You Need A Better Out Of Office Message
We don't need professional politeness. We need honesty.
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One thing that happens when you regularly send a newsletter out to tens of thousands of people is that you see a lot of automatic Out Of Office (OOO) email responses. The most common one I receive goes something like this: Hi, I’m out of the office until __ and may be slow to respond to email. If it’s an emergency, you can reach me at __ or please contact __. Thanks!
There’s nothing awful or offensive about this message, but it’s also not very good. Yes, it provides the courtesy of letting the sender nominally know that you’re going to be slower than usual to respond. That’s nice. The problem is in this bit: “may be slow to respond to email.” Another popular variation: “might be slower than usual to respond.”
I might sound nitpicky but the language is important. “Might” or “may be” or “slower than usual” are vague and don’t offer the sender all that much information about when you’re really going to respond to them. Worse, they do a horrible job of protecting the time of the email receiver who, as the responder notes, is not in the office! Such a responder implies that, not only will the vacationer reply to the email, but they may not even miss a beat. They may be slow to respond, but they also might not.
There’s a grim, apologetic vibe to these messages — I’m sorry I’m taking time for myself but I’ll try to check in on occasion! They’re a vivid reflection of a work culture that valorizes constant productivity and the near-total overlap of work and life. But they’re also do a terrible job of what they’re intended to do, e.g., set realistic expectations for both sender and recipient. A vague OOO message traps both parties in an uncomfortable liminal space where both productivity and rest go to die. The original sender is left unsure if they’ll be getting a timely response or a whether the email will go ignored for a time or forever. The original recipient has taken what is a rock solid excuse (time off) and cheapened it, offering a backdoor for email guilt to creep in.
There are a million reasons why people feel the need to sheepishly telegraph that they’ll be checking email while OOO: a toxic workplace culture; a set of bad managers who don’t model work/life balance or use manipulative tactics like saying, ‘feel free to take some time if you need it’; companies that are so focused on lean growth they don’t have anyone to pick up the slack when an employee opts to take time off. These days, merely having the confidence to step away from your job by taking the vacation time granted to you in the terms of your employment agreement is still a privilege in the American workforce.
Which is why the workers who do have the ability, whether through place within the hierarchy or company culture, should not squander it. In fact, they should recognize the OOO as an opportunity to model and normalize organizational or even industry-wide guardrails (as opposed to bullshit feebly-maintained ‘boundaries’). It’s why, starting this summer, we need to embrace the blunt, descriptive OOO message.
Here’s one example out in the world, which jumpstarted me thinking about this topic:
When I tweeted this, some people argued that the pollster above was using his wife as an excuse. This might be true (and, if so, is probably a bad defense mechanism from some of the work culture habits described earlier). Another possible explanation is that the pollster is telling the truth — his inability to try and balance a vacation with some light work time built in is understandably frustrating and exhausting to those around him.
What makes this a decent example of an OOO message is that it’s candid, (hopefully) honest, and blunt. There’s no guessing whether or not this dude is going to respond to your email this week. Also, it gives us a bit of an insight into his life right now, which helps communication in the moment and in the future. He’s burned out. Even if you did manage to reach him, it’s likely he’d be resentful, even if he didn’t say so. There’s a good chance the sender of the original email will identify with this and respect his time.
After I tweeted this example, dozens of people sent me examples of OOO messages they’d set or particularly good examples they’d seen in the wild. One example from a boss (via a TikTok) who offers emailers a decision tree of sorts. “Option 1.) Wait it out. Ask yourself, ‘is this urgent and important?’ If not, take a beat…you and I will be better off with this expectation set now,” the email begins. This one stands out because it’s extremely detailed, manages expectations and also offers who to contact in different situations. It models good behavior of taking time off, but also gives the original sender a variety of option. Most importantly, the responder forces the original sender to assess whether this is actually an urgent request.
Another (also memorialized via a TikTok) is not exactly an OOO responder but it’s a great example of unapologetic bluntness. “Baby, I’m not even here,” the woman in the says while preparing a margarita and talking about not responding to calls or emails during approved time off. “PTO? Prepare The Others. I’m a ghost.”
