OOO SOS: Make your out-of-office message mean something

Your bags are packed, accommodations sorted, pets placated. There’s just one more thing between you and some well-earned time off: crafting your out-of-office message (OOO).

While it’s tempting to write the first thing that comes to mind, slam your laptop shut, and let out a primal vacation-mode roar, I urge you to resist this impulse. 

The OOO is your best chance to set the tone for your time off and establish a boundary between work and leisure—a boundary that research shows is surprisingly elusive.

According to a 2022 survey by business consultancy New View Strategies:

  • Nearly half of Americans and Europeans admit to checking and sending work emails on vacation.  
  • 57% of Americans and Europeans say their boss has contacted them while on PTO.
  • 41% of Americans and 28% of Europeans report feeling guilty about taking vacations of 7 days or more. 

Yuck. These numbers show just how hard it is to unplug from work, and why your OOO is worth some TLC. 

As you head into the holidays, consider these strategies to ensure your parting message strikes the right note and your time off is spent, well, off. 

Keep it brief

As a content designer, my critique of most writing is that it’s too wordy. Greeting cards, recipes, haikus…you name it.

Most OOOs I see are lousy with details—what projects are in flight, who to contact for questions, where to find documents, how to gut and clean a fish, etc. 

I understand the thinking. If I leave enough notes, it’ll be like I’m not even gone, so I’ll have nothing to feel guilty about. Problem is, this approach could send the wrong message, one that says while your body is on vacation, your mind is on work. 

It’s not your job to account for every contingency. In fact, doing so violates the very concept of a vacation. If you’re looking to discourage contact on your down time, perhaps the less said the better. 

How to keep it brief

Hi there. I’m away on vacation and unable to respond to work  requests. I’ll be back in the office on [date].
Hello, I’m currently out of the office and will respond to your message when I get back on [date].
I’m away on vacation. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you everything you need to know to keep my projects moving, as long as I don’t get cut off by this spotty Wi-Fi connec—---

Add some humor

With their icy matter-of-factness, most OOOs I see have all the charm of an obituary page. 

Inserting some humor in your message is a great way to lighten the mood and show where your focus lies—on unwinding and recharging (and feeling excited about it!). 

You might worry that trying to be funny could make you seem frivolous and alienate your coworkers. In fact, the opposite appears true. Studies suggest that humor strengthens social bonds, while also creating a safer work environment with greater cohesion and less burnout

From bad puns to pop-culture references to zany GIFs, humor might be the perfect way to disarm (and ultimately connect with) even the peskiest stakeholders.  

How to add some humor

Why hello. Looks like you caught me while I’m away on vacation. Please give me a call with any urgent requests at 867-5309. Ask for Maria.
I am: an email
Trying to: reach its intended recipient
But: I can't because they're on PTO
Which makes me feel: unread and alone, like my horoscope warned
I’m out of the office for the holidays catching up with family. I’ll follow up on your message just as soon as my uncle Grover stops farting into my sofa. (Don’t hold your breath. Actually, do.)  

Be honest

Another approach to consider is using plain, old-fashioned honesty to alleviate anxiety over taking time for yourself.

You’d hardly be alone in struggling to unplug from work. As I’ve laid out, it’s an issue many folks can relate to, no matter how much your company or manager encourages PTO. 

If more balance is a personal goal of yours, be transparent about it. You might be surprised at how universal your feelings are. 

I’m not recommending a full-on confessional here. But a dash of vulnerability will certainly break through the dull, detached tone of your typical automated response.

How to be honest

Thanks for reaching out. I’m away enjoying some personal time—and doing my best to keep it that way. Kindly hold any project requests or questions until I’m back on [date]. 
I’m away from the office right now. I’m doing my best to keep my devices off during this time. You can play a pivotal role in helping me succeed by stepping slowly away from whatever you’re typing on. 
I’m currently out of the office. I’ll respond to your message upon my return. Because if I answer one more email during this vacation, my marriage is over. Why are you laughing?  

Tell a story 

Storytelling is at the heart of our design work. So why not apply it to our OOOs? 

By making your vacation more vivid, people can imagine you enjoying it. Personally speaking, I’m not going to bother someone about document access or Jira tickets if I know they’re doing literally anything more fun. 

What’s more, research shows that stories are much more memorable and influential  than facts alone. Getting folks to actually, you know, remember and care that you’re unavailable sure seems like a win to me. 

That’s not to say you have to craft a novella. A little storytelling goes a long way—whether it’s fleshing out a character, creating a sense of place, or building a bit of suspense. 

How to tell a story

I’m currently out of the office celebrating my grandpa’s 100th birthday! If I don’t reply to your message, it’s only because I’m stuck in a never-ending slideshow of his trip to Vancouver from 1982. Seriously, he’s the best. 
Inexplicably cheap wine, architecture I don’t have words to describe, foods that pack calories by looking at them. These are a few of the things I’m busy enjoying on my first trip to Paris. Let’s catch up when I return, À tout à l’heure! 
The boat crashed to a halt. Our guide pointed a trembling finger to a murky spot off the bow. Suddenly something emerged from the deep. We all gasped “What in God’s name is that?”

You’ll find out when/if I make it back from the Bahamas on [date]. 

Well then. All this out-of-office talk has me ready to wrap this up and kick back. 

Hopefully you’re motivated to try one of these messaging tactics the next time you want to unplug. 

If not, hey, you can always say Outlook ate your emails. That’s what I do.

Author: Alex Glenn

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