At first glance, it seems no more than a polite notification to inform work contacts that you’ll be away from your desk for a while, but read between the lines and you’ll unveil a twisted web of deception, power struggles and fear.
If it were an open and shut case of: you’re out of office, you’ll pick up where you left off when you’re back – there’d be no melodrama to it. The plot only thickens for those who can’t afford to ignore work while away – freelancers, managers, people who work for demanding managers, colleagues who can’t cope… which covers pretty much all of us – leading us to construct bespoke Out Of Office replies (not very affectionately known as OOOs), designed to relay the simple message:
‘Don’t hate me because I’m on holiday and you’re not. I need this job, so I promise I will get back to you as soon as I can, although I can’t help but feel a random old school friend will try to organise a reunion just as I board the plane, meaning fifty people I haven’t seen in years will keep getting a notification about how I’m lording it up in the Caribbean every time they respond, but I beg you all: please understand I really want to enjoy this cocktail by the pool without worrying about any of this for just a few minutes.’
It’s an assurance as well as a plea, and we all have our ways of conveying it. Every OOO tells a story. Which one is yours?
Microsoft introduced the Out of Office reply in the early 90s (with the inexplicable acronym OOF), and even after every email service provider from Yahoo to Gmail followed suit, up until a few years ago no one thought to customise the given template.
If the standard template is still your OOO, it could suggest a lack of imagination. Are you afraid of change? Perhaps you don’t really want to be courteous but are making the minimal effort because you have to?
That said, playing by the book is to be expected and rarely causes offence. Who says a formality can’t be formal?
The Factual Drama
You’ve been stung once too often. There are at least three times you can think of when you responded to a non-urgent email, became embroiled in the mire of CCs and spent hours sorting it, then several more worrying about whether it got sorted, and a few more feeling pissed off you got dragged into it in the first place.
Not this time. You will work when you say you will, and if your contact cannot cope in the interim, then take it up with Lucy Smith, who rest assured, knows the vengeance you shall wreak upon her if she texts you during your acupressure massage for no crucial reason.
The Political Thriller
Some people struggle with sounding self-important in their OOO, but you thrive on it. To suggest you’re on a working break sounds professional, while the leisure admission paints a person worthy enough to deserve it. And that two people need to cover for you when you’re not around marks you out as indispensable.
Only, Lucy and Jim might not agree. Not only are you rubbing it in you’re off on a jolly while they’re chained to the desk, you’ve just made your workload their responsibility, while making them sound like your subordinates. Brace yourself for random acts of passive aggression.
It’s not that over-sharers talk too much and can’t help themselves. More that you want to cover all possibilities so your contact has no further questions. It also alleviates your fears that someone might take offence at a tardy response, and makes an excuse in advance in case you appear unprofessional further down the line.
Even though most contacts don’t care where you’re going or why, the personal nature of the message assures their demands are made more sympathetically. Nor will they hassle you needlessly in case you tell them why you and Fred broke up.
Full of yourself is another way of saying you are fulfilled. Those who sneer at how up yourself you are merely envious of how high up you are. Because, let’s face it, you have to be important to talk in such elevated terms, right?
The real problem here is that you’re actually a workaholic stroke perfectionist, and you find it difficult to detach yourself. This is your way of actually telling yourself – as the public is your witness – that you need to get your ashtanga groove on without once thinking about Derek from sales doing what he does worst.
You find the whole OOO thing to formal and self-important. So you make your message zippy, give the reader a chortle. Our research found evidence of comedy being frequently attempted in OOOs, and it’s now common to add humorous emojis and GIFs to make your point light-hearted and fun.
That most of your professional contacts will find this immature and annoying will only occur to you when you’re in a bar in Santa Fe holding a Jim Beam Double Oak…
Behold the reckless type who does the unimaginable and leaves no Out of Office reply at all. Three things are being said here:
a) I’ll respond when I’m good and ready
b) I check my emails every day, like I do when I’m at work, so there’s no need to create a drama here
c) I am unorthodox. Hear me roar.
The last one, this journalist can tell you from personal experience, is a mug’s game. As a freelancer, not responding to an employer soon enough means someone else will get the gig. Moral of the story: get an OOO, or you’ll be left crying OOF.