Culture   //   April 21, 2022

Retiring ‘Out of office’ for ‘In the office’ email sign-offs: How to avoid defaulting to video meetings when in the office

When, on April 1, Bruce Daisley, best-selling author of “The Joy of Work,” posed a provocative question on LinkedIn musing whether “the ‘in the office’ message [will] replace the ‘out of office’” it was no foolish whimsy. 

As he explained: “Heard a brilliant thing today. One firm says they don’t want workers in the office spending all day on email. The suggestion is that everyone put their ‘in the office’ message on and deal with email from home.”

The former vp of Twitter for Europe, Middle East and Africa later told WorkLife that his comment came after hearing complaints from numerous firms that employees are heading into the office only to spend all day on video conferencing calls.

“Throughout the pandemic, the number of meetings in our diaries has doubled, and those meetings have stuck, like knotweed,” he said. “We’ve spent two years reflecting on the best way to get our work done, and then we’ve sleepwalked into a horrible solution.”

Daisley pointed to recent research that suggested productivity will increase by 71% if organizations cut meetings by 40% — equivalent to two days a week. “We need to define our cultures right now to make them better,” he added. “If this situation is left unchecked, it will be damaging. Hybrid working isn’t the best of both worlds: it’s the worst. The more intentional we get about what we’re using the office for, the better. Ultimately, the office is a brilliant resource, but we don’t need to use it for everything.”

Ryan Hopkins, global workplace of the future lead at Finastra, a global fintech company, commented on Daisley’s LinkedIn post and claimed he created the “world’s first in-office OOO” seven months earlier. 

He even provided an ITO template in his original LinkedIn post: “I am in the office today, so you might see a slight delay in my [Instant Messenger]and email replies, as I am making the most of seeing people face to face. I will be in the XX area if you want to come and say hello at XX time. I will be back in the home office on XXX, and will have more of an online presence again then.”

“I want to uncouple these calls and meetings from achieving what we want to achieve. So when you come together in the office, let people know that you will be reducing your online correspondence.”
Ryan Hopkins, global workplace of the future lead at Finastra.

Hopkins told WorkLife: “The home office is where the work gets done for knowledge workers, whereas the in-person office is now like the offsite, and where we come together for creativity and connection. At Finastra, we have developed the concept of ‘digital balance,’ which acknowledges that technology is a problem and switching off is the solution.”

He argues that increasingly people “confuse being busy with being productive — and they’re not the same thing.” In the last two years, reliance on video conferencing has accelerated this worrying trend. “It’s like we are flat out with back-to-back calls we couldn’t possibly come into the office,” Hopkins said, underlining how wrong-headed this logic has become. “I want to uncouple these calls and meetings from achieving what we want to achieve. So when you come together in the office, let people know that you will be reducing your online correspondence.”

This idea chimes with Ben Dixon, director and co-owner of beami People Development, a small learning and development company based in the northeast of England. “Over the last few years, we’ve grown accustomed to rapid replies, the always-on approach,” he said. “It’s tiring, but it has become the expectation from many that people will respond promptly if it’s within office hours.”

As Dixon and his team have slowly returned to face-to-face consultations rather than virtual client meetings, he has opted to place an ITO or OWC – out with client – message. “The added travel time needed impacts response time, plus I want to give my clients my full attention when they are paying for me to be on-site,” he said. “This means that my email replies can’t be as rapid as they were when everything was delivered virtually.”

Addressing the fundamental issue — namely, too many meetings — Dixon urges organizations to change direction for the sake of the company culture, productivity and employees’ mental health. “Meeting fatigue is a real problem for many of my clients,” he said. “Keeping meetings short and blocking out time in your calendar to process work, complete tasks, not only helps you manage your time, but it also stops people booking meetings in the pockets of time you have to do your work.”

Offering a final tip, Dixon added: “I advise my clients to ask for a meeting agenda and be clear about why you are attending a meeting before accepting, so you can challenge if you need to be there.”

Perhaps we all need to use OOO, ITO, or OWC messages more readily and regularly, to enhance focus and increase productivity — and for our sanity.