Over Twitter DMs, one woman sent me her OOO messages from when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The messages — composed while she was undergoing chemotherapy treatments and recovering from surgery — were detailed and unique. They offered touches of humor, honesty, details about her treatment schedules and set expectations for others trying to reach her. She offered alternative contact options for potential emailers to make sure urgent requests didn’t fall through the cracks but offered a dose or reality as well. I particularly appreciated this line:
If you do not resend your email to the appropriate person as outlined above, it will not be read. I am not checking email during this time, and my emails are not being forwarded to someone else to check, either. Please also understand that it will take me some time to respond to you once I am back.
Clear and direct.
For those truly willing to embrace a pure OOO experience, there is a more extreme, nuclear option. Rather than promising senders you’ll bushwhack through your inbox after time off and get back to them, you can simply tell them that you’ll be deleting all emails received during vacation and returning with a fresh slate. If the message is still relevant, they can send it when you’re back. Atlantic writer Marina Koren wrote about this controversial approach in 2018. Koren admitted to initially bristling at this blunt OOO reply, but seems to have come around to its merits. Near the end of her piece she describes the nuclear option as “perhaps the most honest” of all OOO replies: “He simply doesn’t have the time for this, the message declares, and, anyway, most of the emails we receive each day don’t matter.”
In 2013, researcher danah boyd wrote a LinkedIn blog post advocating for the nuclear option which was framed in the piece as an “email sabbatical.” Coming back to an empty inbox after a vacation is should be a break from the insanity, not a procrastination of it,” boyd wrote of the decision to send everything to the trash.
This is true! The nuclear option also helps the recently returned vacationer understand what is a priority and what isn’t. But, as boyd wrote, “if you just turn off your email with no warning, you're bound to piss off your friends, family, colleagues, and clients.” The blog post offers some helpful steps to make a clean break feasible — they include communicating with colleagues about the sabbatical long in advance, managing expectations of those who rely on you, creating a backdoor for true emergencies, and then, right before going away, reminding everyone about the sabbatical once again.
Most of what I’m describing (as well as boyd) boils down to examples of clear, honest, communication. While it sounds simple, such openness is extremely rare in the workplace. It is rare because, especially with time off, this type of communication requires the sender to be vulnerable, to cede control, and/or to be assertive and frank about one’s needs.
But what boyd’s blog post really drives home for me is that actually taking time off is, uh, hard work. I’ve struggled with this intensely in my own working life. I associate vacation and disconnect with the act of fleeing or hiding. But this mindset is selfish and not all that relaxing. The work of planning to take a vacation long felt counterintuitive to me and so I just ghosted everything on Vacation Day One with no plan in place. This meant that while I was off, I felt the nervous pull to check in on work; when I came back, I faced a barrage of angry red notifications. Vacation calm: eliminated. What I realized only recently, is that I wasn’t really respecting my own time off. I didn’t believe I truly deserved it so I tried to sneak away quietly. I wasn’t assertive or confident. I didn’t invest in my time off by prepping for it and ultimately I undermined it.
Running away from your inbox or your work responsibilities doesn’t solve problems, it merely delays them. What boyd suggests, though, is something different. Her strategy asks us plan ahead of time: to construct an off ramp from our jobs as well as an on-ramp for the eventual re-entry. Her asks aren’t Herculean but they require some foresight — and they demand that a person be very upfront about what they want from their time off, and that they commit to protecting their time.
It’s no surprise then that boyd is also excellent OOO responder writer:
I want to be clear that I don’t think OOO responders are the solution to the larger problems of worker inequality or the broad American cultural attitudes that celebrate and encourage overwork. That would be silly. The big remedies for what ails modern work will likely require workers organizing and employers recognizing and granting protections. Large companies will have to stop prioritizing shareholder at the expense of their workers. I’m aware how unlikely this feels in practice and how a thoughtful auto reply email feels like applying a band-aid on a gunshot wound. I get it.
