How honest should your out of office be? (A lesson from Alan Partridge)

Categories Debate

First, let’s release an elephant into the room – I don’t get Alan Partridge (don’t hate me). In the interests of self-defence, I’m not going to be humble – I think I have a pretty awesome sense of humour. Look, it really isn’t difficult to make me chuckle. I guffaw a lot. I cry with laughter at the most ridiculous things. I love rant-y comedians, especially when they dissect something to absurdly unnecessary levels of detail. Silly is fine by me too. A blatant bit of slapstick – hilarious. I’m not sensitive or easy to offend. I normally laugh even when it’s inappropriate with surprising ease. But as for Alan, alas he can hardly raise a half-hearted smirk from me. Don’t judge me. (I think I know you already have).

Despite my apathy for Alan, I absolutely loved his spoof BBC ‘out of office’ response that went viral earlier this month. Brilliant. (It could be a turning point for Mr Partridge and I). The message of course was contrived and crafted for comedy, but it worked so wonderfully because beneath the satire, there was more than a glimmer of truth in his words. It’s what we’re all thinking when we write an out of office, right?

The auto responder message is typically written in a state of mild panic, your blood temperature bubbling a little below boiling point. This is because it is only after you’ve shut down your screen that you actually ever remember you need to write this overly polite (some would argue pointless) little prompter. After murmuring something unrepeatable under your breath and impatiently rebooting your computer while tapping your fingers erratically on your desk, you hurriedly type out something suitably insipid so you can get on with the more important business of getting on your merry way.

There’s a well-versed formula for the OOO, and in the heat of the moment, few of us stray from it. Having received a surprising number of these responses this week – is it just me? – I have an inbox to prove this. There are dates, the obligatory, ‘thank you for your email’ and maybe a few basic a pleasantries depending on just how soon it is that your plane will be taxi-ing down the runway. After a cursory proof read, your out of office alert is published with the passive ambivalence of, “WTF, if I don’t shut down and go pack some pants, I’m going to miss my plane.” Most sound a lot like this:

I’m out of the office until Monday, April 8th. During this time I’ll have limited access to my email, and won’t be able to respond until I return. I will reply as soon as I can, but if your message is urgent, please contact notme@ididntsignupforthis.com.

Yawn. So cold. So insincere (no access to email – who are you kidding?). Now I’m not suggesting we go all snarky Partridge on it, instead maybe we should be a little bit friendlier, a bit more real and a whole lot less robotic. Where’s the conversational tone and light-hearted banter? Where are the smug jokes about being too busy swinging on a hammock, swigging a Cosmopolitan under the glorious Caribbean sun?

It’s not really about honesty. And definitely not about being transparent. Who cares? Share painstaking detail about your movements during a day and you’ll be labelled a show off or micro manager? Dutifully set an auto response when you’re only going to be away from your desks in a meeting for a few hours – well, that just makes me suspicious? Job interview maybe? We also don’t need the full gory details of a colleague’s ailments or to be aware of their plans for lunch. But a little bit of ‘sorry-I’m-not-sorry’ style humour, just a hint of realness, or at least a side serving of friendly chatter, would that brighten up the disappointment of a failed attempt of communication?

I’ve seen people do this. I admire their creativity but do I ever stray from the norm? Never. So the next time I set my out of office, expect me to break the formula. It might even be mildly amusing. In a very non-Partridge way, naturally.

Reading list

For more out of office related debate and banter:

“At its origin, the OOO should be a freeing thing, but for many of us, it has morphed into a flimsy sort of bulwark; like trying to stop a flood with a cardboard box. On the surface, it’s an assertive statement of agency; barely a ripple rupturing the water. But underneath, I’m screaming into the depths of Gmail, ‘please just leave me alone.'”

“I’m off with my family right now, back on 23 July. I’ll be reading, diving and playing with my boys while they still want to play with me!

“My great team will be dealing with my emails while I’m off ensuring you get support from the right people to keep things moving.”

  • Tyler Brûlé’s rather harsh suggestion that the OOO is little more than laziness in a column for the Financial Times is interesting (although I don’t agree). My favourite part:

“In the not too distant future, I expect one of the world’s respected medical journals, perhaps The Lancet or the Harvard Medical Review, will release a document on public health and the workplace that will show a direct relationship between the overzealous use of out-of-office replies and a fondness for wearing sweatpants.”

 

Freelance writer // Content creator // Copywriter

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