Covid has upended the out-of-office email. Hooray!

A couple of Friday afternoons ago, a colleague in London received an out-of-office message from a man saying he was unavailable because he was “working winter hours today”.

Anyone needing him urgently could call a mobile phone number included in the note, which ended: “I will reply to your email on Monday. Have a good weekend.”

My colleague, like me, was nonplussed. What on earth were “winter hours”?

I made inquiries. It turned out the man worked for a global company which decided that staff who had worked a week’s worth of hours by 1pm Friday, which most had, could take the rest of the day off and enjoy what was left of the winter sunlight.

The company went straight into my file of Businesses Behaving Well in the Pandemic.

Then I realised I needed a new file, because that was by no means the only unusual out-of-office message I have seen over the past 12 fraught months. Together, they tell a story of a year of working life that no one expected to start, and which sometimes seems as if it will never end.

Because of the volume of emails we receive, please assume that yours is likely to be unread or even deleted

The first lot came soon after the first lockdowns began early last year and reeked of the shock of the new. All were from young working parents who had suddenly become a teacher or childminder on top of their full-time job. “Thanks for your email,” they would start, before explaining that because of the Covid outbreak, you might have to wait for a reply.

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Then there would be an explanation of a personal life almost entirely absent from the pre-Covid out-of-office message. “I am balancing work with the care of two children at home, so response to emails will be slower than usual,” read one of the first I saw. Like others that followed, it listed specific hours between 8am and 8pm when the sender would be available.

Good for you, I thought, wondering if I would have been brave enough to send something like that had I been in their position.

It would obviously help if you worked for a place like the University of Sheffield. It advises staff to write just such a message in a special out-of-office email template it has created for employees thrust into Covid remote working. But not everyone has such a sensible employer.

As the pandemic has ground on, new out-of-office variants have emerged that say something like: “Because of home-schooling I am working flexibly and may send emails at all hours. Please don’t feel you need to reply at once.”

This is thoughtful, especially if the sender is more senior than the recipient. As it happens, Sheffield advises its staff to say the same thing.

Defiant tone

This year however, as fresh lockdowns returned for millions in a northern hemisphere winter, a tone of OOO defiance has become more evident.

My own auto-replies are a case in point. I used to say I could be texted for urgent matters and would respond on my return. This was both untrue and idiotic. In fact I would not respond to a lot of email on my return and pretending that I would was needlessly stressful, which was stupid. A year of Covid has snapped me out of it. When I was last away I simply said: “I am on leave until March 8. If you have an urgent query, please text me.”

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Others have taken a more emphatic approach. “I’m away and not checking my email,” announced the subject line in an email a friend received earlier this year.

Another man I know is even more forthright. “I will be out of the office and NOT checking email until I return,” says his latest out-of-office message. “Because of the volume of emails we receive, please assume that yours is likely to be unread or even deleted.”

I approve of both approaches. They are straightforward and, for those on the receiving end of vast amounts of unsolicited email, they are necessary.

I am deeply in favour of general email civility, especially at a time like this. And I am fairly sure that if I had seen any of these auto-replies before Covid, I would have found them surprising and possibly jarring. Now though, when time off has to mean real time off, I just find them refreshing. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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