Covid spilled the out of office email. Hooray!


A few Friday afternoon a colleague in London received an out of office message from a man saying he was not available because he was “working during working hours today. winter”.

Anyone who needs it urgently can call a cell phone number included in the note, which ends: “I’ll answer your email on Monday.” Have a nice week end.”

My colleague, like me, was puzzled. What the hell were “winter hours”?

I did some research. As it turned out, the man was working for a global company who decided that the staff who had worked a week at 1 p.m. on Friday, which most of them did, could take the rest of the day and enjoy it. that remained of the winter sunlight.

The company went straight to my file of companies doing well during the pandemic.

Then I realized I needed a new folder, as it was by no means the only unusual out of office message I’ve seen in the past 12 difficult months. Together they tell the story of a year of professional life that no one expected to start and which sometimes seems to never end.

The first batch came shortly after the first lockdowns began early last year and reeked of the shock of the new one. All came from young working parents who suddenly became teachers or childminders in addition to their full-time jobs. “Thank you for your email,” they began, before explaining that due to the Covid epidemic, you may have to wait for a response.

Then there would be an explanation of a personal life almost entirely missing from the pre-Covid absence message. “I balance work with having two kids at home, so the response to emails will be slower than usual,” read one of the first I saw. Like others who have followed, he listed specific times between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. when the sender would be available.

Good for you, I thought, wondering if I would have had the courage to send something like this if I had been in their shoes.

It would obviously help if you worked for a place like the University of Sheffield. He advises staff to write such a message in a special office email template he created for employees immersed in Covid remote work. But not everyone has such a smart employer.

As the pandemic developed, new variants of out of the office have emerged that say something like, “Thanks to home schooling, I work flexibly and can send emails around the clock.” . Please don’t think you should respond immediately. “

This makes sense, especially if the sender is older than the recipient. In this case, Sheffield is advising its staff to say the same.

This year however, as new lockdowns returned for millions in a Northern Hemisphere winter, a tone of OOO defiance became more evident.

My own automatic replies are a good example of this. I used to say that I could receive an SMS for urgent questions and that I would respond when I got back. It was both wrong and silly. In fact, I wouldn’t respond to a lot of emails when I got back and pretending I would was unnecessarily stressful which was stupid. One year of Covid got me out of it. When I last left, I just said, “I’m on leave until March 8. If you have an urgent question, send me a text.”

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

Another man I know is even more outspoken. “I will be out of the office and will NOT check my emails until I return,” said her last out of office message. “Due to the volume of emails we receive, please assume that yours is likely to be unread or even deleted.”

I agree with both approaches. They are simple and, for those who receive large amounts of unsolicited email, they are necessary.

I strongly support the general civility of email, especially at a time like this. And I’m pretty sure if I had seen any of these autoresponders before Covid, I would have found them surprising and perhaps shocking. Now though, when free time has to mean real time, I just find them refreshing.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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