Have you ever wished to return to work after your vacation, switch off your out of office reply, and have zero emails to read and reply to? Before you think it’s a ridiculously unrealistic outcome, read on to see why it could be necessary and how it’s achievable, while helping to dramatically increase productivity during the first week back to work.
I’m out of office – time to keep checking emails!
For the most part, activating the out of office reply is a joyous moment. It’s time to relax, switch off and forget about everything work-related until the morning arrives to deactivate it.
If only it was as easy as that – many of us never fully switch off from email activity. Instead, we’re guilty of frequently refreshing the inbox on our mobile phones in addition to replying to the odd email. Such activities occur to the extent that we’re often unable to have a genuine break.
A disturbing fact: more than half of Americans don’t use all of their paid vacation days. This is for a variety of reasons, one of which is the fear of falling behind with work. How do people in this group even take paid time off and not lag behind?
It starts by checking emails and trying to stay in the loop. After continually reading and sending emails, they also join some meetings remotely, and all of sudden the break is over. Although they’re somewhat up-to-date for their return, what was meant to be a vacation concludes as close to the opposite of that: a normal work schedule.
Stick to what your out of office reply states – use it to your benefit
An “out of office reply” is exactly that – practically all of them are triggered to inform senders that you’re unavailable until a specific date. Everyone needs time off, and that’s aided by sticking to the message in the out of office reply. There’s a problem that needs addressing if you go against that and cannot help but read and reply to every email.
There are proven benefits to completely detaching from work while on holiday. One key benefit is improved productivity when returning, coupled with less risk of suffering from burnout.
The problem with the conventional out of office reply
A typical out of office reply looks like this:
Hello – Thanks for your message. I’m currently out of the office, returning on [date]. I’ll respond to your message as soon as possible upon my return.
Otherwise, if you require urgent assistance, please direct your message to [manager]/[colleague]/[team].
If that has been the standard since out of office email auto-responses begun, then what’s the issue with it?
You’re enabling an influx of emails that collectively await your review and/or response for when you get back to work. It could be 100 emails or 1000+. Regardless of the number, you’re at risk from lagging severely when you try and get back into the swing of things with “current” activities. This destroys productivity and creates stress!
Return to zero emails with the ultimate out of office reply and setup
The ultimate out of office reply
Hello – I’m out of the office. All emails I receive between [date] and [date] are automatically deleted from my inbox.
If you need urgent assistance, please direct your message to [manager]/[colleague]/[team]. Otherwise, please resend your email during the week of my return if necessary.
One crucial point to flag before we continue: do not configure your email application to automatically delete emails.
You want the sender to know that their message won’t be read, and so there’s no harm in letting “them” know it’s been deleted. That way, you can’t be called out on it later. However, what you actually want to do, is configure your email application to archive all emails during the dates you are out of office.
There’s a significant difference between deleting and archiving emails. At a glance:
- Deleting email (potentially) removes it from your inbox forever, depending on the application/infrastructure setup you work within.
- Archiving on the other hand, stores the email in a different folder and/or location, where it remains searchable, accessible and readable.
Whether you decide to enable the out of office reply and archiving for external emails (e.g. from clients and vendors) is your call. The content of the auto-reply is not aggressive or disrespectful, and so it’s likely fine. Nevertheless, if you have any concern and want to err on the side of caution, then set it up for internal emails only.
There are many methods to apply these configurations alongside your out of office reply. The method you go with depends on the complexity of the IT environment you operate in.
For example, if you’re working for a global corporate company, then I’d recommend asking your IT team for support. Alternatively, if you’re working for a small company or startup, then likely you or your co-worker is the IT team. If that’s the case, then check out this article which details the technical steps for auto-archiving in Outlook and Gmail. (The Gmail steps also align with G Suite, now known as Google Workspace).
The recommended approach before activating the ultimate out of office reply
Follow the 3-step approach below, before getting underway with the new auto-response and setup:
- Talk to your boss about what you’re planning to do and why – don’t risk getting into trouble by saying nothing and surprising him/her. The only genuine talking point here is the content of the out of office reply. Your boss could deem it too controversial, or a negative look on them – this is very unfortunate! Remember, you’re not deleting emails, you’re just archiving them. If needs be, you can always access the emails later.
- Explain to your colleagues and/or team what you’re going to do and why – talk to those internally who you often converse with via email. With your manager’s approval already, it should be a straightforward conversation.
- Test the full workflow 3-4x ideally with 1-2 colleagues – if it’s the first time running with this setup, then make sure you test it fully before disappearing to the beach for your vacation. Ensure the out of office reply is triggered and the emails are archived correctly, leaving with you a beautiful empty inbox upon your return.
How do rate our out of office reply and the approach to implementing it? In case you were curious, this is nothing new. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz (who I previously worked for!), implemented a similar ‘out of office’ initiative for all employees several years ago.