How to write the perfect out of office message

Nothing says it’s the start of a holiday, or at least a blessed few days off work, like setting your email out of office assistant. Especially if you can get away with telling everyone you’ll be ignoring them for a week or two.

It’s a quick job. But you might pause for thought. Do you write hi or hello? Do you add a colleague’s contact details, and if so, which one (and do you tell them)? And then you have to carefully craft a sentence about whether or not you’ll be reading emails while you’re away.

Most people are honest and say they’ll reply to all emails when they return. Others might opt for a vague commitment such as I will be lightly monitoring my emails – interpret that as you will.

Be honest

For starters, it’s best to be honest - a message saying I’ll have no access to emails is probably not true. Haven’t you got a phone? Are you heading deep into the Amazon? Unlikely.

Here’s an example of particularly honest one:

I'm on annual leave until Monday, November 12 and am extremely unlikely to check emails.
If it's urgent, please contact
If you think you're more important than a Caribbean beach, feel free to DM me on Twitter.

Nice if you can get away with it.

And here’s another particularly open one, but which takes a very different tone. It’s from Sacha Romanovitch, chief executive of Grant Thornton, as recently reported by BBC News:

I'm off with my family right now, back on 23 July. I'll be reading, diving and playing with my boys while they still want to play with me!
My great team will be dealing with my emails while I'm off ensuring you get support from the right people to keep things moving.

Be professional

Of course, the tone you can get away with in your OOO message depends on the culture at your company, your seniority and whether you’re likely to receive any emails from important clients.

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, advises: “Your out-of-office can be the first impression someone can have of you in a professional sense, so it’s important to keep the tone professional, especially when dealing with external or potential clients.”

“You should make sure it’s clear, contains contact information of who to contact instead, with their correct details or when you will reply”, he adds.

Use humour carefully

Paul warns about the risks of a humorous message mis-firing: “Deciding to use humour can sometimes create a situation, as something you write can be read without a person knowing the tone or identifying sarcasm and may lead them taking what you have written out of context and reflecting badly on yourself or the company.”

Clearly, not everyone agrees, and some people just let rip. For example, check out the OOO message below, which went viral earlier this year:

Hi there!

I know, I know. You got an immediate reply. And You were all like: “Ah! So he CAN answer mails!”
But alas, dear writer. I am off to a sunny island with the two people I love most. No, not Luke Skywalker and Jimi Hendrix. My wife and my son!
Nothing but a week of sun and quality time with my two favourite people.
It’s the recipe for happiness. I highly recommend you try it. With your loved ones, I mean. You can’t have mine. That’d be freaky.
“Anyway. I won’t be replying to you. Usually, people write they have no access to mail or phone and we all know that’s a lie – they just don’t want to reply. I am however deleting outlook from my phone for the week and roaming is off, so I literally cannot be contacted until I am back, which will be Tuesday, December 11th.
I look forward to replying to you then …unless I get eaten by a shark or something.
If that does happen, then it’s OK. The shark would be eating a happy meal.
I only ask you remember me as a kind man who loved vegetarian curries and death metal and whose autoreply made your day a little less ‘winter is coming’ and a bit more ‘island in the sun’.

Have a great week!

Keep it short

The example above is very long. Recruitment firm Reed says two to three sentences should be enough and that “out of office emails should be short, succinct, and to the point – and should never include more information than is needed”.

Clarity comes first

Whether or not you use humour, you do definitely need to be clear – after all, clear communication is the whole point of out of office messages.

Paul says: “Being clear and concise can reduce the chances of misunderstanding to those receiving an OOO.”

Misunderstandings can have disastrous results. Paul gives the bizarre example of a Swansea council worker who put their out-of-office in Welsh and found their message had been used for a road sign that deterred lorries from a road near a supermarket.

Do it yourself

You could try this automatic OOO generator from travel comparison site Kayak. It lets you choose your filters, and crucially your ‘vibe’ - from ‘keep it professional’ to ‘6 shots in at the office party’. For example:

Hi there,

By the time you get this, I’ll be away and not returning until Wed 1/2. What will I be doing? In truth, I’ll be knee-deep in some Christmas-inspired celebration that includes a far too much small talk and not enough turkey. So, while you wait for my response, I encourage you to relax with some beer. Cheers!

Perhaps you’d be better just writing your message yourself.

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