The psychology of the email out-of-office assistant

The psychology of the email out-of-office assistant

It is the time of year when most folk in the City are either on or returning from leave. For the City professional, the out-of-office email assistant is an essential tool in one’s work armoury. The little message that one proclaims to the world notifying everyone of your absence, and a scheduled return to the office date is a curious affair, one that is littered with many different styles and approaches  – from one that either portrays a complete aficionado with their work, to others who simply convey in no uncertain terms that work life and private life do not mix and “see you whenever I do return to the office, if you are lucky”.

However, what interests me the most is when I receive an out of office message from a recipient stating that the person “will not be checking their emails whilst they are away”… In today’s highly charged and pressurised corporate environment, this message is something that makes you question the reality of such proclamation.

I mean, we all know that the more senior you become in any working organisation, the more you and your working life become synonymous. So how would it be possible for these people simply to ignore their emails whilst on holidays, and expect that other senior folk in the bank who are trying to contact them will understand?

Furthermore, the very painfully crippling condition known in some circles as addiction to the “crackberry”, means that radio silence or in the very least “going off-grid” is challenging for many, if not most City professionals. Modern technology has done very well to tap into the human mind and feed our addictions with the invention of the flashing red light. Look all around you and your apps and so forth are full of red lights, demanding more and more of your attention – from a brain chemistry perspective, what is happening is that the red light stimulates a little dopamine hit when you acknowledge the notification waiting for you. Clever huh? The statement then that I will not be checking my emails whilst I am away, is most likely…. questionable.

The other message I find interesting is statements relating to “I will be checking emails periodically and will get back to you when I return/can etc…”. What is really going on here? Again, we know that you WILL be checking your emails because you either have to or are in most cases compelled to look at your device, so simply stating the obvious doesn’t seem intuitive. Furthermore, because we all receive so many of these out-of-office assistant messages (especially at this time of the year), it doesn’t really register and our attention quickly moves on to the next task; because the email culture that we have created demands almost instantaneous or prompt replies, the very fact of receiving such a message immediately sends a signal to the sender that you won’t be receiving a reply any time soon and attention is quickly turned to the next task. If you do happen to respond in the meantime, then it really is a bonus, because no one expected  you to. So why then state in the first place that you will be checking them? I guess people like to give the impression that they are conscientious, client focussed, highly energetic folk, but I think at the end of the day, if you put on an out-of-office assistant, then you really are “out of the office”. Nothing more than that.

As for the yogibanker, I tell it how it is. I’m out of the office until XYZ date, and in the meantime if it’s urgent, speak to one of my colleagues. Simple but effective. I think it would be hard to psychoanalyse that.




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