You’re going on holiday and you really don’t want to be disturbed while you’re away. You want your well-earned right to decent rest to be respected. You want problems to be solved without your involvement. You want any requests to either bounce back on whoever made them or to be effectively diverted to someone else. You want people who need something from you to wait patiently until you are back. You want to be left alone, and you don’t want to feel uneasy about it. You don’t want to make a fuss about it, don’t want to be rude to people.
You just want them to get it and leave you alone.
If you want all that, then you really want to phrase your automatic email response right. The devil in the details can cost you your whole holiday. When writing your auto-reply message, make sure of the following:
1. Be clear about why you’re away
Newsflash: not all people read emails carefully. Another newsflash: people value different reasons for absence differently. Second only to funerals and weddings, holidays are generally accepted to be a context where someone’s privacy should be respected. Therefore, it is in your interest to be explicit about it. People will be more likely to chase you if they assume you’re on conference or on a business trip, than if they know that you are on holiday.
2. Don’t give them hope
Phrase your auto-reply message in a way that doesn’t leave the sender any hope that you might read their email before you’re back from holiday. Don’t use ambiguous phrases like “limited access to email” or “delayed response”. You want them to have zero expectations about getting a reply from you before you’re back in office and zero cause for blaming you for not replying earlier.
3. Set a high threshold
Even an insignificant work-related call or text can ruin your holiday just by putting work-related thoughts, which may have taken you days to weather out, right back into your head. The whole point of going on holiday is to rest your head from work, and that’s hard enough to do without all the reminders. You want to make sure that whoever reads your out-of-office message thinks at least twice before picking up that phone to disturb you. It needs to be vitally important, critically urgent and impossible to resolve without your direct involvement to qualify for breaching your holiday firewall.
4. Tell them to text, not call
Even if the matter is urgent, you won’t be able to address it immediately it if you’re on the beach and don’t have your phone on you. Once you get back to your hotel room and get the chance to check your phone, you’ll either see a missed call or a text. Both methods will have been equally ineffective to the person trying to reach you, but the text has the benefit of disclosing some information about the context of the matter and about who it is that seeks you. This gives you the opportunity to evaluate the necessity of calling back and to adequately prepare for the conversation. It will also relieve the sender from the urge to call multiple times, which can be both distracting and annoying to both parties.
5. Don’t spell out your phone number
Whoever might need you so urgently that they take the intrusive step of calling you on your holiday will have no difficulty finding your number. Your boss, your closest colleagues and your most important clients have it already. Whoever doesn’t have your number yet probably shouldn’t have it. By putting it into your out-of-office message you’ll be sending a signal that you expect anyone emailing you to feel free to call you up on your holiday. You’ll also be handing it out on a silver plate to any spammer who happens to email you while you’re away.
6. Protect your colleagues
The best way to divert an important issue while you’re away is to refer the sender to a colleague. Obviously you should align that with the colleague in advance, but think also of how you can protect the colleague who’s backing you up from overload. Phrase your referral in a way that filters away as much of the less important and less urgent stuff as possible from their inbox. If something can wait until you’re back, you probably don’t want people to bother your colleague with it. So make sure to phrase that clearly. Also, don’t spell out the colleague’s phone number (see previous point).
Based on the recommendations below, here’s an example on how I would do it and how I would not.
This is one of the most common ways of phrasing an out-of-office auto-reply, and although there are worse ways of doing it, this classic provides very little protection to you, your holiday and your colleague. Consider the following as an alternative:
Notice how this phrasing leaves an impression of Bob taking off on some sort of Arctic adventure or crossing the Gobi desert without actually saying it. “Without email access” sounds like he’s off grid, while as a matter of fact Bob might have deliberately denied himself email access to protect his holiday – and rightly so! “As soon as I’m in range” suggests that there might be no mobile coverage where Bob is, while what he actually means is that he will call when he is literally in the range of his phone. (He cannot make the call if he cannot physically reach his phone, right?) No lie here. Just simple wordplay that will nudge people into the direction you want them to go – towards finding solutions to their problems without infringing on your holiday. You’d be surprised how creative people can get when left to their own devices!