Out-of-office reply: got the message?

Image of Tyler Brûlé

In a little under a month “Take stock of your life” season will have its official start when the Nordic world starts to shut down for the summer and families from Helsinki to Stavanger head out to their second homes. Soon after, the UK will slow down, then pockets of the US, and finally there’ll be the mass exodus from workplaces across France, Italy and Spain in August.

While many will pack up their desks but opt to stay tethered to the working world by keeping their smartphones close at hand, others will elect to write “out of office” replies stating that they’re on annual leave and will not be checking in until their return. I’m always intrigued (worried) by the latter as I have to wonder how committed they are to their jobs – and what their inboxes must look like if they don’t keep abreast of what’s happening in the world of the gainfully employed.

When an e-mail bounces back with: “I’m travelling on business in New York (or Rome, Taipei, São Paulo ...) and will have limited access to e-mail,” such messages usually pose the following questions: is this individual employed by a company that can’t afford BlackBerrys or iPhones? Can this person not manage their time away from the office? Or are they simply away having a laugh at my company’s expense? Unless they work in the public utility business and are 200ft below the streets of New York repairing the sewers where there’s no mobile or wi-fi reception, I can’t understand the point of such messages.

For the record, I’m all for time off and taking it easy and disconnecting when and where appropriate. But I’m also conscious of the need to be responsive when one holds down a responsible job and when the livelihoods of many others depend on us keeping up to date and in touch. It’s for this reason that I find OOORs (out-of-office repliers) out of step with the ways of the modern working world. Occasionally, I meet conscientious objectors who don’t have mobiles and rarely use e-mail and I respect their decision to live in a less wired world. They’ve decided they want to live off-line and if you need to reach them then you’ll find them at the end of a landline or at a café at an appointed hour. OOORs on the other hand have been fully teched-up (usually by their employer) and use their replies as passive aggressive snubs to demonstrate their independence – not so much from technology but from responsibility.

In the not too distant future, I expect one of the world’s respected medical journals, perhaps The Lancet or the Harvard Medical Review, will release a document on public health and the workplace that will show a direct relationship between the overzealous use of out-of-office replies and a fondness for wearing sweatpants.

The article will prove that people who like to post elaborate out-of-office replies not only dislike their jobs but also tend to be less entrepreneurial, poor team-players and, in many cases, lazy. At the same time, it will also reveal that OOORs frequently end up making elasticated stretch trousers (Fast Lane’s international symbol for having given up on life) a wardrobe staple, and that these tend to be closely associated with an unhealthy appetite for daytime TV, eating biscuits from the packet and, ultimately, unemployment. Fortunately, the report ends on a high note and suggests that OOORs should use their holidays to think about what they really want to do with their lives. A network of clinics, held in hotels and resorts during key holiday periods, could help OOORs find happiness in a different workplace. Below are highlights of a possible summer 2010 programme:

1. Self-Diagnosis and the Path to a New You

In this introductory part of the programme participants learn how to spot the signs that they may not be happy with their job. Do you go home with the slightest cough? Does your voicemail message normally say that you’re out of the office?

2. Why Do I Choose to Switch Off?

This one-on-one diagnostic session seeks to find out why people hit their OOOR setting. Do you feel peer pressure to be “out of the office” because everyone else is? Or, do you like your job but use OOOR as a way of sending a message to your boss that you’re unhappy?

3. OOOR or The DOOR?

Part three of the programme asks the big question: if I’m always using OOOR, am I really heading for the door? Permanently?

4. It’s a Stretchy Waistband World

This session shows participants what happens when they don’t want to work as part of a team, find their entrepreneurial side or get out of bed. Note: workshop involves dress-up and role-play.

5. Love Me, Love My Job

A constructive counselling session to help holidaymakers land – and love – the job they’re really good for.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle


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