I’m Out of the Office. Really.
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I’m Out of the Office. Really.

The key to a truly restorative holiday? Crafting the perfect out-of-office email.

Tue, Jun 28, 2022 11:49amGrey Clock 4 min

In January, Claire Davis started buying bathing suits. In February, she prepped videos to send to clients in her absence. In April, the vacation finally arrived, and the day before her flight to Hawaii, she sat down to write her first out-of-office message since starting her own business six years ago.

“Girl, you’re looking so professional,” Ms. Davis, a Spokane, Wash.-based career consultant for medical-sales professionals, thought to herself as she crafted the note. As she pressed the button, “I felt free.”

The feeling lasted about an hour. While waiting in line for brunch with friends, frantic texts started pouring in. Somehow, she had inadvertently set her auto reply to spam message everyone who’d sent her an email since 2016.

Some—like the close contacts texting her—had been inundated with hundreds of out-of-office replies, one for every email they’d ever sent her.

“It was horrifying,” she says, estimating the messages reached tens of thousands of people.

You’re going on vacation. All that’s left to do is unlock the magic wording that will free you from your inbox—and by extension, your work life. So why is it so hard?

Fiddling with the settings is just the start. Do you make a joke, open up about your personal life? How do you get people to leave you alone without making them feel abandoned or annoyed? Are they judging the length of your absence? Maybe it’s not even worth trying to log off at all.

“You want this time off, but at the same time you feel so pressured and so guilty,” says Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal who studies how workers manage the boundary between work and life.

The agonizing isn’t our fault, she says. Modern workplaces expect people to be perpetually reachable, and the pandemic seems to have shortened expectations for message-response times. Working from home, out of sight, we should at least be a click away, the thinking goes. A survey from cloud-software company Qualtrics earlier this year found that 49% of respondents did at least an hour of work a day while on vacation.

The out-of-office email has the potential to be your shield, Dr. Ollier-Malaterre says. Don’t apologize for taking time off. Remove email notifications from your phone, or delete the whole app if you’re brave enough.

That said, if you do ruminate on work matters while on vacation, taking a peek at your inbox might be worth it, she adds.

“Sometimes you’ll feel better because you can see that nothing is burning,” says Dr. Ollier-Malaterre.

Brian Brown long went with the standard out-of-office-template, trying to imbue it with a quiet sense of “No, really, I’m actually not here.” It usually didn’t work.

When co-workers received his out-of-office email, “The next thing you get is a second message that’s, like, ‘Hey, but I really need this,’” says the 33-year-old, who works for a tax-software company in Lehi, Utah.

He bulked up his notes, enclosing details about his whereabouts (his hometown in Southern California, a Tim McGraw concert, camping with no cell service). He wove in facts about the destinations. He noted why the canyons he was traipsing through on a recent day off reminded him of tax compliance.

Rather than messages demanding work, colleagues and clients now chat with him about his travels. He feels more connected to them, and seen as a person, “not a 24/7 robot,” he says.

The away message can be a thrilling canvas for office workers with poetic souls. Aaron Konter, a one-time aspiring screenwriter, joined the advertising industry hoping to do the creative writing he had long dreamed of. Instead, clients wanted the work done their way. Supervisors slashed his copy.

Then the Atlanta-area resident discovered the freedom of the out-of-office email.

“I didn’t have to get it approved by anyone,” he says. “I could just be myself.”

Subject line of one recent note: “Aaron is OOO (Baby Baby),” referring to Smokey Robinson’s and the Miracles’ 1960s hit. In others, he riffed on how addicted we all are to technology and implored the recipient to create a vision board to try to manifest what they’re seeking from him. He signs off with “Love, Aaron.”

“This is me,” he says of his away messages. “And if you don’t like it, that’s OK.”

Some out-of-office messages hit a nerve. I heard from an entrepreneur who was outraged by an automated reply from a vendor saying he was surfing the coast of France. Meanwhile, the entrepreneur and his team were rushing to wrap a behind-schedule project that required the vendor’s help.

To avoid having your message land poorly, use language that assumes you don’t know the recipient well and that they have more power than you, says Erica Dhawan, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based leadership consultant and author of a book about digital communication.

Keep your note to two or three sentences, because being brief signals you respect people’s time, she says. Include an emergency contact and when you’ll be back. But feel free to hedge, publicly sharing a date that gives you some buffer time upon returning.

If you still have trouble turning on your vacation responder, help awaits. Iceland’s tourism-marketing office recently launched an online campaign starring three horses who clomp across a giant keyboard in western Iceland, majestic waterfalls flowing in the background. The gibberish their hooves type is available for anyone to use as an out-of-office reply.

Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, the head of the marketing unit, assures me that the out-of-office templates available on the Visit Iceland website were truly generated by the horses, though humans proofread them to ensure no swear words in any language accidentally made it into messages.

The horse babble sends a message, she says, and that message is: “I’m on my vacation.”

Going all out, with an equine twist or not, just might do the trick. After all, Ms. Davis—the career consultant who spammed thousands of her contacts with the away-message misfire—came home from two weeks in Hawaii to just a couple dozen emails.

“They let me have that vacation,” she says. “Without really bothering me at all.”


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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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