what’s the use of ‘out of office’ notices?

I’ve had a pretty busy September. I was on leave for a week in late August and then went straight to a conference in Portugal. After a brief and frenetic period at home/work, I had two back-to-back conferences in London.

For most of late August and September I’ve had an out-of-office notice on my email saying I was away and that I would look at emails when and as I could, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with any attachments. So what did saying that accomplish?

Well, not much as it turned out. The rate of emails slowed marginally. One person actually cut and paste what would normally be an attachment into the body of the email so it could be read. Another couple of people apologized for needing an answer while I was away. But many still required me to respond straight away to requests for meeting dates, answers to questions, comments on documents – and several made decisions for me if I didn’t answer immediately. Everyday work just seems to have continued as usual – the customary expectations of turnaround time and responsiveness were the same as if I was actually present. I know this is a full-time academic first-world problem, but it is a bit of a problem nevertheless… Let me explain.

The thing I really need to say here, just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know this, is that academic conferences ARE work. They might be away from home, and there might be the odd dinner in restaurants or a moment of sightseeing, but giving and attending papers, networking, talking to publishers, meeting with potential collaborators – that’s academic work. And what’s more, the work doesn’t just benefit us. The conference is academic work that’s good for our institutions too. Universities get reputational benefit from their academics being out and about, and there are future benefits for them in the form of bids, publications and citations. The more citations and league tables matter to university reputations and enrolments, the more conferences matter too.

Being away at a conference meant that my workload substantially increased – because there was the work at the conference and then there was the relatively undiminished everyday work that needed doing at home. I know from talking to colleagues that I’m not the only one who experiences this double-trouble phenomenon. Lots of people find that being away at a conference is a very mixed blessing.

I don’t think this additional load was necessarily anyone’s individual fault. Everyone who sent me emailed demands was beavering away doing their own jobs. Some just couldn’t adjust deadlines and processes to account for one absent member of the group/task they were managing. They had to go with the set process. Others however seem to have internalised a set of very speedy institutional time-frames – I’m not convinced everything had to be this fast – and everyone inevitably depended on digitally mediated communications to conduct their speedy transactions … aka email.

Do you remember the time before email? When someone was away their office door would be shut and they just wouldn’t turn up at a meeting, and this wouldn’t matter. Only if the situation was extremely important would their away-activities be interrupted by a telephone call. These days however, the sheer ubiquity of mobile technologies means that the expectation more often than not seems to be that no-one is ever truly away doing something else or on leave. We all carry phones, tablets and notebooks everywhere so we’re always contactable.

It sometimes seems difficult to even contemplate that we might not all actually want to live on these gadgets, that we need a break. An example – I just noticed from the bounce-back on one of those routine group emails – now the way we routinely communicate with each other – that one of my colleagues had an out of office notice saying that they weren’t available over the weekend! The weekend …

I plead guilty to pandering to this be-available-all-day-all-year situation. When I was away over summer in a remote part of the country where there was pretty patchy mobile access, I and my mates ended up at the local pub each morning to check our emails. That’ll be four coffees please, and an hour or so dealing with queries, demon diaries and the please-respond-even-though-I know-you’re-on-holidays-because-I’m-desperate. Some ‘leave’.

However, there were lots of things I didn’t do during my leave and conference time. I’ve now forgotten what a lot of them were and if I don’t get re-contacted about them – well they can’t have been that important. And I did just tag a lot of emails while I was at conferences so that I could follow them up later. And that ‘when’ means, I’m afraid, when I have time to squash them into the everyday work that is already in my diary for the coming weeks.

But I figure I need to do something about this situation. My un-new years resolution is to get more ruthless about the continuous stream of communication. It’s clear that out-of-office messages are utterly useless as a means of controlling the onslaught of stuff that ends up in the mailbox. More hands-on tactics are required. I’m not sure how I will adjust to a new less responsive routine, as I have been well-trained to respond like Pavlov’s dog to the churn and to feel overwhelmed if it turns into an unanswered glut. I’m already one of the professionals who has highly permeable work/private life boundaries – Christina Nippert-Eng’s classic study documented this problem a long time ago. So it won’t be easy to change. But I’m going to try.

You heard it here first. Don’t always expect an immediate response to your email. Maybe you won’t get a response at all. Maybe you will. So, if you really want to know what I’m thinking, maybe you could ask me for a conversation and a coffee instead. But then, *shakes head*, how will we set the date and time???

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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12 Responses to what’s the use of ‘out of office’ notices?

  1. Reclaiming my life says:

    I have started taking holidays in places with truly appalling phone service and therefore I cannot even sync my phone with my laptop to download email (yes, there are still places like this). I put an out of office message up with my date of return and say that I will not be responding until that date, and I don’t. When I return I can hit [delete] on most of them because they have resolved themselves in my absence. It’s truly amazing how many ‘urgent’ things have decisions made on them in my absence and I’ve never yet found one where the other persons response or actions on my behalf were inappropriate. I can thoroughly recommend that you try it.

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  2. bronwynl says:

    I so agree with this Pat! And the more ‘senior’ you become the greater the pressure to be on call. Will you blog about this further so that we can follow your progress in tackling this important issue? Thanks again for a really thoughtful post.

