How to (safely) write your Christmas and New Year out-of-office

As the holiday season approaches, People Management examines how to ensure contacts get the message without taking offence

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Christmas often comes with a break from work, but before we rush out to celebrate, we must remember to set our out-of-office. 

Out-of-office messages are a good way to warn colleagues and clients that you will be uncontactable for a while, but it is easy to get the tone or the content wrong.

A study by Preply, an online language learning platform, has delved into people’s opinions about OOO emails. 

Half of 1,000 British office workers (50 per cent) admitted to receiving an OOO response that they find inappropriate or annoying. 

In addition, more than one-fifth (21 per cent) reported never using an out-of-office reply, while a quarter (25 per cent) admitted that they occasionally switch on their OOO automated response. 

So, what exactly does it take to create an effective out-of-office message? We asked the experts for the dos and don’ts.

Include the actual dates of your time off 

Adam Butler, workplace solutions expert and CEO of Officeology, told People Management: “Firstly, ensure you identify the date you will be back from your annual leave.” 

He explained that this allows senders to know when they can expect a reply and, if it isn’t an urgent matter, they can look to follow up with you when you return. “Furthermore, ensure you put in an alternative contact for people to be able to get in touch with in your absence,” he said. 

Butler said this could be your manager or another colleague who will be able to pick up your work while you are off.

He said: “The importance of doing this is because if a request is urgent it allows the sender to direct the matter to someone else straight away so that they can deal with it, letting you come back to work with nothing urgent to pick up, whilst ensuring all business matters are dealt with accordingly.”

Avoid including any personal reasons as to why you are not at work 

According to Preply’s research, 13 per cent found OOOs annoying because they contained personal information about them or others.

The majority (75.56 per cent) of recipients of inappropriate emails were 16- to 24-year-olds. 

Butler emphasised that employees should avoid any personal reasons for being absent from work. “Employees need to understand that when they work for a company, they are representing the business at all times, including in their email conversations,” he said. 

As a result, he highlighted the importance of maintaining a level of “professionalism” and refraining from “revealing any personal or inappropriate information to ensure no negative backlash to you or the company”.  

However, Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR and author of HR for Hybrid Working, tells People Management that he sees his personal and work lives as intertwined and spends more time working on the “former than the latter”. 

He added: “I want people to know that, so I think it is reasonable to include some details about my personal life so that people know that a) I have one, and b) I prioritise it over work. To me that isn’t unprofessionalism, it is the reality of who I am, and authentic.”

Avoid your OOO response from being inappropriate

According to the study, more males (61 per cent) than females (43 per cent) have received improper OOOs. 

Of those, 34 per cent received an OOO email featuring the blasé phrase “sorry, not sorry”, which topped the list of the most irritating for office workers. 

"Playing hooky" came in second (20 per cent), just ahead of “sipping cocktails on a beach".

However, the research found that the vast majority (98 per cent) had never used comedy or a holiday-related joke in their OOO emails over the holiday season. 

"Yule be sorry if you contact me" came out as the most annoying OOO email around Christmas, scoring (27 per cent). 

Cookson said that, as long as one avoids discriminatory or hurtful language/comments, then personalised automatic replies are to be encouraged.

“Success in the workplace is often due to being the most human one can be and connecting with others and building relationships is a key part of that,” he said. 

“We need to use whatever opportunities we can to do that,” he added. 

Butler advised that, to avoid your OOO response seeming “inappropriate,” you should keep it short and straightforward.

“You only need to say that you are out of the office, including the date range of your annual leave, along with directions on who best to contact in your absence if the matter is urgent,” he said.