Images by Brian Khek

Out-of-Office Replies Are a Scourge

No one cares about your vacation

Christmas is nearly upon us, which means we will soon have to suffer through the holiday break’s most annoying tradition that doesn’t involve your family: the out-of-office (OOO) email reply.

Twice a year — during the holiday break and peak summer vacation season — our inboxes become subject to a barrage of pointless, inane one-line emails indicating that the email recipient is not, in fact, at work. Well, goodfor you! Mind you this is in addition to all the stray OOO reminders we get throughout the rest of the year due to offseason vacations, business trips and doctor’s visits. Yet they provide no useful information, and do nothing but add to the digital scrap heap.

It’s time we put an end to this madness.

The OOO email is an affront to the medium. Email’s very nature is asynchronous — I’ve send you an email with the expectation you will respond once you’ve read it. Standards regarding the proper response time for an email vary depending on the relationship between sender and recipient(s) and the pertinence of the email itself, but it’s widely understood that email is something we manage whenever we can find the time. Otherwise we’d use a more immediate medium like text or IM.

To force an OOO email into another person’s inbox is like catapulting your garbage into your neighbor’s lawn.

But an OOO message operates under the false premise that emails need to be answered at once. You send someone an email and moments later you’re hit with an OOO auto-reply. While well-intentioned, the speed at which the OOO is sent suggests its sender is a self-important dipshit who assumes the rest of us are eagerly awaiting his response.

We’re not.

Not to mention the “limited access to email” assumption of an OOO email is almost always bullshit. Leaving an OOO response might have been reasonable when email was only accessible on Ethernet-tethered desktops, but there’s no reason for it now that you carry your email in your pants. Is your out-of-town business meeting being conducted in the Appalachian hillside? The airport, the plane, the hotel — they all have Wi-Fi. And you can send and receive emails on the cab ride from your phone. You don’t need an OOO notification for the 25 minutes between take-off and when the captain turns off the seatbelt sign.

It’s been my experience people with OOO messages actually respond to emails more quickly than when they’re in the office — perhaps to ensure co-workers and bosses that, despite what their OOO might say, they’re keeping up with email just fine.

And this, the contribution to the futility of email, is the true terror of OOO. Consider Slack, an unimpressive technology company that has achieved a nearly $3 billion valuation, even though it’s essentially a chatroom, a glorified IM client of the likes we’ve been using since junior high. Slack is Gchat with a slicker interface. It’s AIM for the workplace. But Slack has achieved its so-called “unicorn” status by convincing offices it’s essential in a world where email is no longer useful. Slack is right — email is fundamentally broken, and we only have ourselves to blame.

I deactivated my work email from my phone for the entirety of a two-week vacation last summer and it was bliss.

Email startup Mailbox achieved instant popularity in late 2011 by promising to bring sanity and utility back to email. This December, less than two years after being acquired for $100 million, Mailbox announced plans to shutter its signature app, claiming that email is unfixable. “We’ve come to believe that the best way for us to improve people’s productivity going forward is to streamline the workflows that generate so much email in the first place,” Mailbox wrote to its users.

And OOO only adds to this glut. Worse, it’s clutter we impose on others. If someone doesn’t take the time to prune their inbox, that’s on them. But to force an OOO email into another person’s inbox is like catapulting your garbage into your neighbor’s lawn. OOO makes you a bad digital citizen.

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OOO emails may seem a minor nuisance, but the aggregate effect is substantial. Each one is a tiny drain on your time and mental energy. OOO emails are like real-world trash — one person’s littering may seem inconsequential, but when the behavior is normalized and repeated, the world is a mess.

The good news is that we can to put an end to the OOO menace. We can reclaim our inboxes and fight back against this tyranny. We can collectively agree to never use OOO anymore, and only then will OOO regain its meaning and value.There are, after all, times when using OOO is justified and helpful — like if you truly disconnect from email during a vacation. Before leaving, tell your boss you have no intention of reading, let alone responding, to any of her or your colleagues’ emails or other digital communique. Then give them your cell number just in case there’s a “work emergency” (whatever that is).

Granted, not everyone can afford this luxury, but if you can get away with untethering from your work email on a trip, then you will feel liberated. I deactivated my work email from my phone for the entirety of a two-week vacation last summer and it was bliss. Nothing disastrous happened, and my work didn’t suffer. The only hassle was the hundreds of emails I had to wade through the Sunday before I went back to work, most of which were pointless anyway.

Other reasonable OOO uses include extended medical leave, a legitimate family emergency and permanently leaving a job.

An added bonus to temporarily disconnecting from email is you can harass your co-workers with a mocking (but justified) OOO response. Try:

“I won’t be able to respond to your email in a timely fashion because I’m on vacation, drinking, while you waste away at work. I’ll get back you to on Monday.”

Because if you’re going to annoy your co-workers with an OOO email, at least do it with style.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He previously wrote about a single gay adoptive father in the south.

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