It’s just a short message that comes zipping back as an automatic e-mail reply: “Out of office.” But in the summer of 2016, the three words manage to capture all the anxiety suffered by American workers when it comes to taking vacation time that’s owed them.
Should you set an “out of office” reply and stick to it — really not check e-mail for a whole week? Should you put the note out there but stay on top of things anyway, returning e-mails so fast that the personal e-mail arrives moments after the “out of office” reply lands? Should you skip the “out of office” e-mail and simply work through your “vacation”?
As business sage Woody Allen once said, “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Research on the “out of office” message is hard to come by, but Stewart Friedman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says he’s observing a shift in wording.
“Before, when you were out you were out,” he said. “Now it’s ‘I’m checking occasionally.’ ”
The evolution of the message, Friedman said, “is an indication of the larger trend, which is that there is much more permeability in the boundary between away/vacation time and work time.”
Consider the conflicted e-mail behavior of Brianna DiPietro, public relations manager at Babson College.
On the afternoon of July 8, about to leave town for her wedding and honeymoon, she set a firm but joyful “out of office” message: “I . . . will not be responding to e-mails (because I’m getting married!),” she wrote. The names of colleagues to contact were provided.
But then this happened: On July 13, a correspondent e-mailed her at 7:39 a.m. Within the same minute came the “out of office” reply.” And within two hours this followed: “I just checked my e-mail quick,” she wrote. “But I swear I’m not looking from now until I’m home from my honeymoon!”
Asked for an explanation, DiPietro said that disciplining herself not to check her work e-mail was nearly impossible. “You work so hard on so many different projects and then just disconnect from them completely.”
While 55 percent of American workers didn’t take all the vacation time owed them last year, according to a study commissioned by the US Travel Association, many of those who did go away — 42 percent — felt obligated to check e-mail, according to a 2014 study by Randstad US, a staffing company.
Some workers, local real estate agent Peter Skambas among them, don’t set an “out of office” response for fear they’ll lose business.
Skambas advertises on real estate site Zillow, and if a potential new client sees he’s away, he said, “They’ll just go to the next agent. It’s such a hot market, and time is of the essence.”
Never mind that he was recently in Miami — some 1,500 miles away from his Cambridge office. “The out-of-office message sends the wrong message.”
In a culture where business contacts expect near-instant responses, many say they use the automatic responses to buy themselves time to respond from, say, a canyon, where service may be spotty.
But the automatically generated responses have downsides: They can verify your e-mail address to spambots and annoy actual human beings by triggering vacation envy, said Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
She said the words out loud. “ ‘I’m away from the office and can’t reply right now.’ It sounds so withholding, so harsh.”
Besides, at a time when so much work gets done outside of the office, the messages can sound like a relic, said Will Schwalbe, coauthor with David Shipley of “SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.”
“ ‘Out of office’ was invented for a desktop world and it really doesn’t apply in a mobile world,” he said. “When [the ‘out of office’ message] first came out it was extremely difficult to access your e-mail if you were physically out of the office. People would set ‘out of office’ messages if they were going away for the afternoon.”
Some workers, of course, truly — and joyfully — go offline. When local publicist Sarah Francomano e-mailed a colleague at FleishmanHillard, a public relations and marketing agency, she received the following:
“I’m out of the office until Monday, July 18. Where am I? Well read on. . .
“People, I’m at the happiest place on earth. . . . I’m talking about WALT DISNEY WORLD! . . . If what you’re sending me is not in the spirit of being in the happiest place on earth. . . . If it is not sprinkled with fairy dust . . . then please pass it along to my colleague. . .”
But many workers lack the confidence — or the joy of Disney — to set up that kind of e-mail. Many are searching for some reasonable middle ground — not totally in touch, but not totally out of it, either.
When Alexander Moore, the founder of Boomerang, a subscription service that allows users to send e-mails hours or days after they were written, went on his honeymoon in 2014, he didn’t want to miss anything important at his firm, or with his new wife.
He wrote an “out of office” message that directed people who really needed to reach him to a specially created vacation e-mail address. He got two e-mails that week — down from his typical 500.
But workers, it’s not a purely happy story. Asked if the moral is that most e-mails aren’t important, Moore laughed the joyless laugh of a man who returned to a pile of work.
“You pay for your vacations,” he said.
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com.