But I also believe there’s meaningful power in the mundane cultural norms we set and practice. Email, for better or worse, makes up a large chunk of how knowledge workers communicate. So much of this communication is muddled by broken email habits and larger anxieties around performing productivity. We’re constantly nervous about asking too much of others or doing too little on behalf of our coworkers. But we’re also stuck in work patterns that force us to communicate constantly and normalize working and demanding things from colleagues at all hours.
As a result, our text-based work communication has morphed into a series of strange, stilted, passive aggressive, and performatively upbeat exchanges. Much of the actual text of work email exchanges is ornamental filler language filled with exclamation points and phrases like “just looping back on this” that mask burnout, frustrated obligation, and sometimes outright contempt (the absolute best example of this is a wonderful 2015 post titled, “Just Checking In,” where writers Virginia Heffernan and Paul Ford write fake emails in this vein to see who can cause the other the most panic).
What we need in our work communication is not more professional politeness or less formal, chat-based messaging applications like Slack. We need honesty. The problem is that we’ve conditioned ourselves to see honesty as self-indulgent or disrespectful. I’d argue the opposite is true. Honesty, even if it’s a bit more inconvenient for all parties in the moment, pays dividends later. It builds trust. When my partner Anne Helen Petersen and I were interviewing people for our forthcoming book on remote work, a frequent lament from both middle managers and workers was that they didn’t feel like they knew how to succeed in their jobs; that they were guessing what their superiors and coworkers wanted and, even when they asked, they didn’t quite trust the responses they got back.
Honest communication, even in the form of an email auto reply, is a roadmap. It helps people understand how best to help you and, in turn, allows them to better help themselves. Straightforward expectation setting is a way to be respectful of your coworkers’ time and pressures, but most importantly, it’s a way to be respectful of and guard your time. Even if you don’t feel an intense need to be more open in your workplace correspondence, consider modeling the behavior for others who work with you or, especially, those who work for you. It’s a small change in behavior but it’s a meaningful one. And this summer is the perfect time to start.
If you need to revamp your OOO message, try this:
Even the most blunt Out Of Office responders can still offer some levity or can at least entertain. If you’re looking to spice up your OOO, try this wonderful Wikipedia OOO generator that Melody Joy Kramer and Alex Hollender built. It auto-generates an OOO response with either a link or a quote pulled from Wikipedia. It’s a cool little project and a nice starter template for you when you decide to tell everyone to buzz off and leave you alone for a bit.
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A retired small town newspaper guy once told me about the first time the publisher went on vacation and left him in charge (this would have been in the 80s). The publisher told him “Don’t call me unless the building burns down, and even then, don’t call me until the fire is out.” Good example of management setting vacation expectations.
Huh. This is a rare column from you that I disagree with almost entirely. I guess to start with what I think you get right, there's no need to apologize for being out of office, and no one should feel obligated to deal with anything other than a legitimate emergency (which are, in most fields, truly rare) while on vacation or while taking time off.
But I'm someone who has co-workers in almost every time zone, on almost every continent, and in almost every geographic region, and I simply can't imagine using most of these examples with co-workers in, say, South Korea or Japan or Nicaragua. Like, the account manager who reaches out to me for help accessing a particular system in Seoul doesn't need my personal story about why I'm taking time off and all the fun (or, for that matter, not fun) things that I'll be doing — they need help gaining access to [system] in order to complete the job tasks that have been assigned to them. If I am not available to help them, they need to know who can, and if there just *isn't* anyone else who can perform this task, they need to know when I will be able to.
Further, given how poorly humor — especially sarcastic or snarky, even if mild — translates in text, you're running a moderate risk of pissing someone off through no fault of their own, for no reason other than to indulge yourself.
Maybe I'm over-reading your advice or observations here, but, like, being straightforward and honest without being deliberately blunt or getting in your bon mots is basically the expectation at most of the companies I've worked at. Professional politeness is fine, and good, actually, as long as it's not a cover for other, less praiseworthy behaviors, and what constitutes "important" is going to vary wildly, depending on whose boss is the one assigning the tasks — my boss may not care that an employee's access to a system gets delayed by a week or two, but the employee whose sales are dependent on having access to that system certainly does, for entirely understandable reasons.