Adirondack chairs at shore of Lake of Two Rivers, Ontario

The out-of-office message, a staple of the corporate world, is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, according to Clayton Achen, founder of Calgary-based Achen Henderson CPAs.

He pointed to a bounce-back he received from one of his clients that posed the question: “If this is urgent, take a deep breath and ask ‘is it really?’ If the answer is ‘Oh Hell Yes’ then please reach out to our capable team… they’re probably in a great mood because I’m not around.”

While some may bristle at the idea of using humour, or not being available 24-7 for clients, Achen not only sees nothing wrong with it — he encourages it. His own out-of-office message this summer told senders their emails would be archived, and never read, suggesting they reach out again when he returns.

“I’m not dealing with 400 emails in my inbox when I get back from vacation,” he said. “I didn’t get your email. I’m not going to get your email. Call me when I’m back from holiday.”

That avoids the headache of coming back to an overwhelming inbox, he said.

“That’s not a holiday. That’s stressful. That keeps me plugged into my email all vacation because I want to clear that stuff so when I get back I’m not stressed out and trying to catch up,” Achen said.

In the wake of Covid and its workplace side effects — the rise of remote work and blurring of work-life balance — Achen is seeing a movement away from hustle culture to prioritizing personal time and space. When he posted about his own OOO message earlier on LinkedIn, he got some grief because he didn’t include an alternate contact. But that was by design.

“Every one of my clients knows how to get a hold of my team. I don’t need to put that in there,” he said.

Achen said that strategy won’t work for everyone — it depends on their level in the organization and the work they do. For example, if he has a bookkeeper looking after 15 files, that OOO needs to have an alternate contact to handle those accounts.

Financial advisors often are “the person,” he said, and might not be able or willing to unplug while on vacation.

“If you’re the only one, and you’re worried about losing business, then I’m sorry. You’re checking your emails while on holiday,” he said. “What you should be doing is building a business, rather than a job, where you’ve got a support net and you can direct traffic and the register will continue to ring even when you’re not there.”

Bruce Mayhew, president of Toronto-based Bruce Mayhew Consulting, said the point of an OOO is to manage the recipient’s expectations.

“Make sure they feel empowered after they read or listen to your message,” he said, noting not to forget to change your voicemail as well.

A good OOO should include your date of return and person to contact in your absence, he said. And ensure the person covering for you is aware of that fact and up to date on all your current projects — and not on vacation at the same time.

“There is nothing more frustrating than getting out-of-office number two,” Mayhew said.

One of his favourite OOO tips is to change your email signature in advance of going on vacation to give people time to prepare.

“When I know that I’m going to be out, I change my signature two weeks in advance. Right at the very end of it, I say that I’m going to be out of the office from this date to this date,” he said. “You’re sort of priming the pump before you go on vacation.”

That gives colleagues and clients, particularly ones who may not know you’re going on holiday, a heads-up so they can check on anything critical before you leave, he said.

Kiljon Shukullari, HR advice manager at Peninsula Canada in Toronto, said some people don’t realize that email software, including Microsoft Outlook, allows different OOO messages to be set for internal versus external email.

That’s a great feature, because internal OOO emails often need to be far more detailed — and can contain information you don’t need or want to share externally.

“With external-facing emails, you can be generic and just include a person’s first name and contact information to reach in your absence,” said Shukullari. “You just need to provide reassurance that the support is still there.”

As for taking a humorous tact with OOO messages, he’s not a big fan of that for financial advisors.

“My personal opinion: in that business, just keep it professional,” he said.