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The Problems With “Out Of Office” Replies

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I have ranted about the Google Priority Inbox. So I’m taking on another “feature” of email I despise: the out-of-office message.

We all know how this is supposed to work. When you’re out on vacation or away at a conference, you set your email program to automatically reply to any incoming messages to explain your absence. At first, this sounds like an idea out of The Jetsons. Instead of having your messages pile up unanswered, a robot can cheerfully respond on your behalf!

However, the experience isn’t quite so pleasant for those who are trying to reach you. After all, they find out that you are “out of the office” after they have sent their email. You know that feeling you get when you complete a message with precise instructions and hit the “send” button? Getting back an out-of-office seconds later is an instant downer. Especially since your first reaction is probably that someone is replying!

All that time-sensitive, mission-critical information that you went to all of the effort to provide will fall on deaf ears. Worse, you feel bad because you’re just cluttering up their inbox and helping to worsen the day after their vacation. Now they have to deal with an email from you that you would never have sent had you known they were “out of the office.”

employee satisfaction low from frustration

© Flickr user Kevin Lawver

Let’s be clear: I don’t mind the idea of telling people you are unavailable. Changing your outgoing voicemail message is a wonderful practice. A colleague who is trying to reach you will discover that you are away from work before they try to give you information. This is exactly the time you want to tell people that you are out of office. Perhaps instead of an out-of-office robot-reply feature, email networks could automatically update our address books with who is and is not available.

Now to the heart of the problem. The real reason we are obsessed with out-of-office is because we incorrectly treat email like instant messaging. People start to wonder if you don’t respond to an email within a few hours, much less than the same business day. That’s ridiculous! Pick up the phone if you need help urgently.

As much as I would like out-of-office to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, we can’t ban it entirely. You still have to deal with people who treat email like a tennis match. So instead of bouncing messages back with a canned reply while you are away, have them automatically forwarded to a colleague. They can reply and process requests accordingly, and explain to select senders that you are in fact out of the office.

If you still have people who insist on using out of office messages, perhaps you could direct them to this Scientific American article on the dangers those messages can present. Sure, many things listed in that article may seem extreme for your company (such as fearing social engineering attacks), but if you think about them, most have some real value to consider. Plus, if it scares someone into avoiding this productivity buster, then that’s all the better!

Let’s end the awful reign of out of office. It’s a band-aid technology that only frustrates people and reinforces the foolish use of email for instant communication. Or, actually use instant messaging. At least there you can ensure no one can send you a message by setting your status to “Out of the Office.”

Need more help implementing these ideas within your organization? Contact the business improvement consultants at AccelaWork today! We’d love to find a way to help you get on the right track.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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Robby Slaughter
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