How to write a great out of office reply
“I WILL BE back to the office [in two weeks] and have limited Wi-Fi in the meantime. It is safe to assume that readers of this column are familiar with something like this post (which like everything else quoted below is from real life). As with all aspects of office culture, automatic response has evolved over time and more rapidly over the past 18 months of the plague. The right etiquette did not always follow.
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The precursor of the electronic “out of office” is sometimes found in Mediterranean countries, where a handwritten note taped to a store front announces to the world: “Closed for August, back in September”. Digital auto-response was initially a quirk of software giant Microsoft, dating back to the company’s Xenix messaging system in the late 1980s, before spreading into the mainstream over the next two decades.
At that time, responses tended to be concise and to the point. This style persists to this day, especially in the upper echelons of corporate hierarchies. VSAuto-replies from executives in the suite rarely feature jokes or emojis, if, that is, they’re set up in the first place. A general manager does not have to explain his absence or his lack of rapid response, except possibly to the board of directors (which will invariably have been informed of the boss’s movements).
Lower down the pecking order, however, more and more people are trying to put their personal mark on their automatic responses. And if this Bartleby inbox is any guide, creativity has flourished in the age of lockdowns and remote working. Some try to be spiritual (“I will have limited enthusiasm for accessing email”). Others share (“I’m not in the office to get married!”). Others are still plump for the exotic (“Please note that I am traveling to a remote part of Greenland and will not have internet or phone connection for most of the time”).
Often times, the automatic reply involves people other than the sender and the recipient. Your columnist has been referred to time and time again as the person to whom recipients of automatic responses from colleagues should direct their queries. This can have long term consequences. PR guys still refuse to remove her email address from their mailing lists, even though she has patiently and repeatedly explained that climate change is not her pace, so there is no point in sending her any releases. daily press releases on agroforestry in Kenya. Sometimes automatic replies turn into a cyberspace version of a scavenger hunt. Over the summer, Bartleby’s email address was given out while she was on vacation herself, so the recipient ended up being redirected again.
Despite these weaknesses, most office workers have no problem with “out of the office”. A survey of 1,000 people conducted in 2015 by Microsoft found that most people liked the practice. Part of the reason is that it can mark the start of the holidays (which it did for 77% of those surveyed). But 60% also admitted to appreciating a cheerful response received from others.
Yet clear dos and don’ts exist. As a geek (and victim) “out of the office,” Bartleby recommends being straightforward and informative. Indicate the dates of your absence. If the period of absence is longer than a typical leave, a word of explanation may be required (jury, parental leave, sabbatical leave).
The message itself doesn’t have to be a labor of love. Excessive sharing is embarrassing. “I’m on it PTO“(Paid leave) has been common in the corona era despite the inelegance of reminding strangers that you have received compensation for your unavailability. The humble swaggers or the smug air are on the wrong track.
Trying to be funny often falls flat on his face. It’s best to avoid including suggestions for following you on Twitter or umbrella emojis on a beach. Three in ten respondents to Microsoft’s survey said they had succumbed to feelings of envy and fear of missing out on being told that others had enjoyed a tropical vacation. Straying from the subject, whether by including personal confessions or quotes from Muhammad Ali, shows not scholarship or finesse but a distracted mind ready to ramble. It’s like having water on your knee – the best things found in the wrong places.
Knowing that people want your attention before you return to your job can be a big part of running any other large organization. But if you’re surfing Maui, attending a conference, running an ultra-marathon in the Mojave Desert, writing a novel, or taking time out to paint your mom’s garage, no one really needs to know the details.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “Out of office experience”