How to master the etiquette of the Out Of Office email
In ridiculous patent news, it was revealed earlier this year that IBM owns US Patent no. 9547842 — the patent on Out Of Office (OOO) email replies. That’s right, the automatic responses you’ve used every time you’ve been on holiday for the two last decades, without ever thinking once, “You know what, this could be a lucrative piece of intellectual property.”
To be fair to IBM, it has said the patenting is “defensive”. This means that it will not enforce the patent. Rather, it has taken it out to ensure that “patent trolls” won’t be able to patent OOO and then sue companies for using it. A heroic social service, for the good of mankind?
Maybe. There remains the worry that at a future date, the patent could be sold as part of a portfolio to a less scrupulous company, which will then attempt to turn the words “annual leave” into a billion dollar revenue stream.
Those two little words are employed a lot at this time of year, and for most of us, our OOO concerns are less lofty and lawyerly. If we receive an OOO response, we might find it annoying. If we use OOO ourselves, me might annoy others. For something so trivial, OOO can evoke very strong responses. So how best to say you’re away? And how should you react to the OOOs of others?
First, a word on the psychology of OOO. People tend to expect that their emails will result in an instant (or at least very speedy) response. When you get an OOO reply these expectations are dashed so very, very cruelly, in a “Computer Says No” kind of way. It’s a bit like being given the finger by the internet.
It’s easy to react badly to this blithe put-down and start thinking about how much you hate OOO notices and how you can’t believe Dave used the words “Annual Leave” when he’s actually on holiday in the South of France and how this literally makes him the The Worst Man In The Office.
Obviously this is ridiculous, so chill and take a deep breath. Dave is allowed to go on holiday. He probably just wrote “annual leave” because everyone in your company uses terrible jargon. Did you yourself not use the phrase “authentic values” in last week’s meeting? You know you did.
Next, ask yourself if your query is so important that it can’t wait two weeks. It isn’t, is it? Very few things are. Ask Dave when he comes back, preferably face to face. Ask him about his holiday too.
When it comes to composing your own OOO, you may realise there is something to this “annual leave” stuff after all. The thing is, although “I’m on holiday” is more charming and less corporate, it suggests you are sunning yourself on a beach somewhere.
“Cybercriminals can work out that you’re away, look up your address and burgle your house,” warns Monica Seeley, an expert in email management and the author of Brilliant Email. In fact, she adds, for this reason, some companies have a No OOO (or perhaps a NOOOO!) policy.
Practically speaking, there are three pieces of information a decent OOO should convey. The first is that you are away. The second is when you get back. And the third is a contact if it’s important.
Laura Carus, creative director of language consultancy The Writer, advises that you keep it short and sweet. “No-one wants an essay, either about how you are in a mountain town in Sardinia or about the 14 people they can contact for every eventuality.” As for “annual leave” she advises you just say you’re away, “No-one says ‘Annual Leave’ in normal conversation.”
You should give a contact, in case the message is important. But you shouldn’t make it too easy. Just give a colleague’s name and an email address. Don’t tell people to call you if it’s urgent. This is a very quick way to discover that you have a client who thinks that a meeting in three months’ time is urgent. Even though you are on holiday. In Vietnam. And it’s 4am your time.
Never put your OOO on to say you’re going into a meeting for three hours. You are not that important. If you were, you would have a PA dealing with your emails.
Ms Seeley suggests that real email pros can do all sorts of clever things. These involve using “rules” for Outlook so that different messages go to do different places. You might, for instance, write a rule which ensures that all emails from certain clients go to a colleague who is looking after things while you’re away, but that the emails from your Yogalates instructor stay in your inbox.
Remember your marketplace too. If you are a highend travel company, your customers may have very different expectations than if you run a garden stone business. Similarly be careful about the extra information you give out. Saying you’re at a conference in Vegas could suggest to a client, “As you can see, this company has money to burn — probably because it overcharges you.”
Can you be funny? It depends on your company, its clients and its culture. Ms Carus thinks a little humour can go down well. “We had one a while back that said, ‘’I’m at the physio. Trampolines are dangerous.’ A touch of personality can be nice.”
A really bold move is to declare email bankruptcy. Say, “I am away for two weeks and will be deleting all emails that arrive during this time. If it is important please email me again after my return on the 17 th.”
You need email nerves of steel for this one.
Advertising your whereabouts is not always a good idea.