The Art of Being Out Of Office

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Crafting the perfect out of office reply is an art form.  Take basic information, mix with corporate culture (or policy), sprinkle in a bit of advanced email programming, and perhaps just a dash of “I’m on vacation and you aren’t” and you may have the perfect out of office reply.

I struggle always with how much (or how little) information to include so I found this recent blog post from MM LaFleur (one of my favorite professional brands) titled How Do You OOO? to be quite humorous.  I know in MY corporate environment, I could never get away with number 1 or 3 – and personally, I lean a wee bit too much towards number 2 to be considered a sane vacationer.

That latter admission brings up one of the points of discussion I have is how to actually get to the point of being out of office to begin with.

Me?  I figured out a long time ago that no one was ever going to force me to take a vacation.  In fact, if I didn’t actually put it on the calendar it simply wasn’t going to happen because I would be forever scheduled into the future.

As such, I started proactively blocking off time for vacations far into the future.  I not only try to block an extra Friday or Monday around what will already be a work holiday (Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving) but I also try to grab that dead time between Christmas and New Years, just in case.

I also work to get the remainder of my four weeks a year on the calendar in advance.  Since I took up cruising, it has been easier to block very specific chunks of time when I’ll be out of office.  And I find that cruising or beach vacations actually work well with my workaholic tendencies… if I’m in one set place for a week or more (which is technically the case even on a moving cruise ship), I can often work part-time (usually in the very early hours that I seem to be awake, even on vacation).  That part-time work gives me even more mileage with booking my vacations since I’m still conserving my total allotted vacation hours by traveling more but remaining fully accessible.

Some would argue that fully accessible isn’t the best of habits.  I say, to each her own.  My fear on vacation is coming back to an overflowing inbox filled with things that are small but time-consuming in aggregate… or worse, an issue that would have been minor if I had a few minutes to address it that instead has created a massive headache in my absence.  I think that some jobs lend themselves better to total decompression than others.  Project management is not always one of them, especially when I’m juggling multiple projects with different key players on each.

I do set some boundaries though and by following a consistent process, I eliminate most of the “out of office” headaches.  Here are my personal guidelines:

  1. Prepare in advance.  In the weeks leading up to a planned out of office gap, I try to carefully sequence my project work and travel so that I’ve allowed the gap to naturally occur at an appropriate point in projects.  For my upcoming vacation in October, that means I’ve already pre-planned travel for key clients either right before or right after my vacation dates.  I’ve also set up the expectation that key milestones will not occur in the two weeks that I will be gone.
  2. Delegate early.  For some of my work, I’ll need to delegate work to be completed in my absence.  By delegating that responsibility early, I’ll give those designees the opportunity to dig into the work and ask questions before I leave and also to conduct any handoff calls well in advance of my last day in the office.
  3. Schedule check-ins – before/during/after.  I like to get progress calls with both clients and team mates schedules for a few days before I leave on vacation.  We can recap work in progress and agree on a game plan.  I also calendar these as necessary for the first couple of days back from vacation.  In a few cases, it is necessary to check in while on vacation as well.  When in Europe, I often do a quick Skype chat in the late afternoon when colleagues are first arriving at the office if there are critical issues to discuss.
  4. Make availability clearly known.  I like having a brief “out of office” reply – how long I’m gone, when I’m returning, what my level of connection will be while out, and who to contact for emergencies.  I often find it best to set a specific time for checking emails, preferably when everyone is out of the office.  I plan to do it first thing in the morning, Europe time, so my team knows that anything they email me about on Monday will be responded to when they arrive in the office on Tuesday morning.  I also will occasionally block small periods of time that my cell phone is turned on for calls.  I find that my colleagues respect this time but also appreciate knowing I’m available for urgent matters.
  5. Plan vacation strategically.  While its the norm to take vacations with weekend bookends, I find its sometimes better to leave and return mid-week.  For this upcoming trip, I will be taking my 14 days out from a Wednesday through a Tuesday.  My plan is to still be accessible on Wednesday when I’m flying out and Thursday when I arrive in Europe.  I’ll then take the full gap Friday through the following Monday to decompress as much as possible and start catching up again as I fly home that final Tuesday.  I find that the soft exit/reentry approach works well for those invariable fires that come up.  I can wrap up loose ends without stress as I leave and I can catch up on small items as I return so that my first day back in the office is fully productive.
  6. Know your own boundaries.  I am good about deciding what is urgent or not when I’m gone but without some boundaries it would be easy to have things continue to be delegated to me.  Occasionally I will make the decision that something is urgent enough to change plans slightly to put out a fire.  (As an example, last year in Turkey I ended up needing to stay on the ship one morning to take care of an urgent issue with a client.  While my initial plans changed, I was still able to create my own adventure later and ended up having a lovely culinary afternoon in Istanbul that might have otherwise not occurred.)

Whatever your out of office style, having a plan is key.  A witty out of office reply is merely a bonus.

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last nineteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 48.5 US states. Once an "every week" road warrior, she now only travels around 100 days a year. She resides in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and playing with her Border Collie/Great Pyreness mix puppy Harley Quinn.

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  1. Train your clients. Never answer your phone at all. Always answer emails promptly. Let clients know about any big holiday/vacation trips weeks in advance.

    • My longtime clients are fairly well-trained. It’s the newer ones (often longtime clients of our firm but newer to me) that have their expectations already set by someone else. My plan works pretty well for me but it has taken close to 20 years to get into a groove I’m confident works not only for me but others.

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