Friday, August 12, 2011

The politics of the out-of-office reply

Summer... ah the time of holidays and out-of-office replies to email. These automated messages are about communication - externally and internally. Yet, like so much in the workplace, there is a surprising amount of politics involved in the out-of-office/vacation reply for email and voice mail.

We believe it is both good etiquette and good business sense to let people know if you are away. In an international world, businesses cannot assume that there is shared knowledge about holiday timings, such as duration and length. International contacts may not know that, for example, July is the preferred holiday month and three weeks the usual length of break. Similarly, in our short attention span world, contacts may not be willing to wait three weeks if they haven't received alternative contact details. Managing those external communications includes setting up good out-of-office replies.

One of the main features of a good out-of-office message is that it should direct you to someone else who can help. And here is where the internal aspect of communication comes in. Knowing or deciding who to redirect to can be politically charged since it requires knowing who does what and what everyone's responsibilities are, and sometimes this is not clear or not known. With fast changing workplaces and work structures, for some asking, "who does what" is a hard question. Sometimes job roles and responsibilities are not clear or defined and navigating this murky area can be tricky. Asking for clarification may not be well received. Similarly, asking colleagues to do additional work may not be welcome. Theymay feel put upon to answer more emails; they may feel they don't have time enough to do their jobs, never mind yours. So finding someone to suggest to contact can lead into all sorts of difficult conversations.

Conversely, for some the opposite is true. They don't want others to know what they do and/or to do their work. Perhaps they are not too sure of what they do themselves and wish to hide that from others. Others may feel vulnerable to structural changes and don't want others to cover their work so that management gets the idea that one person could do both jobs. On the other side, there are those who feel that their work can not be done by anyone else and so do not redirect. Either way, they choose not to have an out-of-office message.

Equally bad practice is setting an out-of-office which names one of your colleagues and not bothering to clear that with the person first. Talk to your colleagues, let them know that you'll be directing mails their way. And give them an idea of the questions they may encounter and what your expectations are to handling your mails.  It's just common courtesy, but we've seen it too many times - colleagues surprised they were named in an out-of-office reply.

If you suspect any of the above is happening in your workplace, there are steps to take. First, there needs to be clear job responsibilities maps. This may require updating the current ones or creating new ones. It is good business sense to be clear about what job roles, competencies and responsibilities exist in an organization. Connected to this is to have a policy about out-of-office/holiday automatic emails. That policy should detail when and how the message should be used as well as the template of the message.

A good out-of-office/holiday message should include the following:

- in the subject line: include your name and when you will be returning. Ie: Judith Doyle is out of the office. (Returning 03-08-2011 08.00). This way at a glance in their inbox, your contacts now exactly what is happening. This saves them from even opening your email.

- in the text: 
- list the dates and times you will be away:
- i.e.: I am out of the office from 25-07-2011 15:30 until 03-08-2011 08:00.
- include a sentence stating that you will get back to them.
- let them know what will happen to their email: will it or will not be forwarded automatically to someone?
- let them know who to contact in case of emergency or urgency. Give them the name, email and phone number of this contact.

- Use your email program to set the automatic response and be sure to choose the options that:
;- include a note at the bottom of the reply that says something like: "This is an automated response to your message "Good Business Ideas"sent on 02-08-2011 09.00."
- make sure that your contacts receive only one out-of-office reply. They should only be notified once and if they need to send further emails anyway, then that is their choice. We don't need cluttered in-boxes!

J2 Research is available to help you work out what is happening in your business.
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