How The Out Of Office Became The Message For Our Times

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Lydia* was working as a baby creative in advertising when she encountered her first unnecessarily elaborate out of office message from a colleague. New to the workplace, she was baffled.
"It was all in bold, all in Comic Sans and ended with a Muhammad Ali quote...but Ali’s name was misspelled. It wasn’t a total shock as this guy already had an Ali quote in his email signature but this was just extra."
The quote in question is burned into Lydia’s brain:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
Why this quote? Why Comic Sans? What does this have to do with being on holiday? We’ll never know.
It’s high summer, so such uninvited auto-replies are probably flooding your inbox. If responding to, sending and deleting emails is a full-time job in itself all year round, during holiday season deleting out of offices (also known as the OOO) is a related side hustle.
When you boil it down, the out of office ought to be perfunctory. It is, above all else, a simple reminder to someone who wants your attention that you’re on holiday and, therefore, not at work and unable to give it to them. And yet they are becoming increasingly personal and intricate.
"I think elaborate OOOs are a way of trying to make yourself seem interesting," says Lydia, "but I think they have gotten out of control. They’ve turned into a weird inter-office one-upmanship game, an opportunity to brag. In that office, for instance, it was like 'Oh...your out of office just says you’re away...okay then'."
Stephanie Morgan is a professor of management at the University of Kent. She says that "technology is now becoming an extension of our identity" so feeling the need to put humour or a thoughtful quote into a humble out of office auto-reply "is almost a way of demonstrating our 'personality' to those trying to contact us."
As she sees it, this is fundamentally linked to how much importance we place on what we do for a living. "Research continues to demonstrate how important it is to feel one’s job has meaning and value," she adds, "so informing others that we are not available with lots of details about who else to contact or where we are is a way of confirming to ourselves, and to others, that the work we do is important and valuable. It demonstrates we may be missed!"
Indeed, this is true to the extent that studies have found people are increasingly reluctant to retire.
But beware the humorous out of office, for it can backfire. Twenty-eight-year-old Claire* works in marketing. Two years ago she received a formal complaint, via her manager, after a client flagged her auto-reply as unprofessional.
"We were kinda one of those 'cool' startups where everyone was young, encouraged to be funny in our work and be pally with everyone/client," she reflects. "I remember a few of my colleagues even used to use memes/GIFs in their out of offices."
"I was working for a holiday company and just about to head off on holiday myself so I thought it'd be funny/a light-hearted joke to tie into the work we'd just done in my auto-reply."
In a moment of divine inspiration, Claire copied and pasted the lyrics to Madonna’s "Holiday", saved it and went off on her travels. When she came back, she was told that the account director at the client had found it anything other than funny.
"She had said she thought it was unprofessional and that it reflected badly on our working relationship," Claire says. "She moaned to my line manager about it, but luckily he found it hilarious and told her to lighten up."
Who would have thought that vacation settings would ever become the front line of work culture wars? When out of offices aren’t an attempt to be funny or show people how clever we are with pithy (or, in the case of Lydia’s colleague, not so pithy) quotes, they are complex webs of self-justification.
As work creeps into all areas of our life like an unshakeable miasma, out of offices seem to be saying so much more than "I’m away right now".
Last month, I received one which actually had a photo of someone on a sun lounger, on the holiday that their out of office was supposed to serve as a protective barrier for. Paradoxically, they had used the standard annual leave refrain alongside it: "I will have limited access to email." Not so limited that you couldn’t upload this picture, I thought.
It is a truth universally acknowledged today that there are reasonably few places in the world where you will actually have limited access to your emails. Wherever we go, no matter how far from home we find ourselves, however much we try to detach from the banality of our everyday working lives, the odds are that if someone wanted to, they could reach us.
I’m 31 years old and I remember a time before Wi-Fi so this is a fairly recent phenomenon. We’re more connected than ever and in theory more productive but a side effect of that is that the internet is almost completely inescapable.
Still we say, "I will have limited access to emails", though we know it not to be true, when what we really mean is that we will be trying not to check them.
Work is becoming more competitive and in some industries, increasingly unstable. This is, by all accounts, creating a culture of workism where work is the new religion. We’re working ever longer hours and our careers seep ever more into our identities, with work-life separation becoming an increasingly slippery and flimsy film where once there was a firm divide. And research shows that it’s making us depressed (particularly if we work weekends after a full week).
In the last week alone I’ve sent two emails and received two instantaneous auto-replies. Each said something similar:
"I’m away right now and I have limited access to/won’t be replying to/am not checking emails so please don’t expect a response…"
But then, within minutes, that person would indeed reply to my question.
"I am not really away, away," one said, "just not (really) working."
I was confused. If you’re not away or you are but you’re still working, why use an out of office at all? Why say you have "limited access to email" if you don’t?
Mark*, a 31-year-old management consultant, says he was shocked recently when he received an out of office from "a very senior executive" at his company. It was short, curt and said that he was "out of the office and not to contact him at all, no matter what."
"I suppose being that senior allows you to be ballsy," Mark says. "I was surprised but then I thought it set a good precedent. I think we all need to create permission for one another to do switch off properly. I think people aspire to it, but they fear their inability to justify it."
Limited Access To Email is, then, contemporary Arcadia. It’s a luxury destination that we’re all desperate to visit when we go away but find ourselves somehow unable to reach. So when someone does get there – by clearly setting a boundary – we are surprised and, perhaps, even a bit jealous.
"There are of course links between out of offices and presenteeism," Stephanie notes. "A detailed out of office is almost a way of being there when you are not – it reminds everyone of the importance of your work and dedication to the job even when you are not working."
I asked one of the people who replied to me despite having an out of office set up why they did so. "I just want to stay on top of things so I don’t come back to loads of work," they said.
It felt like an excuse, not a reason. What’s the point of annual leave if you’re still working? Have we created elaborate discourses of justification to defend the fact that work encroaches on our allotted holiday time because we know, deep down, that it shouldn’t be happening?
Be honest with yourself, how many truly urgent emails do you receive? Stephanie is troubled that we are increasingly seeing people setting auto-replies when they are only going to be away from their desk for a day or part of it. "We are setting the wrong expectations if we tell people we may not reply for a few hours," she says. "How often does a few hours actually make a difference?"
"People are losing the boundaries between work, rest and home," Stephanie says. "It’s too easy to keep in touch so some people feel guilty if they don’t."
Ultimately, she points out, work culture will always trickle from the top down. "In some organisations the managers/leaders say very clearly: 'I don't expect any late night or weekend emails, or during holidays, because I want my team to be effective not worn out – and I won't be doing them myself.' If there are no emails from the top at weekends, people will start to relax a bit more and not send any themselves. A good leader can almost make it the wrong thing to do."
In an era in which being 'busy' has become a warped status symbol, how many of us wish we had a boss like that?
It seems that accepting a job increasingly means you will allow work to seep into your personal life. This has become a strangely ubiquitous and accepted professional Faustian bargain. If work is the new religion, the out of office is our prayer in which we swear our commitment to the cause no matter where in the world we are.
In the end, though, anyone who goes to great lengths to set a funny or elaborate out of office but replies while they’re away anyway may find that the joke is actually on them. As a recent study from Stanford University found, working longer hours will not make you more productive, anyway.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series