Mastering the Art of Out-of-Office Emails: Tips for Consultants and Agency Owners

Alfredo Ramirez

As someone deeply involved in agency life, I know all too well the challenge of setting boundaries while trying to provide top-notch service. This holiday season, as I sent out a marketing email for Prosal, I was greeted with a variety of automated out-of-office (OOO) replies. These responses got me thinking about the role and importance of OOO emails in our professional lives.

With each email, I laughed at holiday spirits as well as the impossibility of expectations set by certain emails. I also pondered the use of "urgent" and "emergency" in a space where we are rarely saving lives (though it can feel that way sometimes).

I hope this collection of anonymized emails and reflections from them helps you set better boundaries and add comic relief to the lives of your email recipients, in the hopes you can one less notification.

The Significance of Out-of-Office Emails

OOO emails are more than just courteous notifications; they are a declaration of our commitment to work-life balance. They help set clear expectations for clients and colleagues, indicating that we are taking well-deserved time off. In any demanding arena where the expectation is often to be available round-the-clock, OOO emails serve several critical functions:

  1. Professional Courtesy: They inform clients and colleagues about our availability, preventing misunderstanding and frustration. It's a way of saying, "I value our communication, and here's when you can expect my full attention again."
  2. Promoting Work-Life Balance: OOO emails are a clear indicator that we are stepping away for necessary rest and recuperation. This sets a positive example and encourages a culture where mental health and work-life balance are prioritized.
  3. Managing Expectations: By clearly stating our return date and availability, we manage the expectations of those trying to reach us. It's a way of setting boundaries without compromising on professionalism or the quality of our relationships.
  4. Encouraging Autonomy: By being unavailable for a period, we empower our teams and clients to make decisions in our absence. This can lead to increased confidence and independence among our colleagues and clients.
  5. Reflecting Culture: The tone and content of our OOO emails can also reflect the culture of our company. A friendly, upbeat OOO message might demonstrate our company's approachable and personable style, while a more formal one might reflect a culture of professionalism and efficiency.
  6. Reducing Burnout: Consistently being 'on' leads to burnout. By clearly defining when we are and are not available, OOO emails help us, and those we work with, to disconnect and recharge.

A good OOO email is crucial in our high-pressure industry, where the lines between personal and professional time often blur. It is especially true for owners, founders, and leaders at companies where the expectation is even greater on them to be available and always on.

Holiday-spirited OOO emails
Matter of fact OOO emails
Some oopsies in the emails.

The Pitfall of "Urgent" Requests & ASAP Replies

Many of the OOO replies I received included provisions for "urgent" matters or "emergencies." This raises an important question: What really constitutes an emergency in our field? By encouraging contacts to reach out for urgent issues, are we truly disconnecting, or are we leaving a window open for work to seep into our personal time?

Another common phrase in OOO emails is the promise to respond "as soon as possible" upon return. Let's be honest, catching up with a backlog of emails and tasks after a break is a gradual process. Promising an immediate response is not only unrealistic but also sets a precedent that might be difficult to live up to.

Crafting an Effective Out-of-Office Email

I was pleased to see several stern and clear OOO messages. These senders were unapologetic about their unavailability, setting a firm boundary. This approach is commendable and something we should all consider emulating. It reflects a healthy respect for one's own time and a recognition that not everything is an emergency.

Based on these reflections, here are some tips for crafting effective OOO emails:

  1. Be Clear About Your Availability: State your dates of unavailability clearly. Avoid vague terms like "limited access to email."
  2. Define 'Urgent': If you must provide a way to contact you for emergencies, be clear about what constitutes an urgent matter.
  3. Set Realistic Expectations: Avoid promising an immediate response upon your return. It’s okay to take time to catch up.
  4. Provide an Alternative Contact: If possible, direct queries to a colleague who is available (but don't throw anyone under the bus).
  5. Reflect Your Company Culture: Your OOO email should mirror the professionalism and tone of your organization.

Closing Thoughts

Out-of-office emails are a small but significant part of our professional communication. They reflect how we balance work and personal life and set the tone for how we manage expectations. As we head into the new year, let's rethink our approach to OOO emails, making them tools for better work-life balance and clearer communication.

Remember, setting boundaries is not just beneficial for us; it also respects the time and boundaries of those we work with. Let's make OOO emails a reflection of our professionalism and our commitment to personal well-being.


Alfredo Ramirez

Alfredo is the COO and Co-Founder of Prosal. He has over ten years of experience working in the nonprofit industry and previously founded a successful digital strategies business, winning over $2 million in RFPs throughout his career. He is an avid mountain biker and snowboarder and enjoys anything that takes him outdoors.

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