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‘Don’t even think about contacting me’: How your out-of-office message defines you

Not all out-of-office are the same. There are those who leave the possibility of a response to an ‘urgent’ question open, and others that close it completely. And, apparently, it’s a generational thing

Gmail
Gmail.

“Do not contact me while I’m on leave or I’ll report you to HR,” “On vacation. Hoping to win the lottery and never return,” and “Error 404: worker not found.” These are some of the automatic messages that appeared in a viral TikTok video, where a woman shows the inventive automatic responses that her colleagues programmed before going on vacation. She attributes this to her colleagues being Generation Z (or centennials), because, apparently, millennials, Generation X, and boomers tend to rely on polite and accommodating responses in which they rarely close the possibility of replying if there is an “emergency.” Are Gen Z kidding about never responding to an email on their days off? Even though it looks like a TikToker parody, there is a nuanced reading to be made of the generation gap.

The automatic response as a generational membership certificate

“We all follow the same pattern in communication. We capture information from the outside through our senses that is then sent to the brain. That’s where the personal filter comes in, and many of the differences that we can find between different generations arise,” explains Javier Giménez Divieso, a freelance expert in leadership, teams, and human resources, who reassures us that the out-of-office message used in work environments is nothing more than an extension of each individual’s particular communication system.

According to a report by InfoJobs, 62% of professionals answer calls, messages, or emails during their days off. “The profile of the person who switches off the least is a man, between 45 and 65 years old, with a position of responsibility and more than five years in the company,” says the report. At the other end of the scale, “the profile of the professional who most manages to disconnect is that of a young woman (from 25 to 34 years old), who has less than a year of seniority, has a position as an employee or specialist, and is present at the workplace.” A pure generational class struggle based on real criteria. “Generation Z prefers jobs with a purpose, an impact that excites them, which is far from the monotony of Fordism. But nothing is further from romanticizing a cultural change that has roots in the precariousness they [Gen Z] suffer,” wrote Estefanía Molina in EL PAÍS.

“If we zoom out, it is clear that we have come a long way in terms of flexibility in the workplace in a positive sense. Similarly, when we are in personal rest mode, if something out of the ordinary or urgent happens, we must have thought of ways to solve a problem so that those at the office can locate us if we are the only ones who can deal with it. It is just a question of thinking about the obligations that come with the rights. I have the right to stay at home to work if I have a personal issue to resolve, but in the same way, I have the obligation to interrupt my rest for a really extraordinary issue that requires my participation,” says Agustín Peralt, an expert in managerial productivity.

 Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's 'Her.'
Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's 'Her.'

But let’s go back to those jocular answers that so often come from members of Generation Z. Do these messages full of irony and humor really project a good image? Fernando Calvo, director of people & culture for southern Europe at the Hays consultancy, is convinced that it does. “We all empathize and smile when reading a funny message from someone who has gone on vacation. In addition, a funny text can increase the receiver’s attention and, in some way, break the reader’s routine. It increases empathy between colleagues and is even something anecdotal that, after a while, is worth remembering,” he says before clarifying the importance of not forgetting that on the sender’s part it is merely an informative act, so the main objective is that the receiver knows that the worker will not have access to email for a few days.

The report by the European Commission Millennials and Gen Zs in the Workplace: Similarities and Differences notes that both generations appreciate receiving feedback about their work, but while Zs prefer direct feedback, millennials tend to be more sensitive to criticism and respond better to feedback with encouragement and positivity. It is in this framework in which, on many occasions, they do allow their holiday time to be interrupted, something that the younger generation, as their automatic responses would indicate, are not willing to allow.

Javier Giménez Divieso explains that although digital disconnection is a problem for many, it is especially so for millennials. Their fundamental characteristic, he points out, has been the obsession with success, something that has somehow also permeated their education. “Their level of demand also makes it difficult for them to separate their family and personal life from work. Should we leave the door open to being contacted? Of course not. Our body and mind need to disconnect in order to recover our strength, motivation, productivity, and initiative,” he says. He contrasts this attitude with that of Generation Z, which, he says, embraces irreverence. “Being true to their values, humor is simply another form of expression and communication. And so, they use it, not only on their social media, but also in out-of-office messages.”

Is there an informative, fun, no-edge, out-of-office message?

Although messages with touches of humor and sarcasm may sit well with some members of Generation Z, there will be people with whom these replies do not sit well. Can they make those replies less cutting? Fernando Calvo says that the fundamental premise must always be to maintain professionalism. Having a sense of humor is a positive, but it is also necessary to understand that the message will be read by colleagues, bosses, suppliers, or customers. “Each employee is fully aware of where they work and knows how to minimize any possibility of offending or creating misunderstandings. Humor can be contextualized, and there is a big difference between being funny and rude or profane. In my opinion, an out-of-office message should not contain much more than a couple of sentences to make it clear that it will not be answered for a few days. If it brings a smile to the reader, that’s also welcome!”

'You've got mail,' the film that helped to romanticize what we now hate.
'You've got mail,' the film that helped to romanticize what we now hate.

Agustín Peralt alludes to diversity, which he believes should help to respect other ways of approaching different issues. “This diversity is particularly reflected in accepting behavior that has changed between generations. An effort must be made to be understanding of each other. We have to be very aware of the differences between the people we work with, and not only because of the generations they belong to, but because of their personalities. The world is diverse. There are people who are much more formal than others, but you can’t demand that others behave the same way you do. You have to be flexible. At the same time, and from the other perspective, it is true that we cannot control how our message will impact others, how they will take it, or how they will interpret it, but we can at least think about the true intention of the message and anticipate possible misinterpretations.”

Is there a perfect ‘out-of-office’ reply?

Blanca Sierra, talent acquisition partner of The Adecco Group, believes that the best out-of-office message is one that communicates that the person is away for a specific period, without the need to explain the cause. “It is important to leave a contact for any emergencies, and if not, comment that when you return, the problem will be dealt with as soon as possible,” she says. On the importance of adding the return date in the mail, Patricia Benayas Checa, a time management and personal productivity coach, considers that it is a good idea to leave a margin. She recommends adding one day before the beginning of the period of leave, so that we can focus on leaving our work finished or at an appropriate point to pause, and two more days after we get back to have time to get up to date with anything pending. As for the perfect out-of-office message, it may not exist, but the important thing is that, fortunately, the holidays do.

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