Today's e-mail glut is a constant worry for many office workers, with a third saying they get stressed by the volume of messages, according to a report. Time to put on your "out of office"?
By Sean Coughlan
The human spirit is indomitable. Give us a piece of technology and we'll subvert it.
It's the summer holiday season - offices are empty and computers left sleeping and even if you try to e-mail someone, all too often you'll get an "out of office" message.
But are they really away? Because out of office has become the latest piece of office trickery.
This is a conversation overheard between two commuters (of course I'm going to say it's commuters, I don't want it any closer to home).
"I thought you were away on holiday? I got an out of office."
"No, I put that up a couple of days before, so no one expects me to answer their e-mails."
People are using the out of office like answering machines to screen their calls. At a single stroke, it defuses the expectation that anyone is there to reply. It's a kind of tactical, unclear weapon.
But getting strategic with the out of office is nothing to be ashamed about, says Will Schwalbe, who with David Shipley, is co-author of Send: The How, Why, When - and When Not - of Email.
The New York-based Mr Schwalbe admits to being a little creative with the dates of his own out of office, gaining breathing space when he returns from a break.
"I don't consider it dishonest. It's survival. I get about 200 e-mails a day, that's more than 60,000 every year. And people have got so demanding, if you don't answer in half an hour, they're e-mailing again to say 'why haven't you replied?' and 'didn't you get my e-mail?'.
"An out of office message stops them from freaking out - and it keeps their paranoia down to a dull roar," says Mr Schwalbe.
Enough is enough: Those were the days
"The only time that people used to use out of office was when they were on vacation - 'I'm at the summer house in Maine, ring my assistant if it's urgent' - but now quite cleverly people are using it to say 'I'm really busy at the moment, please don't take offence, but it's going to take a couple of days before I get back'."
Rebecca Clake, research manager for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says an out of office message is one way in which staff are trying to cope with the information overload.
'No e-mail days'
Managers are so aware of the amount of time taken up by the e-mail backlog, she says, that "some companies have introduced 'no e-mail days', where, once a week, no one is allowed to send internal e-mails".
But it's not just the dates that are being changed. If people are stuck at work under mouse arrest all day, they want the out of office messages to say something about their personalities.
Here's one picked up from a blog. "I am currently in the middle of the Great African Plains dodging lions and rhinos without mobile phone coverage or wifi hot spots. I will be back in the office on Monday 12th February fully refreshed and eager to deal with your enquiry."
This is modest stuff compared to the entirely unironic advice this week from US marketing columnist Karen Gedney, who explains how out of office is an opportunity to make an impression.
The smart phone - 'in' the office, even when you're out
"Travelling to an exotic locale? Be sure to mention it. This will elevate you in your reader's eyes - and give you both something to talk about when you return.
"If you're assuming a leadership role by leading a seminar, heading up a volunteer project, or something similar, let people know... And of course, when I actually win an award, that achievement gets its own special mention."
Will Schwalbe says the need to show off like this is always going to surface, regardless of the technology.
"Technology might change, but people stay the same. It's like answering machine messages you used to hear, 'sorry we're not in, we're meeting the Dalai Lama this weekend or we're paragliding in Tanzania'."
There are also lists of "funny" out of office messages being spammed around.
"You are receiving this automatic notification because I am out of the office. If I was in, you wouldn't have received anything at all."
Or else the more cunning "Hi, I'm thinking about your interesting e-mail. Stay right by your computer until you receive my response."
There's the loop tape offer of "Your e-mail was only incompletely received. Please turn off your PC, re-start and re-send."
That plan to see the Dalai Lama... prepare for disappointment
A much funnier out of office offering is from Jim Stallard writing in the San Francisco-based literary journal, McSweeney's.
"I will be back in the office June 22 from 3.00am to 4.30am, trying to erase certain financial transactions from my hard drive. From June 22 through June 23, I will be checking my BlackBerry periodically to see whether company accountants have begun to pick up the trail."
Or alternatively: "From June 25 through June 28, I will be travelling to the homes of various friends, trying unsuccessfully to borrow money."
