Ask Debbie Lundberg: Out of office, out of mind

Dear Debbie, 

Can you help with some Out of Office (OOO) coaching? I recently took some time off from work, but I always try to be available for urgent matters that need my attention. I explain that while I’m on vacation, for anything that needs immediate attention, I can be reached on my cell phone. What is the best way to respond to non-urgent matters, if contacted? Or, how do I phrase my OOO reply in a way that helps the person contacting me know whether they should or shouldn’t reach out? 

Thank you, 

Signed, Out of Office, Out of Mind

Dear Out of Office, Out of Mind,

Good for you that you write and set an OOO message to indicate your limited access!

I’m sure other people often wonder about the etiquette, and actions, of using an “Out Of Office” message. Similarly, and with each “Dear Debbie” response, any and all information shared is delivered as COACHING, not criticism, which means you may or may not love everything in this response, but I hope it’s useful to you and to others. 

Here are some tips for creating and understanding the OOO message: 

• Include a subject line that informs

• Start with something other than “I am…”

• Share a planned response time/date and have an alternate option, if available, and the person has agreed to fill in.

• HONOR the OOO set by yourself by not responding to people who don’t respect the three points above.

Now, let’s explore what some of these above points mean, in practice. 

The subject line that informs is not in all capital letters or all lowercase letters, as ALL CAPS is interpreted as yelling, and all lowercase emotes a lack of importance. Use proper grammar and capitalization of each letter. Share what you are doing, without bragging or seeking sympathy. That way your OOO recipient has an idea of how available you are for their request or need. A helpful subject line example is: “OOO – On Vacation 3/12/24-3/17/24, Details Inside,” or use bereavement or extensive travel. While there is no guarantee everyone will read the message, this approach is most inviting and has proven to get a higher open rate than those that state “READ THIS” or “sunning by the pool in Tahiti – TTL.”

Begin your message with gratitude by writing something sincere from your voice. If you start your message with “I am…” the reader thinks something like “I know that from the subject line – what about me,” and feels more annoyed than informed. You can welcome, and inform, someone with something such as “Thank you for your message…” Use your personality. While you are thoughtfully seeking my input, ensure the vibe or brand still fits you.

Share a planned response time/date with options, if available, by being realistic. Please don’t return from a 12-day safari jet-lagged thinking you will return all emails that Sunday after resting. Set boundaries, and expectations so your OOO contacts provided are not reaching out to you, instead of the original email sender. Bullet point who is doing what in your OOO. Watch using the words “In the case of an emergency” as many perceive that verbiage as a license to interrupt you. Instead, indicate what each person handles so correspondence ends up in the appropriate hands. 

Honoring the OOO for yourself is often the biggest challenge. If you are on vacation, and you have things covered, be on vacation, and try to ignore the feeling of “needing to be needed” by checking emails. If you do check them, only send to others to reply, or reply yourself with “Hi [Name!] Hope you are well. While I am still on vacation, and this is an exception, here is my reply _____. Now I am back on vacation, and off the clock, so additional messages will be read and responded to by 3/25/24.” If you find yourself texting, answering calls or emailing with people while on bereavement or vacation, and that frustrates you, reset your boundaries and engage where you are instead of with those not respecting your well-crafted, considerate OOO message.

With that all in place Out of Office, Out of Mind, you can enjoy the time you have set aside for you, your family, your well-being, your travel or all of these, knowing you may be out of the office, and there is no need to be out of your mind.
Onward with gratitude, 

Coach Debbie

Have a question for one of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth’s Experts? Email your question to Managing Editor Jo-Lynn Brown, at [email protected], and she will forward your “Ask the Experts” question to the writer best suited to answer your question. 

Debbie Lundberg is the founder and chief executive officer of the Florida-based firm Presenting Powerfully, where she delivers keynotes, facilitation, teaching and coaching. As a 12-time published author, certified virtual presenter, certified life coach, certified leadership coach and certified image consultant, Lundberg co-hosts the Business of Life Master Class podcast. Her book, Remote Work Rockstar, is a guidebook for working, and leading, virtually. She recently ended a four-year commitment as chair of the American Heart Association’s Circle of Red, in order to serve on the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Tampa General Hospital.

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