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“Out of Office” Auto-response Email Replies

You know the “I’m out of the office until blah, blah” automatic response emails people set up in Outlook, Apple Mail, Entourage, or other email programs when they’re traveling?  My advice:  Don’t use it. If you can’t afford an assistant – or at least a Blackberry to track your emails when you’re traveling, then don’t use anything at all.  The auto response was designed way back when very few people could afford laptops or PDA’s to check email on the road. But today, when it comes to perception, it’s an out of date technique that reveals you either:

1)  Don’t have a staff or assistant
2)  Can’t afford a PDA, Blackberry, iPhone, or laptop to check your emails on the road.
3)  Are so anti-technology that you don’t care about your business or personal relationships that much.
4)  All of the above.

Either way – very few people use them anymore, because it doesn’t make you look very professional…  Not to mention that people get annoyed when they receive them.  A much better approach is to condition your associates, family, friends, or business relationships, that email isn’t an “instant” communication method.  If they need something ASAP, either text or call.  Then you can stop sending the auto responses.  What do you think?

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  1. As a one man show, I’m actually putting up an auto responder because I’m going to a place that has like zero reception. In the middle of nowhere. My laptop, etc isn’t to help me. I want to unplug when I’m on vacation – not sure about you guys… I think it’s counter productive to stay in the game while you’re away.

    As a designer, there really isn’t any reason to be contacted while on vacation. There really aren’t emergencies.

    I think auto responders still have a place today and aren’t really old technology.

  2. What are your thoughts about using such messages while on holiday? The last thing we want to do is to train people to expect us to be available to them 365 days of the year.

  3. While annoying, even more so is the guy (cough cough me) who leaves the message on for two or three days after returning. Speaking of unstaffed and anti-technology.


  4. I admit I’m disappointed when I receive an out of office reply to an email that I’m looking to get a quick response from. But I’d rather know that the person is going to be away and may not have access to email while they’re gone. Then I just check back on the date they gave. As good as technology is, sometimes depending where you are while traveling you may not have access to your email. But I like your solution Phil – “If it’s important, text or call.”

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  5. I am sort of noted for returning emails very quickly — so therefore when I know I can not check emails for four hours or more (I am on a plane, in a client meeting, or the rare vacation) I do use it.

    I do know what you mean…but given I do not have a personal assistant, it's the right thing to do.

  6. You obviously don't live in my world. Personal assistant??? Nothing even close. What I do have is a lot of email requiring a response or action or something. I also don't have a position where the world will fall apart if I am out of communication for a few days. I think that people appreciate the Out of Office assistant because it tells them: when I will be back; and who to contact for help if it can't wait.

    I agree that we don't want to get to the place where we are on call 24/7. That's not good for anyone, and I see far too much of that. What does that say to those at home?


    It's Tuesday after a holiday weekend. Your blog was seen but not assimilated mentally. I will be spending the day slurping coffee and trying to remember what I was working on last Friday.

    If this is an emergency blog you may contact my supervisor…but please don't.

  8. I own and operate an Apple Consulting firm and we provide outsourced Apple/Macintosh IT support for several hundred clients. One of our most common service requests is related to use of the ancient, "Out of Office" auto reply message. Because there are so many "Automated" and "Unattended" email messages sent every day, many people who are "Out of Office" end up with thousands of emails upon their return and usually exceed their server storage limits. What happens is that they receive an email from an "Unattended" email address and when their email reply's with the "Out of Office" message, that unattended email address automatically reply's with a message to let them know that the box is unattended and that no one will be reading their email message….and thus, the never ending email loop cycle begins. Worse yet, in most cases, folks typically have their email forwarded to someone else in the office so that if anything is truly "Urgent", that person can respond in a timely manner. So, that person too ends up getting thousands of unnecessary emails. We bill quite a bit of time every month attending to this one issue and it costs businesses of all sizes significant profit.

    As a rule, we advise clients to have absent or vacationing personnel email attended by a colleague through the use of forwarding that email to said colleague. If you are a "One Man/One Woman Shop" then you owe it to yourself and your clients to own a reliable Smart Phone, (You might guess we recommend the Apple iPhone), so that you can attend to your email while absent from the office. The bottom line is that an investment in such a device will pay for itself by avoiding this one problem alone whether you pay an IT firm to fix it or whether you have to sift through the thousands of emails on your own time.

    Don't use "Out of Office" replies. They are too troublesome. 

  9. Rodney,

    Are you a one man shop or do you have someone who can cover for you? If you are a one man shop I chances are good, you don't officially get "holiday". If you've got someone who can cover for you, set up your email to be forwarded to that person. I agree that you don't want folks thinking you are available to them 24/7/365. After all, its our job to train our clients how to behave, right? In my business its just me and my business partner. Whenever we are both going to be on holiday or traveling and unaccessible for a few days, (yes, believe it or not this happens regularly), we take a pro-active approach and notify our key clients in advance about how they need to contact us during that time period. We of course both carry iPhones so unless we're outside of AT&T coverage, we're almost always connected. 

