Setting your Out-of-Office message without being a douche

I bet you’re one of those lucky people. You’ve never been this organised. You’ve probably run through the checklist, making big swishy ticks like an eager driving test invigilator whose palm just got greased.

  • Leave applied for a month ago (and approved) – check
  • holiday booked – check
  • desk relatively clear – check
  • email inbox up to date – well as much one can be up to date. It’s a bit like trying to stop running water with a sieve.
  • Out of office message engaged – ah…

I’m only going on leave next week and I still have a bit of time to formulate the perfect “out-of-office” message. Is there such a thing as a perfect out-of-office mail you may ask? The answer to this age-old corporate conundrum, is in this masterpiece of literary genius you are already reading. Ok I’m not sure if the question is actually age-old but the literary genius bit is definitely true.

Perhaps a good starting point here is to explain the Out-of-Office facility, just in case you live in the Outer Hebrides and have never owned an email address. In fact if you live in the Outer Hebrides you probably won’t be reading this on a phone or computer, more likely then you are reading this in hardcopy as a tattered, yellowing, piece of parchment with a treasure map on the other side which you extracted from a dirty beer bottle floating past the island you’ve been marooned upon. If that is the case, read no further, turn overleaf and start digging.

The Out-of-Office (OOO) message was invented by Microsoft in the 80’s although rumour has it, it was called the OOF back then. Mysteriously no one knows what the “F” stands for although anyone who has returned to the office after a month off, is likely to have determined their own definition for the “F”. Perhaps it should be renamed the WTF message once you turn it off after your vacation?

I think we can all agree that it’s actually Bill Gates’s fault that most of us suffer under the tyranny of an inbox throughout the year so I guess in a moment of extreme guilt he thought it’d be a good idea to create an automatic message that helped remind your customers and colleagues that you actually don’t give an “F” about them. It’s an amazing tool that allows you to delegate and irritate two different sets of people at the same time (your co-workers and your customers).

I’ve always felt that the OOO or OOF was a cruel automated gloating system. You’re wading through a quagmire of mail, looking for some way of moving your own pile of electronic despair to someone else’s. You’re lulled into a false sense of security and achievement as you press the send button. Then, almost as if you fired a boomerang shaped missile into cyber space, it bounces right back into your digital mailbox.

“Hi there, I’m sorry but I’m out of the office at the moment. I’ll return in 3 weeks. If your mail is urgent, please forward it to (insert name of hapless colleague). If not, I’ll attend to it when I return. Have a great day. Regards.”

There are hidden meanings in this email that may be invisible to the average email slave. Let me help you decipher this. Think of me as the enigma machine LiabilityGuy. The true message appears with the hidden meanings in red below:

“Hi there, I’m sorry but I’m out of the office at the moment. Hey asshole. I have no idea who you are, hence the reason for this impersonal, automated salutation masked as a friendly greeting. I’ll return in 3 weeks. Note that I’m not openly telling you I’m on holiday but unless people take lunch for 3 weeks at a time in your company, you can assume that I’ve probably saved up all my leave for this extremely long holiday. I’m gloating at the fact that you, mere mortal, used up most of your leave with a day here and there during the year, and now you have to work and read this, the electronic equivalent of being “flipped the bird” in the traffic. If your mail is urgent this is important because if you are like 90% of the contacts in this mailbox you’ll email me for any old random shit that you could probably resolve on your own within a few hours, let alone weeks, please forward it to (insert name of hapless colleague) As a bit of a joke, I’ve forwarded my mail to a colleague that has absolutely no idea what I’ve been working on for the past few months. This means that you’ll spend 3 weeks trying to explain yourself by which time I’ll be back at work dealing with this in person. If not, I’ll attend to it when I return. See previous comment and note the clever way all choices have a single outcome Have a great day. Regards. As I’m typing this glorious message I am laughing loudly. Not just any laugh but a deep, taunting, gloating, belly laugh at the fact that by the time you read it, I’ll be tanning my cheeks somewhere exotic (which means anywhere but in the office where you need me)

I realise we all need a break and that the OOO is probably the best way to make sure people know you won’t be attending to their mail within the usual 5 seconds of receiving it. You know those people that email you and then call immediately afterwards to make sure you received it. That call is important because in spite of major technological advances in digital communication, these individuals assume email is as reliable as the homing pigeon or the stagecoach postal service. Bandits lurk behind every data boulder, ready to jump out screaming “Stand and deliver”. Hands up if you thought of Adam Ant a second ago (if you don’t know who that is, go and ask your mom).

Seriously though, if you think about it, the Out of Office message could use a bit of an overhaul. I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts :

  • Don’t forget to update the message to cater for the current period you’ll be away. Nothing worse than receiving an out of office message from someone that suggests they’ll be back from leave, 6 months ago. Really, do you own a time machine and you’re actually going to come back before you leave?
  • Don’t forget to change the content of the message to keep it current. Ladies, if you were on maternity leave 3 years ago, your clients and colleagues do not want to be reminded of this historical fact every December. This is not Facebook moments…
  • Do tell your colleagues if you are forwarding mail or redirecting senders. Most people receive way too much mail already. Adding another mailbox to one person’s load unexpectedly is evil. Dante would’ve allocated a 10th circle of hell to this, entitled Inbox Inferno if he lived in the 21st century. I’m not sure if one can prepare for an email avalanche any more than one can prepare to be shot in the face but I guess its just common courtesy.
  • Do explore the latest Microsoft advancements in the “Auto Reply” video. There are some good tips that will help you avoid upsetting clients and colleagues.

Above all, remember that unless you manage your Out-of-Office effectively, you are really turning the company’s problem (of you being away) into the sender’s problem. Not a sustainable solution.

I’m the LiabilityGuy and I’m out of the office…

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