Eddie Mair: the art of the Out of Office email

“Sorry, I am dead. I can be contacted either in heaven (just the phone number – there are no faxes in heaven) or hell (just the fax number).”

I am away from the office this week, though you would never know it from my lack of out of office auto-reply on my emails. I once emailed a journalist on a national newspaper and got this out of office reply: “Sorry, I am out of the office writing a book. I will be back when it’s finished.” 


Casting round colleagues for opinions, there was division. About half considered him the most pretentious tool in the box, while the other half marvelled at his determination to up sticks and leave the demands of the office behind: he might as well have written “Gone fishin’”.

The out of office auto-reply is the email equivalent of the closed office door, or the unanswered telephone. Despite myself, I scan the reply for hints that I may, after all, be loved.

Some are as brutal as Mr Gone Fishin’. They baldly state they are not in the office between these dates (translation: to hell with you). An even more detached version of this is the reply that carries no dates, just the email address of someone else in the office (translation: to hell with all of you). I respect these people.

Others offer tantalising hope that the apparently closed door may be ajar: that the phone might be answered: “I am out of the office until Friday but I hope to check periodically for urgent emails.” Bingo! This person might get back in touch. You might get a second date. But wait: did my original email sound urgent enough? I have been known to go back and check. I respect these people.

I used to have a boss at the BBC who seemed to be on permanent out of office, even though I knew he was usually in his office. It would say: “If it’s urgent, call the mobile.” A nice touch – only people who really knew the man would have his mobile, so that reduced substantially the chance of him being troubled unnecessarily.

And it placed the burden of responsibility on the emailer. This boss is making himself available to you, but will probably demote you if you interrupt his important meeting with a phone call about paper clips. People like that I can work with. I respect these people.

And then there is the final category of out of office auto-reply. “Sorry, I am not in the office right now. I have just stepped out to the coffee machine and will be back in seven or eight minutes depending on the queue and whether I have to change the filters. Then at lunchtime I’m out for a sandwich for 28 minutes. From Friday I WILL be on holiday and completely uncontactable but will be checking emails half-hourly. I can also be contacted at the Marriott (he leaves the phone AND fax number), or, if I have an accident, at one of these hospitals (he leaves the phone AND fax numbers). Best wishes, Brian, Deputy Assistant Head of Paper Clips.” I do not respect these people.

Does Brian ever really get a break? Will he ever get lost in a good book, or go scuba diving, or find love in an unexpected place? I fear he will only ever find true peace in the grave, where he will be buried with his BlackBerry, Samsung and iPhone, and a bag of golden paper clips.

“Sorry, I am dead. I can be contacted either in heaven (just the phone number – there are no faxes in heaven) or hell (just the fax number).”

Me? I never set an out of office auto-reply because I don’t know how to.