Out of Office Email: How to Handle Email When You’re On Vacation

out of office email

No one wants to come back to the office and confront an out of office email catastrophe.

You know the one: a notification count wider than the app icon, “why aren’t you responding to my emails?” angrygrams, and so much daunting email management ahead that once you even half catch up, you’ll need more time out of the office to recover.

And with over 269 billion emails sent every day, it can quickly feel like they’re all for you.

There’s hope, though.

Beyond the out of office email autoreply

For starters, this isn’t yet another mishmash of “87 out of office email replies.”

A good auto-reply for your personal work email account (yourname@yourcompany.com) is just one piece of the “currently out of the office with limited access to email” puzzle. What about that shared inbox you manage: the info@yourcompany.com or help@yourcompany.com.

The reason an autoreply isn’t the key to a peaceful, offline vacation, and smooth re-entry when you return is simple: A template isn’t a process. The key to out of office email perfection lies not in your out of office email vacation responder, but in the steps you take before you leave the office, both for your personal accounts and your shared general inboxes.

Whether it’s a personal day, vacation, parent leave, business travel, or any other reason why you might not be keeping up with your email accounts, if you follow the steps in this piece, you can be at peace when you leave your email behind while out of the office.

P.S.: We’re focusing on planned absences, and of course not every absence is planned. Down below you’ll also find an all-purpose, ready-to-rock out of office email that you can fire up at a moment’s notice.

What to do in the office before going out of the office

The key to returning to your office email address without wanting to run scared is to take some preventive measures. If you can finish the task, do your part, or pass what needs passing to someone else, now’s the time. Don’t just ghost your customers or your colleagues.

How to triage your office email

When you get down to it, our inboxes have a lot in common. Odds are your inbox is a mix of the following six buckets:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Things that you already plan to tend to
  5. Stuff it would be cool to get to
  6. Junk

For the sake of simplicity, let’s condense those into three priorities:

  1. High priority: Important and urgent, and important but not urgent
  2. Medium priority: Urgent but not important, and things that you already plan to tend to
  3. Low/no priority: Stuff it would be cool to get to, and junk

Here’s what to do to effectively triage your email before going out of the office.

1. Delete all low/no priority emails

First off, let’s clear some clutter. That can seem counterintuitive, but a quick tidy of the useless can help you better focus on what matters.

If it’s a low/no priority email, delete it.

Now, breathe deeply. It’s okay to let useless emails go. If the email truly is a task or project that you plan to make time for later, then set up that task in your project/task/to-do management system. Then archive or delete the email.

If seeing the email makes you roll your eyes because you know how useless it is, delete it. Without mercy.

Really. It’s okay.

2. Process all high priority emails

If it’s important and urgent, or important but not urgent, get it done.

That doesn’t have to mean the task or project is complete. It just means that whatever you need to do with that specific email, do it, file or delete it, and move on.

The key here is either to get the task done or to have completed your part and moved it on to the person who needs to do something next or be informed of what you’ve done.

3. Review medium priority emails

By the time you get to this point, the junk is gone and you’ve worked through your high priority emails. Now give yourself 20 to 60 minutes to scan through the emails that have to do with things that can wait until after you’re back.

Can you knock out a quick reply, or take up to five minutes to handle the task the email needs? If so, take care of it.

If not, reply that you’ll be away, returning on [date], and you’ll finish taking care of this after you get back.

Set up whatever follow up task is needed for when you return. Archive or delete the email. Know you’ve done what you can in your busy day to get tasks to a good place before you start sending out of office messages.

4. Delegate “during my absence” email address access to a team member

Of course, emails that require immediate attention will still come in while you’re away.

Coordinate with your manager or a trusted team member so you can delegate your work email address to them during your absence.

In advance of your out of office email time, set up a short meeting. Go over when you’ll be away, walk them through any organizational aspects of your inbox, templates you use, and get them up to speed on current projects or high priority items that might come through during your absence. Tell them to feel free to professionally reply for you, and go over any emergency circumstances where it’s best if you’re brought into the loop while you’re out of the office.

But be safe: Do not share your passwords!

When your email sub writes or replies from your email, ask them to add a note at the top for context and clarity:

“John, This is Debbie Jones replying for Alex Smith while she’s out of the office. Alex will be back Aug. 27, and she got me up to speed on this issue before she left…”

You’ll have peace of mind because you know your office email is in good hands.

Bonus points: Make this a reciprocal arrangement, so you each know you have someone to cover your inboxes back when one of you is out of the office.

5. Set up the single office email autoreply you can use anytime

Countless out of office email roundups, templates, and examples abound (like this onethis onethis onethis one, and, yes, last but not least, this one).

But let’s get real.

Your out of the office email autoreply is a barebones, is-what-it-is, short email that will be glanced at, maybe noted, and then deleted. It doesn’t need to be fancy or cute (and trying to be cute makes your autoreply the email equivalent of bad ’80s answering machine messages).

Keep it simple. At its heart, all your out of office email needs to do is acknowledge that you got the message, you’re away, and state when you’ll be back and replying:

“Got your email. I’m out of the office. I return [date], and I’ll get back to you in more detail after that.”

Is someone tending your email for you, or do you have an alternate contact for while you’re away? Add this:

“My colleague [Firstname] [Lastname], [position] at [organization] can help you while I’m away. For immediate assistance, please contact [Firstname] at [email address] or [direct line].”

Include your standard email signature and business email sign off, and you’re good to go.

6. Bonus points for being a human and offering a +1

Now, to be fair, your out of office email may sometimes need to serve a higher purpose.

In sales? Link to a whitepaper, post, or article that addresses a current common problem you’ve been solving for similar customers. Or, include a recent testimonial, a note about a new webinar or course, or some other simple, no-obligation call to action.

In marketing? Add links to your media page and social networks.

In support or customer service? Link to your FAQ or knowledge base.

Going to a business event or conference? Include a quick note explaining what you’ll be doing there (such as a booth number, or when/where you’re giving a presentation). Include the event’s website and hashtag, and list your cell to help you connect with other people attending the event.

7. Set up your out-of-office vacation responder in Gmail

Last but not least, once your simple-but-awesome out of office email is ready to go, you actually have to set it up so Gmail will send automatic replies.

Luckily, setting your vacation responder will take you less than a minute. Hit the gear icon, select “Settings,” and roll down to the vacation responder section.

Whatever reason you’re going to be out of the office, the steps above can help you truly leave email behind during your absence. When you return, instead of facing an inbox catastrophe, you can just get right back to work.

Posted in: Email

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.

Further Reading

10 Ways to Boost Email Productivity

Is your inbox sapping your productivity? Luckily, email overwhelm is curable. Here are 10 strategies and tips that can help you hack…

How to Reduce the Time You Spend Dealing With Spam Email at Work

We spend a lot of time on email at work. But what about all the time you spend digging through messages that don’t matter? Here's how…

How to Write an Effective Out of Office Message + Examples

A well-written out-of-office reply is vital to keep customers informed. Learn to write an effective out-of-office email with these…