Monday, June 23, 2014

Professor Explains What 'Out of Office' Message Means (and Does NOT Mean)

Everyone uses them. The voicemail message or automatic email reply that says they are "out of the office" for a certain period of time. Often they give an alternate number, email address or person to contact during this absence.

Most of the time, these are short, one-week absences for a vacation or medical situation. Sometimes they are due to business travel during which rapid and frequent communication is not possible.

As a college professor, I put these messages up every year about this time, after I've finished teaching my six-week spring class and am "off contract" til things ramp up for the fall semester in mid-August. My message says exactly that: I am off contract and out of the office til mid-August. I give links to web pages with helpful information in my absence. I also provide the phone number to the main School of Communications office, where there are staff all summer long to help with various issues.

But apparently, some people don't understand what this message means. Worse, they don't understand what this message does NOT mean. These people are not just students. They are other faculty, employers and others. So, here's a quick reminder of what an out of office message means and doesn't mean.

What it means
  • "Off contract" means I am not getting paid. Professors are usually on 9-month contracts. When people are not getting paid, it means they are not working. 
  • Out of office means out of office, and out of contact. (See above about not getting paid). During those 9-months when I'm on duty, it's a 24/7 enterprise. My wife jokes in August, "see you in December." And in January she jokes, "see you in April." It's not that bad, but it is hectic. With night classes, student group activities, class preparation and grading, research projects, and the 200 emails per day that come with all of the above, I am exhausted by the end of an academic year. So I take a break. I spend more time with my wife. I read what I want to read. Because (see above) I am not getting paid, and this is the time I finally get to do those things.
  • It means you. As noted, I get 200 emails per day. There is some junk mail, and a lot of e-newsletters  I subscribe to. But there are a lot of other requests for information, advising, etc. I will check email, just to keep my inbox from exploding. But I will not respond unless to something truly urgent. I am the one decides what is urgent. The auto reply explains this. This applies  to everyone. If I respond to one email, that could open the floodgate. But, again, I am not paid. I need a break. I can't respond to emails right now. This means you too. 
What it does NOT mean

  • My auto email and office phone messages say I am off contract and out of the office. This does NOT mean you are welcome to contact me on my personal cell phone or social media accounts. The whole point of being out of the office is that I need a break (see above). Also, I am not paid (see above the above). If I need a break from 200 emails a day, why would I want a rush of messages to my personal cell phone, Twitter and Facebook accounts? (This already happened twice in the first two days of my "break"). That is not a break. That is annoying. I am out of the office and on break. I am not being paid. That does NOT mean I have taken all the hectic academic year flurry of messages home with me. 
  • My message that I am out of the office and all of the above about needing a break and not being paid does NOT mean I am not working. Actually, I give away a lot of free labor in the summer. I actually have time to focus on planning classes for fall, tackling some research projects, catching up on a stack of books related to my field and class preparation, and doing some administrative work that always gets interrupted--seemingly, every….five….minutes--during the school year. 
  • My "talk to the hand" message on email and my office phone does NOT mean I don't care. I do care about people contacting me and about their needs. But I also care about my wife (in recovery  from stage 4 cancer). I care about my own health and sanity. And as they say on the airplanes in the oxygen mask message--you need to make sure to take care of yourself first so you can take care of others. I'll be better able to serve others in the fall if I can catch a break in the summer.
So, back to my break. See you in the fall.

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