Gather round and hear the story of the time out-of-office auto-replies were invented. Basically, some folks at Microsoft found that they were unable to stop responding to emails while they were on vacation, and thus the OOO was born. But the dirty truth is that some of us (OK, a lot of us) not only respond to email while we’re on vacation, but we actively stay on top of Slack and other communication channels as well.
Some of this flows from the top (true story: I once worked at a company that required us to put up OOOs when signing out for the day), but a lot of this pressure is self-inflicted. We don’t want to be out of the loop, and we simply don’t trust that things will be done—or done well—when we’re out, so we make contingency plans that prevent us from disconnecting. And when we get rewarded for this behavior (“Thanks for working on this critical issue. I know you had to take away from your time off to do it” or “You came back from vacation and jumped right in! Amazing!”) we internalize that never stop never stopping is a good thing.
We're all gearing up for what we hope will be a pretty epic summer, and we think it's time for people to change their approach to PTO. Vacation time tends to have some of the strictest rules around it, and we know that getting people to change their minds can be a challenge. That's why we're going to help give you a new way to think about how you handle your out-of-office time with some ways to encourage disconnection.
Set expectations about what time off actually means
First, a culture of disconnection while on vacation requires at least an explicit agreement between a company and its employees that no check-ins or communication is expected. Notice that goes beyond “no work is expected.” Make it clear that no one is expected to be able to hit the ground running within 10 minutes of signing on after a multi-day vacation (or even a multi-hour one). Make it clear that time off is time fully away from work. While this expectation must come from leadership, it can then be reinforced at the team level. If someone on vacation starts responding to emails or Slacks, gently remind them that they are out, that they shouldn’t worry, that you’ve got this, and that they should log off.
Pro tip: If you’re anything like me, you’ll simply pretend to be offline when you really aren’t. When I am on vacation, I actually delete Slack, work email, etc. from my phone. My hands certainly get itchy when these channels aren’t available to me, but it’s a helpful personal behavior reminder that hey, I’m supposed to be hiking up this cliff in Zion, not checking up on a discussion about our search rankings.
Update the way you use auto-replies
The problem with most out-of-office auto-replies is that they’re used to emphasize our obligations to those who are contacting us.
"I’m out of the office with limited internet access so my responses may be delayed. If you need an urgent response, please contact my colleague Cool Kid at coolkid@coolcompanydotcom. Otherwise, expect a reply as soon as I get back."
— A version of an OOO I used for years
Holy SLA, Batman! No wonder disconnecting while on vacation felt like a burden. OOO replies that look like this set nearly impossible expectations. Internally, everyone who should know you’re on vacation probably already does, and externally, most emails you get don’t require a response, timely or otherwise. (The exception: If you have external clients, send them a quick update that you’ll be out and what the fallback plan is—and it shouldn’t involve you checking in.)
Instead, format an out-of-office that looks a little bit more reasonable and reduces your burden:
"I'm on vacation and will begin responding to all outstanding items upon my return."
Not only does this emphasize that you’re not responding now, but it also doesn’t force you to immediately dive into responding as soon as you get back. There’s no extraneous info and doesn’t open your colleagues up to unwanted prospecting.
Pro tip: Use your OOO real estate to showcase some work that you’re really proud of (“While you’re waiting, why not check out our latest product release?”), or show a little personality (“I’m currently road tripping on the historic Route 66. Learn more about it here.”)
Make it easy for everyone to see what needs to happen in your absence
On my recent and very belated week-long vacation, I created a Guru Card (based on this template) that not only laid out when I was out and what the plan was for my absence but also under what circumstances it was OK to contact me. Let’s take a look at it:
The title makes it easily searchable for everyone at the company who might be wondering what’s up, and that information is repeated at the top of the Card itself to emphasize when I would be incommunicado.
Here I make it clear that I am a) not expecting to work since I’m not bringing my computer and b) under what limited (and frankly, fantastical) situations it is acceptable to contact me. I also direct people to those who can give them answers. Anything else will have to wait.
This is where my inner control freak comes out—and yeah, I’m a little ashamed (all of these folks already knew what they had to do), but it gives me peace of mind that it’s documented, meaning I don’t have to worry about it while I’m playing (read: losing at) blackjack.
I aimed to distill the biggest priorities for my team aside from our usual day-to-day stuff. This is essentially what I’ve given the green light to move ahead on without consulting me.
Finally, I reiterate what I see as my obligations to making sure everyone knows I’m really, really, for sure not going to work. There was no way if you were a Guru employee who was thinking about contacting me that you were going to miss the fact that I was out.
To make it fully, truly clear, I created a Bitly link for this Card, and made it my Slack status, as indicated above. But I went a step further! I changed my display name to “leah is OOO 4/26-4/30” and made my status this message:
The question you’re asking now is… did it work? Did I fully disconnect?
Almost. When I realized that I had neglected to remove Slack from my iPad I did check it once midweek. Turns out everything was fine and no one needed me (shock!), so I closed my iPad and turned my attention back to figuring out why everyone seems to like hiking so much.
Changing the way we think about time off
As a society, we need to reevaluate our relationship to work, but in the meantime, we can start by making changes at our companies, and within ourselves. This is a specific change management exercise you can begin in your company by getting a baseline sense of how well everyone is able to disconnect from work, and working through the steps above to make sure disconnecting and recharging is the norm, not the exception.