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Out of Office Etiquette: Setting Expectations and Fairness

A good friend of mine just posted in our WhatsApp group regarding an 'OOO' set by a senior leader within his company whereby the OOO stated that any email received during their absence would not be actioned and any requiring action should be re-sent upon their return.

In today's fast-paced and interconnected world, the use of "out of office" (OOO) notifications has become an integral part of professional communication. Whether you're planning a well-deserved vacation or attending a business conference, letting people know that you're temporarily unavailable is considered good etiquette. However, the way you craft your OOO message can greatly influence the perception of fairness and professionalism.

One of the most debated aspects of OOO etiquette is whether it's fair to explicitly state that your email will not be actioned during your absence. Some argue that it's essential to set clear expectations to avoid disappointment, while others believe it may come across as uncooperative or inconsiderate. Let's dive deeper into this topic and explore both sides of the argument.

The Case for Transparency:

  1. Managing Expectations: By explicitly stating that your emails won't be attended to during your absence, you are managing the expectations of those who might contact you. This can prevent frustration and misunderstandings, especially if you have a reputation for prompt responses.

  2. Honesty is the Best Policy: Being straightforward about your unavailability is often seen as an honest and transparent approach. It demonstrates respect for the time and needs of the people reaching out to you .

  3. Work-Life Balance: In an era when work-life balance is increasingly valued, stating your unavailability reinforces the importance of taking breaks and recharging. It sets an example for healthy boundaries in the workplace.

The Case Against Explicit Statements:

  1. Perceived Uncooperativeness: Some argue that explicitly stating that you won't be actioning emails can be perceived as uncooperative or inflexible. It may give the impression that you are unwilling to assist with urgent matters.

  2. Impact on Team Dynamics: In a team-oriented work environment, your absence might put added pressure on colleagues. Knowing that you won't even consider emails can create stress for them, which may not be fair to your coworkers.

  3. Unpredictable Urgencies: While planning for a smooth OOO period is ideal, unexpected urgent matters can arise. By rigidly stating your unavailability, you might miss out on opportunities to contribute to essential decisions or address critical issues.

Finding the Balance:

The key to OOO etiquette lies in finding the right balance between setting expectations and being flexible. Here are some best practices to consider:

  1. Be Clear but Flexible: You can communicate your unavailability while leaving room for exceptions. For example, you might say, "I'll have limited access to email, so responses may be delayed. If your matter is urgent, please contact [colleague's name] at [colleague's email]."

  2. Offer Solutions: If possible, suggest alternative contacts or resources for urgent matters. This shows your commitment to teamwork and problem-solving, even in your absence.

  3. Prioritise and Automate: Before going OOO, prioritise your tasks and inform key stakeholders or team members. Use automated sorting rules to flag important emails for immediate attention when you return.

  4. Set Clear Dates: Mention the dates of your absence, and consider sending a reminder email on your first day back to acknowledge any backlog.

In conclusion, OOO etiquette is about striking the right balance between being honest about your unavailability and being cooperative and considerate. While it's essential to manage expectations, it's equally important to remain flexible in case of unforeseen urgencies. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain professionalism and support effective communication within your workplace.

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