Is It Time To Kill The Out-Of-Office Message?

It’s a familiar ritual: if you’re going to be absent from the office for a day-long meeting or a week-long holiday, you set up an auto-reply message on your email to let people know you won’t be responding straight away. But in an era where email follows us around everywhere, does that really make any sense?

Office picture from Shutterstock

In a presentation at MMS 2013, Microsoft enterprise strategy principal Eduardo Kassner argued that it didn’t. The main focus of Kassner’s session was on how to evolve corporate IT strategy to reflect the proliferation of devices now active in the workplace, a task he suggested accomplishing by shifting the emphasis from provisioning devices to delivering services. He also repeatedly referenced the four-way continuum of device supply which we’ve covered before: here’s your own, choose your own, bring your own and on your own.

Those issues aside, one intriguing idea that Kassner raised was the notion that the traditional out-of-office message is now a waste of time. “I don’t put any out of office notices,” he said. “I don’t know when I’m in the office.” Since you can reply to emails before breakfast and chat to colleagues on your mobile during your commute, the notion that presence reflects how you’ll handle email is pointless, he suggested. “We put it out of habit, but we don’t behave differently. We don’t have a location any more.”

That doesn’t mean Kassner advocates replying to email in a free-form way; far from it. “I’ve gotten used to not replying as a habit immediately. I’ve always said my minimal reply time is half a day.”

While he emphasised that this was a personal choice (“don’t emulate me”), and obviously it won’t work in every job, many emails don’t require immediate responses, and forcing yourself to reply immediately can be equally draining. We’ve frequently advocated setting specific times in your calendar for replying to mail; even if you don’t want to wait half a day, that’s a potentially sanity-saving move.

If you are going to use an out-of-office message, make sure that it’s effective. We’ve written about this in some detail, but the short version is: specify when you’ll be back and who else to speak to.

Whatever approach you take, planning is critical, a point Kassner also made when discussing effective work strategies for using and managing multiple devices. “If you don’t have goals defined, it doesn’t work. Its the hardest part and it’s the most boring part, but it’s the most critical.”

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Las Vegas for the Microsoft Management Summit 2013, looking for practical guidance on deploying and managing Windows servers.

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