And if people start writing poetry about themselves in their out of office messages, it could be because people are less self-conscious in e-mails than they would be in real life.
Without any of the usual social cues from a conversation, such as body language and tone of voice, e-mailers lose their embarrassment radar, suggests Carolyn Axtell of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield.
"They can lose their inhibitions and become less concerned about how they will be evaluated. So people might say things on e-mail that they might not otherwise say."
This explains why people get so aggressive in e-mails, she says, and also why e-mails, blogs and networking websites are so full of "self-disclosure" - and how people are willing to tell strangers their whereabouts on an out of office message.
I'd love to say more, but I'm going to be away for a couple of weeks. The Dalai Lama wants me to go paragliding with him in Tanzania. Again.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Gone to Dudley - are you sure it's me you are looking for
It seems that it is the expected norm that an e-mail will be actioned the moment it is recieved, thus, planned work may take a few more days longer that expected due to reactive ways of working. The mobile is another form of e-mail instant reacting
Ian Longland, Haverhill
Darn you BBC! the OOA has been my secret weapon in catching up with work and having "no meeting days" for years - now everyone will do it!
Sinead, St Albans, England
A colleague of mine in a former job used to have her out of office message reading "[name] is currently out of the office. If your email is urgent, please feel free to panic"
Actually you don't even need to set up the automated reply. If you get an Email you don't like the look of, simply type "out of office automated reply" in the subject line and tailor the message etc... I never do this.
If everyone had their out of office on, would the computers continually bounce out-of-office messages back at each other? That would teach people not to lie about where they were...
I have a colleague who sets all his emails to autodelete while he is away. I guess he figures if it was important, why send it to him, he's not there to deal with it and by the time he gets back someone will have already dealt with it.
A colleague of mine started to use the following out of office reply;
"I'm away on holiday until xxx date. This e-mail will be deleted. If important, please re-send when I get back." Amazingly, he never needed to clear a back-log of e-mails after that!
So, how many of the e-mails we send are really THAT IMPORTANT? E-mail is great, but perhaps it makes it a bit too easy to 'communicate'?
"Mouse arrest" has got to be the phrase of the century - almost makes me feel more kindly towards the bandwidth hogging, time consuming out of office auto replies I get almost daily.
My favourite Out of Office message when I'm busy is:
Your e-mail is important to me - please play the Branderburg Concerto until I get back to you.
Phil Barrett, Horsham
I have my voicemail on, telling people I can't take their call at the moment and asking them to email me - because emails don't keep ringing in your ear ruining your concentration. However, I think I might put an out of office message on, telling them to call me. The peace would be blissful.
Christine, Milton Keynes
As an IT Administrator, I am slightly concerned about the growth in using out of office messages. All these messages do is confirm to a potential hacker that they have stumbled across a valid email address, normally discovered through spam attacks, and therefore have the first step in finding out the users account, and they are even told how long they have to hack that account before the user returns from holiday. If instead of Out of Office messages, people just set up an email forward to a colleagues email address (and you can configure rules so that your personal emails don't get sent on) then the sender will get a response and you keep your network safe.
Michelle Tolmay, Reading
I treat e-mail as I used to treat paper memos: they will be replied to within 24 hours. If anyone really needs to speak to me quickly, I have this device called a telephone which I am glad to answer.
Lewis Graham, Hitchin, UK
Of course the "Out of Office" reply confirms the e-mail address to any spammer that sends one an e-mail, resulting in even more e-mail.
Derry Thompson, Bewdley, United Kingdom
Or better still sell the semi in Clapham buy a big hous in Devon and run a small B&B with goats and chickens in the garden!
I really resent how much of our work lives are being completely dominated by this medium of "communication". Pre-internet days, I don't remember coming back from holiday to find I had received 80 letters per day. People simply abuse this form. I resent having to check each and every email only to find some moron just includes everybody for the sake of it. Now if they had to address and stamp each communication of each person included, I'd suspect people would be more thoughtful and discerning.
We have a chap at work whose message reads: "Your message is the 352nd to have arrived, as such it may be sometime until I read it."