Everything’s a little off-kilter as we continue to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to step away from work when the “office” is the dining room table you can see from your couch. It feels a little strange to take PTO when travel and boisterous family gatherings seem like a distant memory. You might be working odd hours so you can juggle childcare and other responsibilities. Or maybe your full-time job became a part-time one (or an on-hold one) as a result of the economic downturn that hit along with the coronavirus.
With all these changes, the simplest tasks come saddled with a lot of extra questions. Take the out-of-office message. Do you really need an out-of-office autoresponse if you haven’t seen an office since March? The simple answer is yes.
Why Should You Set an Out-of-Office Message During COVID-19?
“The purpose isn’t to let people know you’re out of the office, it’s to let them know you're not going to be responding,” says Muse career coach Benjamin Ritter, founder of Live for Yourself Consulting. It’s not about where you are physically, but rather whether or not you’ll see someone’s email and be available to react to it within a typical timeframe (which could differ depending on your role, company, and industry).
With plenty of employees still working remotely months into the pandemic, “I actually think it’s more important now than it was before,” says Muse career coach Angela Smith. “From the perspective of how do we make remote work work,” she says, “overcommunication is one of the hallmarks.” In a world where you can’t see whether your colleagues are at their desks, being clear about when you’re working—and when you’re not—is crucial to keeping things running smoothly.
But your out-of-office message is as much for you as it is for the people receiving it, especially during the pandemic. “Boundaries have taken a big hit right now,” Ritter says. There’s a lot of pressure associated with missing something at work, and that stress has been heightened without the typical separation between office and home and with the added fear caused by an uncertain economy. An OOO message is a chance to set expectations, “to give yourself some breathing room and to ensure other people aren’t thinking negatively about you,” Ritter says, and it’s crucial for your mental health.
It’s a reminder to you that you should be disconnecting, Smith says, whether it’s to recharge during your staycation or to focus on a family emergency. And it can give you peace of mind to know you’ve communicated what’s needed for things to continue running smoothly in your absence.
A Few Quick Tips for Your COVID-19 Out-of-Office Message
If you’ve written an out-of-office message before, you’ll surely know some of the basics. For the most part, they still apply during the pandemic, with a few additional considerations. Here’s a quick overview of what you should keep in mind as you compose your autoreply these days:
- Make sure it’s up-to-date: You don’t want your out-of-office email to get stale. “It sends a bad message if it’s out of date or inaccurate,” Smith says. “Check it, monitor it, update it as regularly as you need to.”
- Provide an alternate contact: In many cases, it makes sense to direct people to someone else they could reach out to in your absence if their email requires a response before you return. If you’re only going to be away from your inbox briefly and your work doesn’t typically require quick replies, you can skip this step, whereas if you’re out for a long stretch or indefinitely, or you’re usually expected to reply within the hour, this information is crucial. Anywhere in between, use your discretion depending on the expectations of your role and company culture. Make sure you check with your alternate contact first so they’re not surprised by any queries they get, Smith says, and try to provide some context in your OOO message about who this person is (including what their role is and perhaps a link to their LinkedIn profile).
- Let people know when you’ll be back: One of the first things people will want to know when your autoresponse pops up is when you’ll read and be able to reply to their email. So tell them when you realistically anticipate that’ll be.
- Tell them what’ll get your attention: Try to calm yourself with the fact that most emails can wait. But if you’re in a role where you can foresee an emergency, make it clear what will get your attention, Ritter says. Maybe it’s emailing again and putting “urgent” in the subject line. Maybe it’s texting or calling you. Maybe it’s reaching out to a colleague who will know how to get in touch with you.
- Think about who your audience is: Are most people emailing you coworkers you talk to every day? Is your inbox full of messages from long-time clients? Do you get a lot of cold emails from prospective clients or strangers? The answers will help you determine what tone, level of detail, and kind of information you need to provide. If you’re hearing mostly from friends and colleagues, for instance, you might strike a more casual tone or share more specifics than if your note is going mostly to people you’ve never met. If your email provider allows, you can also consider setting separate OOO messages.
- Stick to company policy and consider company culture: Some organizations set strict guidelines on communications. “Make sure this can clear and won’t get you in trouble,” Ritter says. And beyond actual rules, don’t forget to take your company culture into consideration. Your OOO message at a tech startup might sound very different than one you’d write if you work in corporate accounting.
