-send an e-mail to for action on your behalf. Also, you can’t instil jealously or appear condescending, which means never revealing where you’re going. Noting that I was in Hawaii last week, for example, is a bit of a slap in the face for anyone looking out of a grey window during July.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be witty, however, and remember you can send different auto-replies to internal and external senders. For some people, it will be perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m out of the office and have escaped my screaming children for three days to attend a conference” or even, “I’m pre-empting a burnout by taking a few days to myself. Contact me on my cellphone if urgent.”

You must double check for typos, and sign off with a simple “Thanks” rather than one of those signatures nobody uses in real speech, such as “Take care” or “Warm regards”.

About three days in to my holiday, an overwhelming sense of calm – brought upon by the nonexistence of that iPhone e-mail ping sound – started to set in. I had turned off the “push” function on my mail app, meaning I had to manually retrieve new e-mails. I did so twice a day, but only replied when absolutely necessary. After all, I had the confidence that my Out of Office was received, and all e-mail senders knew I wouldn’t reply.

Eight days, beach-front, face-down, and nobody died. I had no follow-up e-mails requesting urgent reply, nor had I angered anyone by not giving receipt of e-mail acknowledgement.

Always-on e-mail culture has made us hypersensitive of others’ needs, but we’re overestimating how important we all are. Several things were learned during my week on auto-reply. People do not actually expect e-mail replies within minutes, or even hours. Most think it satisfactory to wait a day or two get an answer. If they can’t wait, they’ll e-mail again, or they’ll call. Failing that, they’ll find another way to get the result they desire within their timeframe.

I haven’t turned my mail app’s push function back on, even though I’m now home. I’m intent on continuing the Out of Office lifestyle a little longer. – New Zealand Herald


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