Subtle Signals of Disengagement – The “Out of Office” Email…

Paul Hebert Employee Relations, Employment Branding and Culture, HR (& Life!) Advice, Paul Hebert, Work Life Balance

Is there anything more self-serving and ridiculous than an “out of office” email reply?

You send a message to someone and within two seconds a message hits your inbox that says something along the lines of…

“I am out of the office with limited access to email.  If your message is important please contact May Jo Doesn’tCareAboutYourProblem in the Department of No Action.  I will be back in two days and will respond to your email then (maybe.)”

“Limited access to email.”  Really?  (McDonalds has FREE wifi at 11,500 locations.)

“If it is important – (I’m too lazy to forward these things automatically so…) you do the work (not me) and resend your email to someone else.” Really? (link to how to forward emails here.)

We Are Connected

The research shows we’re a nation of phone users (over 880 million subscriptions in North America) and 35 percent of American adults have a smartphone – ¼ of which them use it as their primary access to the internet (I’m making a leap here and saying that includes email as well- but that wasn’t mentioned specifically in the research.)

In other words – between cell phone access and McDonalds – there is no “out of office.”  Unless you’re climbing mountains in Machu Picchu or you’re on a 24 hour plane ride, you are “in” the office.

There is no out of office any more.  There is a “not working during these hours” option – say 11:00 pm until 7:00 am – sleep is still part of the human condition.  But there is no “out of office.”

Out of Office=Disengagement

To me the “out of office” message is just an acceptable way to say…

“I really couldn’t care less about my job or the outcomes of the organization, so I’m going to find the easiest way to absolve myself from responsibility by using the 21st century version of the dog ate my homework, and tell you I can’t get email.  Even though I could, with a little effort, I’m not going to, because I don’t really want to solve your problem or do my job for the next few hours/days/weeks.”

Yup… out of office message is a mini-vacation from responsibility.  It’s a way of getting out of work without looking like a laggard.  And I firmly believe anyone who uses it is disengaged.

Why Out of Office Isn’t Needed

Why I think you should abandon out of office messages…

  1. It is rare someone will be in a position where email communication matters and not have an email enabled phone.  Rare hell… I’ll bet it is a certainty in today’s world.  Get, and answer, your email on your phone; even if it is a quick message saying you’ll handle it.
  2. It is rare that someone would be unconnected to a cell phone signal for longer than say – 4 hours. Coast to coast flights are a reality, so you may be out of cell range.But if you have a laptop and are on a plane with an internet connection, then bill the access fee to your expense account (you know you expense the headsets to watch cleaned up versions of “The Santa Clause” right?) and get to work checking emails.  Your plane seat is probably as comfortable as your office chair.

    If you are out of cell range and you don’t have a laptop or a plane with internet, you still don’t get a pass… see #3 below…

  3. If you really are going to be away from email for an extended period of time then AUTOMATICALLY forward emails to specific people in your office responsible for handling your business while you’re out of the office.  Don’t make me send two emails.  Let the system handle the logic.If you’re on your honeymoon, then get with your team and make sure they know what’s going on and then tell IT (or learn to do it yourself – it ain’t that hard) to set up temp forwarding rules so messages go to specific people.  You can do this with certain keywords or other criteria in the message or from the sender – i.e.:  From BIG CLIENT X – route that to your boss no?  This could be embarrassing if you have a lot of personal stuff routed to your work email – but even then you can probably filter your “special” emails about the little blue pills to go to a personal folder.

Eliminate “out of office” email responses. 

It is a loophole in the system and needs to be shut down.  Every time I get an out of office email I think – “that person really doesn’t care about their job.” 

Is it just me – or am I channeling Andy Rooney here?

And oh yeah, GET OFF MY DAMN LAWN!


Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert is Vice President of Individual Performance Strategy at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.