With so many people on vacation right now, it’s time to consider the humble out-of-office message … because there are some really weird ones out there.
Some out-of-office messages offer far too much personal information; your colleagues do not need to know that you’re out for fertility testing or dealing with a particularly terrible bout of diarrhea or on a staycation to recover from burnout. Other away messages are excessively complicated, listing a dozen different people to contact for various items in the person’s absence. Still others radiate such obvious delight about not being at work that recipients end up wondering if the sender will ever return.
In the spirit of learning from others’ mistakes, let’s talk about what a good out-of-office message does and doesn’t look like.
Cover the basics.
Your message should explain that you’re out, when you’ll be back, and how reachable you are (if at all). In many cases, something like this is all you need:
I’m out of the office until January 5. I won’t be checking email during that time but will get back to you as soon as I can after I return.
Note, by the way, that this message doesn’t say you’ll respond your first day back. You’re likely to have a lot of work to catch up on when you return, so give yourself a buffer.
You don’t have to share why you’re away — but if you do, avoid oversharing.
It’s okay to say that you are “out of the office” and leave it at that; you don’t need to specify whether you are sick or on vacation, though it’s also okay if you want to. If you do choose to elaborate, it’s fine to include office-friendly details, like that you’re taking time off to get married or attending a family reunion. But people don’t generally want – and they definitely don’t need – mundane explanations of how you’re spending your time remodeling your garage, having a root canal, or meeting with a divorce lawyer.
If you’re sort-of-but-not-very reachable, be clear about that.
If you’re traveling for business, it might be fine for people to try to reach you (as opposed to if you’re sick or vacationing, when you’d probably prefer to be left alone). Still, though, you may want to ensure that people know you’ll be harder to reach and that your responses will be slower. A message like this fits that situation:
I’m currently attending the Tofu Marketers’ Annual Conference and will be out of the office until January 5. I’ll be checking email sporadically while I’m away but will be slower to respond than usual.
If you’re willing to field cell-phone calls while you’re away, you could add:
If you need to reach me quickly, please call my cell at (phone number).
Keep it simple …
If you need to list alternate contacts for while you’re away, do that … but don’t get so detailed that you end up re-creating your company’s email directory in your out-of-office message. For most people, limiting it to one or two “if you need X, please contact Y” should be enough.
Even if you’re not required to, you may be better off designating one main contact who can act as traffic cop in your absence and figure out where to send each person (just make sure to clear it with them first!). For example:
If you need to reach someone in my absence, please contact my colleague, Jane Smartbrain, at (email and phone number).
… and professional.
I once received an out-of-office message from someone who had written that she’d decided to sip margaritas on the beach in order to avoid having a nervous breakdown. It was probably intended to be funny, and I’m pro-margarita, but it was a little awkward to receive from someone I didn’t know well and made me wonder what was going on with her job and her company. On the other hand, it might have landed perfectly with people who knew her. But you never know who might email you while you’re away, so proceed with caution if you’re using humor.
Remember to turn off your message when you’re back.
If people receive an auto-reply on January 8 that says you’ll be back on January 5, you’re going to look disorganized (or they’re going to worry that you never returned and you’re in some kind of Taken scenario). If your email program doesn’t let you set an expiration date when you set up your out-of-office, then leave yourself a note to do it once you’re back.