Mike the Mad Biologist

Out-of-Office Reply Is a Good Thing

Despite what Tyler Brûlé writes at The Financial Times. Brûlé writes:

When an e-mail bounces back with: “I’m travelling on business in New York (or Rome, Taipei, São Paulo …) and will have limited access to e-mail,” such messages usually pose the following questions: is this individual employed by a company that can’t afford BlackBerrys or iPhones? Can this person not manage their time away from the office? Or are they simply away having a laugh at my company’s expense? Unless they work in the public utility business and are 200ft below the streets of New York repairing the sewers where there’s no mobile or wi-fi reception, I can’t understand the point of such messages.

For the record, I’m all for time off and taking it easy and disconnecting when and where appropriate. But I’m also conscious of the need to be responsive when one holds down a responsible job and when the livelihoods of many others depend on us keeping up to date and in touch. It’s for this reason that I find OOORs (out-of-office repliers) out of step with the ways of the modern working world. Occasionally, I meet conscientious objectors who don’t have mobiles and rarely use e-mail and I respect their decision to live in a less wired world. They’ve decided they want to live off-line and if you need to reach them then you’ll find them at the end of a landline or at a café at an appointed hour. OOORs on the other hand have been fully teched-up (usually by their employer) and use their replies as passive aggressive snubs to demonstrate their independence – not so much from technology but from responsibility.

This attitude reminds me of the NY maître d’ who never took a vacation because he was afraid people would realize that he wasn’t needed. In my experience, if you have a job where you actually do something useful, you can be out of touch. On the other hand, if you’re in the bullshit business (any number of them), you can’t afford to stop emailing, texting, calling and so on because your irrelevance might become noticed. But what really bothers me is that this assumes that one should always be available. Why? Certain jobs do require this. President of the U.S. Doctors on service. But most of the time, the issue is that someone else didn’t plan accordingly. They are having a crisis. You are not. If they managed their time better, they most likely wouldn’t be needing to contact.

Brûlé also writes, “people who like to post elaborate out-of-office replies not only dislike their jobs but also tend to be less entrepreneurial, poor team-players and, in many cases, lazy.” Or they just don’t reward bad behavior.

There’s another issue of prioritization. When I attended the ASM meeting last week, I posted an out-of-office reply. It served two purposes. First, everyone would know that I might not get back to them right away. Second, it lays out priorities. My priority, while I’m at the meeting, is the meeting. If it’s an emergency for me, then I’ll deal with it. If not, it’s going to wait. One of the hardest things for people to realize–and this is particularly bad in academia–is that your top priority might not be someone else’s top priority:

One of the good things about working at a non-profit organization for a couple of years is that it, to a considerable extent, took me off of ‘academic time’ and put me onto ‘business time': if I emailed someone on Friday at 4:55pm, I didn’t expect a response until Monday (unless it was truly urgent–for the recipient). That didn’t mean that I didn’t work late or weekends on my things, but I didn’t automatically consider that others’ weekends were business hours. What’s worse is that we then encourage this bad behavior by responding (again, this is different if it is a genuine emergency, or a long planned weekend interruption).

The other source of bad management is that too many in academia can’t say the simple word no. Granted, sometimes it’s very hard or impossible to say no, particularly for an untenured faculty member. Even when there isn’t that power imbalance, someone wants to say no, but the concept of collegiality (which is abused ad nauseum) doesn’t permit it. If you do say no, people are often shocked, even if they spring something on you at the last moment. The idea that a collaborator will say, “No, I can’t, you didn’t give me enough lead time” is often novel–and more importantly, avoidable.

For example, I’m currently involved in writing several hundred pages of grants. When a colleague asked if I could get involved in another project, I said the dread word no. So said colleague tried again, and again, no. There is no available Mike for developing a project right now. Period. It’s not personal, but I have to get these grants done. I needed to be told about this months ago, not two weeks before a bunch of deadlines. Some long term planning was necessary, and didn’t happen.

