It’s time to stop saying you’re out of the office

Loryan Strant Microsoft MVP

Guest Article
Loryan Strant – Microsoft MVP

While the workplace and technologies are changing how we work, some habits refuse to die. While some appear trivial, it all comes down to perception.

One of these habits is the out of office reply, sometimes referred to as OOF.

For many years staff had to come into the office to access their email due to technological limitations. This was largely due to one of two scenarios:

  • email was hosted on a server behind the corporate firewall with no simple way to access it
  • email was hosted by a server hosting provider (before we called it cloud) – you didn’t want to have it on multiple machines as the protocols didn’t allow for synchronising between them, meaning you would end up with lost emails or a broken conversation history

Back in those days we didn’t have email on our mobile phones, so the practice became that if you were out of the office for more than a day; you would configure an out of office.

Going back even further before the times of Exchange Server, back to the 80s the term “OOF” came about due to the naming of the auto-reply feature in the Xenix email system. The term meant “Out of Facility”, so while “Out of Office” should be written as “OOO” it is still referred to as “OOF” purely from habit.

But history lessons aside, why do people still say they are out of the office in their automatic replies?

This is commonly seen when people are at conferences, all day workshops, holidays, travelling, etc. While technically they are out of the office, does this mean they are less able to access their email than when they are in the office?

Mobile access to email has been with us for a long time. BlackBerry made it commonplace in the early 00s, with Apple then making it mainstream in the late 00s with the popularity of the iPhone. Back in those days a lot of mail systems still resided on-premises, and behind a corporate firewall so connecting the Outlook desktop client to a remote server was not necessarily as easy as it was for a mobile phone.

However, in this era of commonplace cloud services such as Office 365, it makes virtually no difference if you are in the office or out of it – when it comes to being able to access your email.

So why do we still have the habit of setting up automatic replies that say things like “Thank you for your email. I am currently out of the office, attending a conference.”?

In fact, specifying that you are in the office these days is almost an embarrassment – as it shows that your organisation is not progressive enough to support a flexible work style.

The message that automatic replies are trying to convey is that the recipient is either busy or offline for periods of time, and as such won’t be responding to emails as quick as normal.

The reality is that if you send an email to someone and get an automatic reply but need to talk to them – try an alternative contact method such as calling or text messaging to convey the importance. Perhaps if it was such an important message, it should have been a phone call in the first place?

We have different expectations on emails. Some people like me are generally fast to respond, while others are incredibly slow to respond or don’t at all. There is no accepted service level agreement for email response times.

So, if you’re unable to check and respond to emails because you’re busy – even if it’s for half a day let alone several days or weeks; say that. But don’t say you’re out of the office, because in general we don’t care where you are.

Out of office reply