Heading out on vacation? Writing an effective out-of-office automatic reply is as much an art as it is a science.
Doubtful? Well, you know those Google Doodles that people think are so delightful and inspiring? The first one was actually an out-of-office email for Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, when the Google co-founders took time off to attend the Burning Man Festival.
While the Google guys' auto-reply was undoubtedly cool, it would hardly pass muster in the email-soaked age we find ourselves in today. Dmitri Leonov knows these times all too well. Leonov is the vice president of growth for Sanebox, a subscription service that combats email overload by monitoring and learning how you use your inbox, removing the unimportant mail, and putting it in a separate folder where it can be easily summarized.
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So, in other words, Leonov has seen a lot of out-of-office emails in his day, both good and bad. Here are five tips he suggests people use to make their auto-response as helpful as their days off.
Only auto-reply once
If you’ve ever been on a mass email with someone who’s on vacation, you know how irritating it can be to get their out-of-office auto reply again and again—especially if they claim to be vacationing someplace nice and warm. Don’t be that emailer.
"It’s absolutely a requirement to only send the out-of-office reply once per contact,” says Leonov. “Most [email] services let you do that, no problem, but sometimes folks forget that one notification is enough."
Fudge your dates
Coming back from vacation, the holidays, or even just a long weekend to a stuffed inbox can be daunting. But it can be manageable if you schedule time to manage your mail bailout. The best way to give yourself space to clean out your email is to tell a white lie on your auto-reply, suggesting that you’re coming back later than you really are.
“Give yourself a couple extra days,” says Leonov. So, for instance, if you’re due back in the office on Monday, claim to be returning on Wednesday. "It gives yourself a little extra time to get everything done, and the added bonus is that I impress people when I get back to them on Wednesday,” he says.
Write a helpful response
As hard as this may be to believe, business won’t grind to a stop simply because you’re not checking your email. But if people are emailing you and getting a generic “Sorry!” in response (or no reply at all), then you’re making their jobs more difficult to do. Leonov recommends writing an auto-reply that directs traffic in your absence.
So, think of the typical requests you get over email in the course of a day. Then, include in your message the phone number and email address for the people covering your absence. And be sure to let those people know they’re backing you up, otherwise your office might seem colder than you imagined when you return from your week in Hawaii.
Don’t be too funny
You might be the company cut-up, but someone unexpectedly discovering that you’re unavailable is no time for yucks. If you can’t resist making a wisecrack, at least make sure it’s work-appropriate and sensitive to the fact that not everyone is eating their way across Italy. “It’s an opportunity to add a little bit of character and not be too boring, but remember, everything in moderation,” says Leonov.
Keep it short (and not wweet)
As soon as people see that “Out of Office” subject heading bounce back to their inbox, they’ve already got their finger on the delete key—and who can blame them? Their emails are piling up too, after all.
There's one secret to ensuring that your message gets read, according to Leonov: “Be brief.” That way, when these messages flash across the screen (and then disappear into the trash can), the recipient might actually glean some of its information.
So, if these rules are so straightforward, there must be some sort of perfect out of office auto-reply, right? (And ideally, something you can copy, paste, and use yourself, of course.) Thankfully, Leonov has offered up his most recent automated message to the cause:
I'm taking a well deserved mini-vacation and will get back to you on
Wednesday, November 4.
If you have a sales issue, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Otherwise please email my colleague: email@example.com
PS: Wow. I haven't done an out-of-office response in a couple years. It feels even better than I remember!