The out-of-office message is one of the most formulaic functions of the modern workplace, so much so that most of them seem to have been derived from a game of Mad-Libs: “I will be away from the office from [date] with limited access to email. If your message is urgent…” etc., etc.
The writer Charlie Warzel recently published a withering takedown of this standard-issue form response. Indeed, he notes, the OOO usually begins with a greeting, followed by an apology to the effect of “I will be slower than usual to respond,” with co-workers availed in case of an urgent request. That’s crap, Warzel argues, in a diatribe that offers a breadth of alternatives to the staid response we all know and loathe. You should have more fun with it, he says. Be more honest about your actual availability (which is hopefully extremely limited—it is your vacation, after all), and just generally make your response more colorful, and therefore better on the whole.
Plenty of ink has been spilled in favor of sprucing up such boring corporate formalities over the years, but I want to strip this notion down and simplify it: The only thing your OOO needs convey is the brutally honest reality that you will not be checking email and shouldn’t be expected to until you’re back on the clock.
How to write an effective out-of-office message
The previously noted ad-lib formula is a vestige of traditional office culture that needs to die—now more than ever. Plenty of guides exist seeking to educate the uninformed on the most professional way to craft an OOO, but unfortunately, they all perpetuate the notion we need to convey at least a willingness to respond to a work email, even when we’re not working.
Too many of us operate in an “always on” working culture that prioritizes tending to an unceasing deluge of digital notifications that arrive at all hours. These missives might come via Slack, email, or text message, but they all have one thing in common: They are nagging reminders of work’s ever-present demands.
I’d argue that the only way we, as workers, can hope to push back against this onslaught, is to set firmer boundaries between our work hours and our personal time—and part of that is crafting OOO responses that make it clear that email, Slack, phone calls, and Zoom meetings aren’t going to be a priority—or even a concern—until a vacation is over. This doesn’t mean you have to offer a hostile response; something to the effect of “I’m on vacation from [insert date] until [insert date] and won’t be checking email until I return” would do nicely.
That’s it, really—you don’t need to offer more than that to the sender, since your vacation time should be yours and yours alone.
Why does your out-of-office message matter?
Consider this small change the first front in the battle to against the always-on work mentality. U.S. working culture is notoriously relentless, especially when compared to our counterparts in other countries, who enjoy more flexibility: France passed a labor law in 2016 that formalized “a right to disconnect,” meaning, “employees do not have to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off.” Many corporate leaders in America would probably dismiss that kind of worker protection as frivolous, but it’s something that should at least inspire people here to actually use their time off, instead of merely taking it.