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  3. Ah, the joy of permeable work/private life boundaries. I’ve threatened to take my husband on a long cruise just to get him away from the emails. To Antarctica. I’m a pretty easy-going person but even I’ve started noticing the imposition of work on our private lives. It doesn’t help when one’s partner is a workaholic! There is another choice, though, which is to not actually read one’s emails until a particular date. So, for example, weekends are out. If it can’t be said or done before 5pm on a Friday then it shouldn’t be read until Monday morning. I don’t work in an industry where a speedy email response is life or death. And that’s a good motto to live by. I’m going to try it one day, I swear!

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  4. Karenmca says:

    Pavlov’s dog? Yes, I like that metaphor. I, too have been ‘trained’ to the extent that I have internalised the rapid response expectation and half-believe that immediately is not always soon enough. One day I’ll have the strength not to look at my emails …
    I aspire to meeting Professor Pat over a REAL coffee one day. One day …

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  5. Helen Jones says:

    Excellent article and yes, I’d like to hear of any solutions people might have. I recently took the decision to go part-time (‘how’s that working out for you?’ I hear you chuckle). Well I’m pretty good at resisting email but I cannot resist getting some work done on my ‘down’ days mainly to make up for the half a day I have to spend on email at the start of every week! Can we un-invent email?

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  6. Jane Maidment says:

    Great post Pat. I can very much relate to it. The other issue with the constant onslaught of emails is that when you are at a conference, supposedly to meet real people, half of them are distracted by answering emails on their phones, not really tuned into conference papers or real conversations. The onslaught of email has also meant that decisions are made so much more quickly now. It is hardly a wonder people are so tired at the end of the day. I do remember the days pre-email when we communicated by letter and telephone. The rate of decision making was not as speedy and it was possible to actually give real thought to how to respond to certain situations. Now the expectation is that you will respond within a 24hr period. Now I will have made more decisions how to respond to things in a 30 minute time period on email, than I did in a day 20 years back.
    Self discipline is important in terms of not being a slave to the gadgets now.

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  7. katepahl says:

    Thanks for this Pat. The thing I miss is thinking time. What happened to that? On a recent trip to Australia (yes, I had a job there but also did UK emails which meant spending half the night doing the UK emails and then the day doing the Aussie ones) I realised I loved it when I could sit on the tram, or wait to cross a road. This was because I had enforced thinking time. I couldn’t go on my mobile phone when out of wireless and so I stopped checking emails while on the bus. It freed my mind up and I finally got some writing done. Writing and email definitely don’t go together.

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  8. Kate says:

    Inspired by danah boyd, I’m planning to take an email sabbatical with my forthcoming leave – see:
    http://www.danah.org/EmailSabbatical.html

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  9. Anon says:

    I’m sorry to spoil the party, but I really don’t think that harking back to some golden era without email, and deciding not to reply to email, is at all helpful.

    In particular, the out of office messages that say ‘I will have intermittent email access and will try to reply as soon as I can’ end up being a research beauty pageant. Emailers end up wondering, Am I/Is my problem interesting and worthwhile enough to justify an email back, or will I be kept hanging for an unspecified amount of time until they decide to reply?

    While I appreciate that conferences ARE WORK, the reality of ‘the urgent things sort themselves’ if you don’t reply, is that they get sorted by someone else. If a PhD student asks for help, then maybe it’s the student spending more time than need-be working it out, or asking someone else, or asking many other people. Or maybe they don’t get anywhere with it.

    Everyone needs to go on holiday, and be away for conferences. But please, please, empower people with your out of office replies. Don’t make it into a popularity competition for your emailers. That’s not fair. For example: say that you won’t reply to anything at all until this date, and until then the answer is no; say that people can make decisions on timings for you and put them into your calendar; say that the answer is no, unless they hear otherwise within a specified amount of time; say that if they need an answer by x time, to make it for you, and otherwise you will reply within y time.

    But for pity’s sake, please don’t leave your emailers hanging, not knowing what to expect. It’s not fair. As a small example: my viva date was important to me. I emailed the internal examiner, who had an out of office reply, saying that they would reply asap, but had intermittent access to emails. I thought, surely this will be important to this person, surely they will see that it is important to me? I waited. And waited. Nope. Eventually, I had choose one of the dates I had suggested. When they finally emailed back, the date wasn’t convenient.

    It’s not just students. Admin staff, other academics. You’re complaining about them emailing you, but they are just trying to do their jobs. Trying to organise all the conferences, talks, papers, offices, etc. etc. that you like when they happen all takes email. I wasn’t part of this golden era of pre-email academia, but I bet that not as many things happened. And the simple fact is, we can’t go back to pre-email. And personally, I don’t want to.

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  10. Personally, I like the German Solution
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/abe36902-22d9-11e4-8dae-00144feabdc0.html

    A colleague I used to work with never set an out of office. When he came back from leave or Study Leave, he just deleted EVERYTHING in his inbox, reasoning that people who really needed him would get back to him…

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  11. Pingback: » Sustaining your focus throughout the working day The Sociological Imagination

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