In other words, being constantly in-touch reinforces bad work habits. It’s not laziness, but professionalism.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    June 2, 2010

    I hear ya about the 4:55 email thing in the non-academic world. Some days I hold off hitting send on one until then just so that I won’t have to deal with whatever response is going to come my way :p

  2. #2 James Hrynyshyn
    June 2, 2010

    Halle-frakkin-lujah. I wish I’d written that.

  3. #3 Dave King
    June 2, 2010

    Fair point JohnV :), unfortunately my office hours are way behind 4.55pm and I rarely use Out of office notification

  4. #4 Jeremy
    June 2, 2010

    Echoing James’ sentiment. OOOR’s are part of a toolkit for setting boundaries at work.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    June 2, 2010

    Mr. Brule reveals himself to be a clueless dolt. Even outside of academia, the OOOR can convey important information. If I’m on a business trip in another time zone, I will be on an entirely different schedule, and you should take that into account when you are trying to reach me about some issue that is important to you. For example, if it’s 3 PM in New York and I’m in Paris, I’m probably eating dinner (or possibly on my way to the restaurant; the French are notorious for dining late), in a country where dinner is taken seriously. Furthermore, if a non-academic employer is paying for the trip, I’m probably dining with an important client who will not be pleased when you interrupt our dinner for something that isn’t a life-threatening emergency. If you had bothered to read the OOOR and knew anything about the local culture in Paris, you would have known that trying to reach me for anything less than a full-blown emergency would be a Bad Idea.

  6. #6 FrauTech
    June 2, 2010

    You are spot on Mike. Even if you are in the business world, let’s say an important manager has to fly to europe for some important testing going on there. Unless he’s got an international blackberry, his normal company blackberry is going to be no good for him there. And sure he could take a laptop, but most company laptops have sensitive, company proprietary data on them. So taking one just for emails is ridiculous. So an out of office that specifies exactly what the manager will have access to while he’s gone is very important, especially if it specifies who will be handling his projects in his absence. Agreed those who are the most attached to their emails/voicemails/tweeting/texting in the business world are those who aren’t acutally accomplishing anything.

  7. #7 speedwell
    June 2, 2010

    I don’t know what the hullabaloo is. I am the lead support tech for a software package that 1800 people use at my worldwide company. My OOO message actually lists five or six ways that users can get help in my absence. I’m not irrelevant; getting me directly is better, to most users, than having to do one of the many effective workarounds, but I do not leave them bereft of assistance.

  8. #8 BaldApe
    June 2, 2010

    I never use an out of office notification. I just don’t check my work email when I’m not at work. If somebody sends me an email after quitting time, let them figure out why I answer it the next morning.

  9. #9 Interrobang
    June 3, 2010

    I never use an OOO notification either. First of all, I don’t check my work e-mail when I’m not at work (and no, Tyler Brûlé, not everyone’s companies buy everyone a Crackberry; some of us work for small companies — mine’s fifteen employees — that aren’t made out of money). Secondly, an OOO notification is a great way to let the occasional spammer who does slip the filter know that your e-mail address is actually active.

  10. #10 Omega Centauri
    June 3, 2010

    I’ve been meticulous to never use any form of automated reply. It seems that (or at least was so a few years back), that spam-bots would check out lists for active email adresses to sell to spamers, by emailing a gazillion addresses, and noting who replys. In my office those who used the vacation program recieved hundreds of slam emails per day, while I got hardly any.

  11. #11 Vicki
    June 3, 2010

    Another thing the out-of-office reply is good for is to tell people who they can talk to who will be in the office. If I’m on vacation, even if I checked my email, I don’t have all the work-related documents. My fellow team members, on the other hand, can walk over to my desk and refer to them. So even from the viewpoint of Mr. I’m Always Behind and That’s Your Problem, those messages serve a purpose. At my current job, people actually plan their vacations, and arrange for people to cover things that can’t wait until they return.

    The right phone number for people to call when my boss is on vacation isn’t her cell phone; it’s either my work number, the third member of our team, or my boss’s boss. (The cell phone is appropriate if one of us has to work at home so we can be there for a plumber.)

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