How to mas­ter the eti­quette of the Out Of Of­fice email

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE - By RHYMER RIGBY

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.

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