How to Compose an Excellent Out of Office Email

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Our guide to what to avoid and what to embrace when it comes to the tricky territory of the holiday auto-responder

You’ve been working hard for months, clearing calendar appointments and clocking hours long in advance, with one final goal in mind: a holiday. Whether it’s a safari in Kenya, a long weekend at the spa or a week at home with your family to celebrate Christmas, you’re ready and waiting to enjoy your time out to the utmost of your ability. But before you go, there’s one final hurdle to jump.

In both its practical application and original conception, there’s something somewhat dated about the out of office email. It all feels like an elaborate ruse borrowed from the script of 1988 office drama Working Girl; picture Melanie Griffith typing manically into a Microsoft computer larger than the desk beneath it. Do we really spend so many hours absorbed by our work that we must inform potential correspondents whenever we pursue an alternative activity? Indeed, in the greater part of Europe, so established is the practice of taking the entire month of August to enjoy life, to travel to sunnier climes and to spend time with your loved ones that many people working in such countries don’t feel the need to use them then at all.

This, however, is a modern age, and to allow friends, coworkers, connections and other acquaintances to attempt to contact you without even the gentlest nudge to inform them that you are, in fact, away from your desk, feels discourteous, even unprofessional. So, how to tackle this most critical of workplace operations? Here, we offer a few thoughts on tone, content and approach.

1. Be informative
The most important thing of all to bear in mind here is the task at hand: inform your audience about where you are, whether or not they should expect a response and when, who to contact in your absence, and when you’ll be back. Watch out for typos. Double check your dates. Anything else, frankly, is a bonus, and should be navigated accordingly.

The ultimate aim is to create a fine veil of professionalism through which your reader can vaguely picture what you’re really up to, says Raven Smith, Nowness commissioning editor. “The perfect out of office email leaves the recipient thinking you’re working, but secretly you’re having fun. Like you’re in South Kensington balls deep in vanilla spiced latte.” 

2. Brevity is key
As is often the case when it comes to crafting a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s of key importance that you remember your audience. Would you be happy for your boss to receive this email, as well as your friends? “Keep it concise,” advises Dazed Media editorial director Laura Bradley. “Lose the exclamation marks and the kisses. Be kind: warm wishes is super chic. As is using an em dash in place of a comma.”

3. Wit works
There’s a complex balance to be struck in informing a friend or colleague that you’re away from your desk, presumably having the time of your life, while they’re very much still at work. For this reason if none other, avoid the urge to boast in advance about the life-changing trip you’ve undertaken; it’s somewhat uncouth, and seems to tempt fate into delivering you an altogether less whelming experience.

To this end, Olivia Singer, AnOther’s fashion and beauty features editor, suggests using humour to soften the ‘wish you were here!’ blow. “As with everything, brevity and wit” are the keys to a good response, she says. “Seriously. When I hear someone else is on holiday, and I’m still on emails, I need something to make me laugh.”

If it’s personal and sincere, it can’t fall flat – a single emoji is cheeky; a simple one-liner an apt solution, if joking’s your thing; a gif from a favourite film could be fun in the right work environment. As with all written communication, the most important thing of all (and you’re in classic David Foster Wallace-irony territory here) is to sound sincere.

4. Inject some individuality
Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and other similarly widely celebrated holidays offer a rare opportunity to share you general joy at leaving work with everyone and anyone who might get in touch over a festive period. In these scenarios, more drastic solutions can be more appropriate than usual. AnOther’s editorial assistant Hannah Tindle offers a fine solution: “Perhaps just a link to this specific Madonna video.”