Ask the Experts: Out of Office Communication

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Question: The holidays are coming and we know people will be out of the office for various celebrations and events. Often people don’t know each other’s schedules and that creates confusion in our office every year. Can we enforce that our employees use the “out of office” feature on their email or voicemail so people in other departments are better informed?

Answer: We applaud your idea of implementing a procedure for better interdepartmental communication and suggest that you begin by reminding employees about the importance of teamwork and the impact on co-workers when people are out of the office without letting others know. This is a positive way to enhance your company culture and encourage your employees to respect their colleagues and support teamwork.

Develop, or reinforce, and communicate your company policy and departmental process for sharing times out of the office. Encourage employees to be specific in their out-of- office messages by providing dates they will be out and their return, as well as dates or times they can be expected to respond to the sender’s email. They do not need to specify a reason for their absence in their out-of- office message, but may if they feel comfortable. Providing a name of a person who can respond in an emergency is also a best practice (your employees should let those emergency contacts know so they know how to respond). Employees can provide a cell phone or alternate contact if they don’t mind remaining in touch while they are out of the office, but should not be expected to respond to email while out. If it fits your company culture, employees can also be encouraged to have fun with their internal out-of- office messages (“out enjoying the snow,” or “if you need me, send a carrier pigeon”). Consider recognizing the most creative messages with a yearly award, if that fits your company culture.

Be clear about your expectations for out of office communications and expect that your employees will comply. Lead by example. When employees are clear about expectations and the management team walks the talk, it will become a regular part of your business operations. As with any other business process, however, if an employee is not complying with a company mandate, then take appropriate corrective action as needed.

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