  10. Mary,

    One thing that we've had great success with as it relates to traveling via Airplane and such is actually taking a proactive approach and contacting our key clients in advance of our travel. We are a two man shop and we are regularly both involved in projects that we cannot put on pause. We utilize our email marketing service to broadcast a message to them and let them know that during the following dates we will be entrenched in a project. You'll be amazed at how much this helps. In fact, this actually drives a good bit of revenue for us as our clients have learned that they need to catch us when we're available or else wait.

    Good luck. 

  11. Jarrod, thanks for the comment.  I too have tried that — but what I found was that when 24 hours later a client had a need –they generally had no memory of my "I will be away …" email of the day before.

    This is more true of the visionaries than the detail guys, so the auto reply helped.


  12. I may be in the minority on this one but I make a pretty clear delineation between work and non-work activities. Anyone who needs to reach me after hours or on weekends has my cell number but that's reserved for critical concerns, not mundane items that can wait until the next workday. Random or unsolicited emails can wait. My business or life won't fall apart if I'm not immediately available, especially to those who may think they need to reach me more than they actually do.

    When it comes to extended time away from the office, say a vacation, key associates have my cell number if something serious is afoot, but I don't expect them to call, nor do I check email unless something absolutely critical is likely to drop while I'm away. In my experience a total disconnect from work makes a vacation worthwhile in and of itself. I don't need to be connected 24/7 nor do I want to be.

    I don't use auto-reply nor do I make the judgments Phil does about those who do. But I do agree with his point that people should be trained that their expectation of an immediate reply to an email does not constitute a need or desire on my part to give them one. Technology is great – but when it starts to run us instead of the other way around, or when people's urges and impulses are enabled by it ("I emailed him five minutes ago and he hasn't gotten back to me yet!") something is out of line.

    By the way, I'm going on vacation to Virginia Sunday. For 10 days. Don't bother emailing me. Thanks.

  13. One reason you might not want to turn it on is the spammers.  By sending an out of office message you have just told them they have a good email address.



  14. This is a good post. I was surfing for original ideas to put in my vacation responder, but having read this post I’m now in two minds. YES I want valued clients to know I’m unavailable (NO I don’t want to be bothered unnecessarily) However I don’t want to lose new biz enquries either, unless your selling water coolers! I use a PA service to handle inbound calls and encourage clients to use our helpdesk ticket system so one of the team progress the job (and I can keep an eye on things)

  15. If you’re a one man show it’s down to preference but in some corporate environments, not switching on your out of office notification is almost viewed as tardy, particularly if you’re a Personal Assistant – many PAs don’t have a company Blackberry. I agree that the solution is to forward your emails to a team member who can scan them for urgent messages.


  16. In defense of the “out of office” auto response e-mail:

    Aside from the few “out of office” e-mails I’ve received when the person clearly wasin the office, I’ve never gotten an auto reply e-mail and thought “this person is so unprofessional! why don’t they have an assistant or smart phone?!”

    I don’t think most people in the business world have assistants, and I’m not keen on the idea that if you’re out on vacation you should need to be tied to your smart phone checking for every last e-mail. (Holy lack of life balance, Batman!)

    I also don’t like the idea of sending someone an e-mail and having it silently forwarded or checked by their co-worker (who you’ve basically demoted to their assistant) while they’re out.

    By contrast, a well written out of office e-mail tells me everything I need to know – when the person is out until, and what I need to do to contact them or someone else if the matter is urgent and I can’t wait until they return.

  17. I do not agree with you. An autoresponse is a good solution. As if only people WITH an assistant are professionals. You seem to expect people to think that we should be available to them 365 days of the year, only because we have an e-mail address. This way of thinking is old fashioned. Who would not like to know that someone is out of office, on holiday? At least you know that you don’t need to wait for a quick answer.

  18. This post is just plain ridiculous.
    So your saying having an Out-Of-Office reply on will mean the recipient thinks your unprofessional for not having an assistant to deal with your emails 365 days of the year – or that you can’t afford a smart phone?

    Let’s take a look at the first one – not having an assistant.
    Regardless of whether or not you do have an assistant (and most small business are likely not to), the person sending the email was after a response from YOU not your assistant. Notifying them that YOU specifically will be unable to deal with any requests until your return is a suitable and useful response.

    As for it indicating you “can’t afford a smartphone” – I happen to have an iPhone, but if I am out of the office on holiday for example then I’m OUT of the OFFICE. I don’t want or need to reply to emails. I certainly won’t be checking emails on my “smartphone” just because I can…

    As others have mentioned, taking a holiday serves as a good chance to escape work and relax. Sticking an Out-Of-Office message on means I can relax knowing that anyone that wanted to contact me knows they won’t get a reply until I return – and if it is particularly urgent they can call me (if I answer that is!!).

  19. I don’t want to receive work email on my smartphone because I’m told by our IT people that they would need to reserve the right to wipe my phone in case of any mishap, since I was receiving work emails on it. I’m not prepared to have that done, so it’s no work emails for me, hence an out-of-office message 🙂

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