Putting more effort into your out of office

An out of office email says more about you than you might think
by Bethan Rees

We all need to switch off from work every once in a while. Literally. This means restricting or removing your access to phones and work emails.

A study in April 2017 by the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, titled Brain drain: the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity, explains that the ‘brain drain’ induced by proximity to your smartphone comes about because of a “finite pool of attentional resources” which, when “recruited to inhibit automatic attention to one’s phone, are made unavailable for other tasks, and performance on these tasks will suffer”. 
So, if workers are to focus on relaxing and recharging their batteries while on holiday, it could be wise to have some time off from their smartphone. This is where an out of office reply comes in, which is something that many people do without thinking. But what you write in your automated email says plenty about you and your approach to client relationships.
Out of office etiquetteIt may seem trivial, but there’s an etiquette to out of office replies, which many people don’t realise or fully understand. Carolyn McRae, a former marketing manager at Blueleaf, reported in a blogpost an example of a poor out of office reply that she received:

"Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office from October the 17th to October the 22nd. I will be back at the office on October 23rd. Should you need immediate assistance please contact my office at xxx."

McRae advocates setting the date to a day later than your actual return, so that you have adequate time to respond – and a colleague to contact if the sender’s email is important. It’s also a courtesy to inform the said colleague who will be covering you.

Amber Rolfe, a writer specialising in career development and advice, wrote an article for recruitment agency Reed’s website. She advises: “Out of office emails should be short, succinct, and to the point – and should never include more information than is needed.”
A touch of humour A dash of humour could work, although it does depend on your company’s culture and its clients. If you’re working for a more traditional type firm, it may be worth running your jokey auto-response past your manager first! 

Writer, editor and public figure Daniel Mallory Ortberg has no such limitations, and recently let his creativity loose with an out of office autoreply that was reported on various news sites around the world. 

With a subject line of “nope”, it reads: “I am currently on vacation and not accepting any emails about anything. I’m not planning on reading any old emails when I get back, either, because that feels antithetical to the vacation experience.” 

Humour also helps automated replies feel less robotic and impersonal. McRae says a subject line is important in this regard: “Be sure to speak like a human. If you simply avoid writing the standard template message, you’ll basically have this one covered. Part of writing like a human is writing a real subject line.”
Connect to the clientMcRae writes: “The most important change for your out of office email is to instil a sense of service and demonstrate that you care about your client, even though you’re away.” One way to do this is to share some entertaining or informative content in your reply. This could be a useful blog post or report that is relevant to your company’s clients.

Michelle Gielan, in an article for Harvard Business Review, titled ‘Why you should put a little more thought into your out of office message’, also recommends such an approach. She writes that she received “an overwhelmingly positive response from people” with regards to the following out of office email:

"Hello! Our most recent study found that vacations are good for the brain and can increase performance at work. This calls for further research! I’ll be out of the office with limited access to email until [date]. If you need immediate assistance, please contact [my colleague.] Happy summer!"

Out of offices are a part of working office life and we all write them on regular occasions. But with these simple tips you can cater to your clients and represent your company appropriately – even in your absence.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email bethan.rees@wardour.co.uk
Published: 24 Aug 2018
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