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.


Comments

    I get where you are coming from, but such messages are only really to be used when something (like being on holidays) would shift who actually needs to handle that email or at the very least to let the sender know you won't be seeing that email immediately.

    Ps you guys really should fix all mobile content being slightly too wide on windows phone 8 devices.. You know, being an IT centric blog and all... But what would I know..

      Yeah the too-wide problem happens on iPhones too. LH please fix :)

    Broadly agree with @michael_debyl, but I don't agree with getting rid of the out of office message.

    I have a work blackberry. I'm not looking at it on holidays (or weekends, or public holidays, and usually not after hours either). Because I'm not at work. I have it on me during meetings, training and conferences, and for any work-related text messages. I don't turn on an out of office then, and I forward emails to relevant people for action if necessary. Usually things can wait a day.

    Even executives go on leave occasionally, and they should be able to put on an out of office message. One shouldn't be on the clock all the time.

    minimal reply time half a day...that's a big fail in my office

    I use an out of office on public holidays (I deal with international customers who might not know when Australian public holidays are) and when I am on vacation. I would usually state that I will not have regular internet access and/or will be checking email "sporadically", so if their email is urgent they should contact XYZ otherwise I will respond when I return.

    Out-of-office messages are a common courtesy for any absence over 24hrs.

    The concept of work life balance seems to be chucked out of the window here. The whole idea of annual leave is to have "down time", where I get to recharge batteries and forget about work for once. So Eduardo would rather me bang out emails all day while on leave saying I'm on leave, or would he rather me just not take leave at all?

    Bad advice. As Phil says, it violates the work/life boundary.

    If it's not my normal working hours or a planned extension of those hours, I don't deal with work communications, period. Not on the train, not while having breakfast, not while watching TV, never. That boundary for me is inviolable. People who deal with me know that I will respond during normal working hours and have no expectation of getting a reply outside of that time.

    If I'm not available during my normal working hours for any foreseeable reason, an out-of-office reply is the courteous way to let people trying to get in touch with me know. They expect a response from me during working hours so letting them know I won't be able to do so is the right thing to do.

    When dealing with your company, do yourself a favour and set a strict boundary between work and life. If your job requires you to be on-call, make sure the conditions for after-hours contact are clearly defined in your contract and enforce them. There should be no expectation whatsoever from companies that they can load 'homework' onto their employees any more than was agreed to when they were hired.

    My work doesn't supply a mobile (I BYO with a use only plan and claim work calls), and is pretty restrictive on its laptop fleet. If I don't set an O-o-O message, I would (from previous experience as a result of forgetfulness) come back to a mob of pissed off clients, not to mention my even more pissed off staff.

    No work mail on my phone, screw that. Ou of office, while annoying, is still the best option.

    I use out of office when I am away for longer than a day.

    I am a sys admin, and I could get a call at 3am to say our main office is burning down and to get to our DR site to try and be up and running for core services at 9am.

    If I didn't look at my work mobile when I wasn't in the office, I could expect to have my work mobile privileges revoked.

    My mobile and email are provided so I will use them, not ignore them.

    If I am away for a long period of time, I set out of office so people know who to contact, if I am planning a blinder and know I will not be available to be called in should emergencies occur on a weekend, I let the boss know so that he can get one of the other guys to come in should something happen.

    Out of Office is useless if you have a blackberry and are attending work functions/sites/meetings for a day or two, but it is completely useful for long periods of leave.

    If you can't put your phone down and ignore work email while it's the weekend or you're on holidays, you're on the fast track to being overworked and suffering a breakdown.

    The problem isn't out of office messages being useless in this case, the problem is with the person and they are in desperate need to change their habbits before it all falls apart.

    Unless you're provided with these devices and it is made clear upfront that the expectation is you will make yourself contactable 24/7, then don't be. Look at it, sure, but unless the world is hurtling to an end (read: entire server room down etc) then let it wait as you would have if you hadn't been contacted. Don't burn yourself out. It's not worth it. Trust me, I've been there.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now