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Out of office emails don’t work any more

This blog has been inspired by travel this week.

In an age where we each carry multiple mobile devices, and mobile networks are often better than office networks, I think it’s about time to retire the out of office email.

It’s obsolete, a hangover from the late-80s and 90s when personal computers, and their users, were shackled to a desk.

I’d argue that out of office means you’re likely to be more connected and responsive, rather than less.

Whenever I’m travelling I find that I make an extra effort to keep up with family and friends, pay greater attention to social networks, and my business email.

It can be incredibly productive. I do most of my writing on the move. It also maintains an important social connection with home or the office.

I don’t think I’m unusual. In 2014 whenever and wherever you travel, whether by air, land or sea, you’ll see people checking their devices and tapping away.

It’s also an issue of changing workflow. We’re as likely to engage with colleagues and customers via email as we are via a collaborative or social form of media such as a community or network.

As our habits changes out of office emails aren’t respected by either the recipient, or oddly the sender.

I frequently get an automated out of office email from an individual informing me that they are out of the office at an important meeting. It is frequently followed by a response to my original message sent in transit or during a break.

Recipients are wise to this trend and will ignore automated responses and continue to send emails regardless.

There are some people in my network who send fantastic out of office automated responses. They’ve turned it into a sort of virtual postcard that tells you where they’ve gone and what they’re up to.

I’ve tried it myself and it always generates a positive response.

In the past I’ve made the mistake of calling the death of automated email responses, most recently to my Twitter network a few months ago.

Inevitably it prompted a backlash from people in my network claiming that automated emails were an important way to manage expectations, particularly during holidays.

They have a point.

It’s important to completely switch-off and recharge every so often whatever you do. Perhaps the automated holiday email response is the last meaningful form of the genre.

For the record, I’m out of the office.

Photo with thanks via Flickr by kittysphoto.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

30 Comments

  1. Interesting post on a topic I’ve been pondering recently. As a freelance it’s even more of an issue as you can’t have the “Contact….” someone else in the team message. As a result I don’t use out of office. However, I’m about to start doing for the reason you touch on towards the end about ‘managing expectations’. The reality is that on a work trip or a holiday I’m probably going to take longer to reply and send a less useful response, but at least people will now know straight away.

  2. It all comes down to what you are doing out of the office.The mere act of being ‘out of the office’ no longer has any relevance, true… if it ever did – PR being a 24/7 occupation in many cases. Instead it has merely become useful shorthand for ‘Expect atypical email reciprocation from me if you are reading this.’ For example: ‘I’m currently (Out of the Office) in Tokyo, so don’t think I’m ignoring this very important mail. I’m asleep. Call me after 6am my time.’ is valid and mutually useful usage. Ditto, ‘I’m currently (Out of the Office) in 6 solid hours of strategic meetings and really need to focus/have a really strict chairman who glares if you look at your phone. Don’t let me be a bottleneck, ill get back to you soon’. Or especially, ‘I’m currently (Out of the Office) on a beach trying to tear myself away from my digital life, so let me have a few analog days of balance, eh?’

  3. I mostly agree with this but the point about managing expectations is a really important one. This week I’ve been handling a big work load combined with the need to be out of the office frequently for personal reasons. This has also impacted on my free time. A colleague suggested that I used the OoO function even when I was in the office. It genuinely took the pressure off.

  4. Interesting post. I do think they don’t do the purpose they did before mobile became mainstream, but you sure made some point on how we can make it a PR tool.

    Even so, i would like a serious discussion about the future of email itself. I just discovered that my youngest students just don’t use it and all their communications happens on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsup or Google+ groups. I find it amazing, comparing to classes from 2 years ago that everything was through email.

  5. Interesting post. I do think they don’t do the purpose they did before mobile became mainstream, but you sure made some point on how we can make it a PR tool.

    Even so, i would like a serious discussion about the future of email itself. I just discovered that my youngest students just don’t use it and all their communications happens on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsup or Google+ groups. I find it amazing, comparing to classes from 2 years ago that everything was through email.

  6. OOO should be OOH – Out On Holiday. When I go on holiday, my auto response from the quaint application of ’email’ says that I am uncontactable by email but send me a SMS if it is truly urgent and important. Sometimes, this even works.

    The way some people use OOO is ridiculous, even today. I’m waiting for OTB – “I’m OTB but still checking messages, please bear with me while I try not to drop this thing down the privvy”.

  7. Couldn’t agree more. I worked with someone about 18 months ago who even used OOO when they were working from another location (home, or a client’s office, for example). Utterly clueless.

    I feel much the same about mobile phone sigs … “sent from my mobile” etc. I’m not interested in your choice of device or your location – if you’re working, you’re working. For that reason, I use the same sig on my emails whether they come from my phone, my Mac or via webmail.
    Whether email is dead or not is a separate matter. It isn’t dead. Anyone coming to the conclusion it is, or might be, is really only experiencing the changing use of email, and that’s a good thing. Used properly, email is great. But most people don’t use it properly.

    • I disagree and think it’s really important to have a different email signature on your mobile or tablet. The simple reason is that for many emails it’s virtually impossible to type a proper response on a phone or tablet. That’s why people use ‘out of office’ as there is a huge difference between reading emails on the move and responding comprehensively. That’s why I ‘borrowed’ by signature from Blue Rubicon’s Mark Pack and it says variations of ‘Sent on the move so please excuse my brevity and any typos”

  8. Interesting read, I wouldn’t have really thought about setting up an ‘out of office’ if I wasn’t at work – maybe the ‘savvy’ side of my generation just missed this trend. Aren’t you meant to just tell the people that matter you won’t be around from X date to Y date?

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