- You can show personality: If you think it’s appropriate, you can infuse your message with some personality. Even if the recipient is getting an automatic response, this way they get a glimpse of the person who set it. “You can be funny, it’s allowed now,” Ritter says. If you’re out of the “office” on a staycation, for example, Ritter says you might write: “I’m sitting on a nice warm ‘beach’ in my living room. I’m going to be away basking in the rays of my television set.” It can add a little levity and relatability during this work-from-home era.
- But remember you don’t need to get overly personal: On the flipside, you may be dealing with difficult, traumatic personal circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps you or a loved one is sick or you’re mourning a loss. You can always keep your message simple and straightforward and you don’t have to share these details, Smith says.
- And be sensitive to the times: You should also be sensitive to what others are struggling with during this unprecedented global crisis. If you’re on vacation, remember that not everyone is able to take one right now. And if you’re traveling, people may react negatively at a time when the virus is spreading uncontrollably. “It’s checking privilege in a way, and not being over the top,” Smith says.
- Extend gratitude: We could all use a little extra these days. So, Smith says, why not thank your reader for their patience and understanding?
With all that in mind, read on for a few examples of what you might actually write...
...If You’re Taking Time Off to Recharge
If you want to keep it straightforward, you might write:
Subject line: OOO until Monday, November 30
Thank you for your email. I’ll be offline starting Friday, November 20 through the Thanksgiving holiday with limited access to email, and will respond to your email upon my return on Monday, November 30. If you need immediate assistance, please contact Maria Gonzalez, my fellow digital marketing manager here at MixCo Media, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your patience!
If you want to have some fun with it, you could say something like:
Subject line: Out of “office” until 2/8
Thanks so much for your note! I’ve packed away my makeshift office for the week in order to go nowhere and do nothing. I may be dipping my toes in the tub instead of the ocean and making my favorite Smitten Kitchen recipes for myself rather than indulging at a fancy restaurant, but I’m still trying to disconnect and recharge.
I’ll be banning myself from my inbox, so if you need something before Monday 2/8, try Molly Fitzgerald, customer success manager extraordinaire, at email@example.com. If it’s urgent, she’ll know how to reach me as I watch my 14th consecutive episode of The Great British Bake Off.
...If You’re Out Sick or Taking Care of Someone Who’s Sick
If you’re out sick or caring for a loved one, you may not feel comfortable sharing the details. You can simply use words like “family situation” or “family matters,” which Smith says automatically garner some goodwill.
Subject line: Away from my inbox
I’m OOO taking care of family matters and checking email intermittently. Although I don’t yet have an anticipated return-to-work date, I’m looking forward to reading your note when I’m back. In the meantime, you can reach out to Daniel Epstein, Director of Account Management, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the best,
...If You’re Working a Different Schedule These Days
Whether your schedule has changed because you’re temporarily down to part-time or because you’re trying to fit work in around taking care of your children, you can use your OOO message to communicate and set expectations. You might write:
Subject line: OOO/New schedule through February
I’m currently working a part-time schedule: Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 AM to 5 PM and Fridays from 9 AM to 1 PM. If you’re receiving this message, it means you’ve reached me when I’m offline. If you need to speak with someone immediately, Siobhan, our HR associate, can point you in the right direction. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Thank you in advance for your understanding and patience!
Or you could set a message like this:
Subject line: Offline until 4 PM
I’m away from my desk overseeing online learning. Read: I’m trying to relearn long division so I can help my fourth grader finish this worksheet and reminding my first grader how to mute his Zoom. I’ll be back online this afternoon at 4 PM to read your message.
Wish me luck!
...If You’re Furloughed
It’s up to you whether you want to explicitly state that you’ve been furloughed. If you’re working at a company or industry where a sizable portion of the workforce has been furloughed, it might be confusing not to say so. You might write:
Subject line: On furlough indefinitely
Thank you for your email. I am currently on furlough indefinitely and will not be checking email during this time. Please reach out to my colleague, Darius Robinson, a project manager at the museum who can answer any questions or help you find the right contact while I’m out. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m looking forward to working with you again soon!
If you prefer not to share the specifics, you might say:
Subject line: OOO until January 15, 2021
Thank you for your email. I’ll be offline through mid-January without access to email. In the interim, please contact Maya Schwartz, a sales and marketing manager here, at email@example.com.
Thank you for your patience.