An email “out of office” autoreply feature is used to send an automated response to your incoming email in much the same way as voice mail on your landline or mobile phone. It’s commonly enabled when people are away from the office for a day or longer.
However, autoreplies are bad. They’re a nuisance. They’re unprofessional. You shouldn’t use them. Now that’s off my chest, let me explain why:
Why are autoreplies so bad?
Autoreplies increase the amount of email traffic across the Internet
If everyone enabled their autoreply, the amount of email traffic would double. Sending unnecessary information is wasteful because it puts more demand on the infrastructure of the Internet. The more email someone receives, the more resources they need to download, process and read their messages. It’s a more serious situation than you might realise, and with spam email at an all time high, most people would prefer not to have an additional message letting them know you’re sunning yourself on a beach somewhere.
Autoreplies encourage you to receive more spam
When you receive spam emails, the chances are you ignore them. If you were to reply, you’re actually confirming that your email address is live and in use, which can encourage further spam. However, this is exactly what your out of office autoreply is doing.
You’re inadvertently spamming people you don’t know
It’s incredibly trivial to send an email and make it look as though it’s from someone else. Huge amounts of spam are sent using a forged “from” address. When you receive such spam, your out of office autoreply will respond to the forged address. This means a complete stranger will receive a message from you telling them that you’re on vacation. Not only is this irritating for the innocent and unwitting recipient, but they’re likely to report your autoreply itself as spam, thus causing you further problems.
You’re at risk of not receiving any emails from anyone
You’re leaving for a vacation this morning. You quickly enable your email’s autoreply feature to inform anyone who contacts you that you’ll be away for a couple of weeks.
A few hours later Steven emails you. Your autoreply kicks in and sends an email whizzing back to Steven alerting him to the fact that you’re now away. The only problem is, Steven was emailing you to let you know that he’s also going on vacation, and as such he’s enabled his own out of office autoreply.
When Steven’s message hits your inbox, your email system sends him an autoreply. At this point his autoreply replies to your autoreply, causing your autoreply to reply again to his autoreply… you can see where this is going.
You return to the office in 2 weeks time to find 50,000 autoreply messages from Steven. Steven will also have exactly the same problem when he returns. The ironic thing is, anyone else who’s sent you an email in the meantime would have received a different kind of autoreply – one from your email provider telling them that your mailbox is full and can’t receive any further messages. Not only has your autoreply had the opposite effect to what you were expecting, but you have no way of knowing who has attempted to email you during your time away.
You’re creating the perception that email is instant
When you receive an email, do you drop everything that you were doing and action it immediately? If you did, the chances are you’d never get anything done. We don’t call an ambulance by sending an email, and this is because email isn’t meant to invoke an instantaneous response. By enabling an autoreply you’re creating the perception that emails should be read and actioned immediately.
In which case, why are people still using autoreplies?
Now that we’ve covered why email autoreplies are bad, let’s tackle some of the common reasons why people still feel compelled to use them:
Big corporations use autoreplies so they must be OK
Lots of people do things they shouldn’t (including “big corporations”) – sadly this isn’t an excuse for doing something that is bad practice.
Autoreplies look professional
Autoreplies are not professional. Professionals tend not to do things that cause themselves and other people problems.
If I’m away I need to let people know
When you’re away do you have someone draft a written reply to every single piece of “snail mail” that you receive in the post, informing the sender of your absence? And I’m talking bank statements, utility bills, pizza delivery flyers, etc. Of course you don’t, but in effect this is what your email autoreply is doing.
How else am I supposed to handle this?
You can have your email delivered to your inbox and a copy forwarded on to a colleague to keep an eye on. Alternatively, you could just have a colleague manage your email whilst you’re away and reply only to messages that need a response within a particular time frame.
I run a small business and don’t have anyone to delegate this to when I’m on vacation
I can sympathise with this, but because of the disadvantages with autoreplies it still doesn’t make it a suitable solution. It’s easy enough to receive messages on your smartphone with a dataplan (you have a smartphone and a dataplan, right?)
If you take just 15 minutes each day to retrieve your email and reply to anything “urgent” you won’t need to rely on an autoreply feature. If you’re traveling abroad and can’t use your dataplan, most hotels and many restaurants provide a wifi connection that you can use.
Furthermore, it’s often possible to contact your key clients and suppliers before you leave to inform them of your absence and provide details of how to contact you or a colleague if they really need to.