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by Stephan Maldonado | July 07, 2020


Taking a "vacation" looks a lot different in light of the ongoing pandemic, but it's still important to take time for yourself. Working from home can skew our work/life balance as boundaries between the time we spend working and our personal time become blurred. And though it may seem relaxing to take a quick break to check social media, it can contribute to heightened stress and anxiety. Even if using PTO doesn't mean actually going anywhere, your overall well-being depends on you taking some time to unplug, relax, and have a little fun.

Best practices while you are "out" include blocking off the time on your calendar and setting up an automatic "out-of-office" email. But how do you word that when pretty much everyone you interact with is not working in the office? What should you say?

Why you should use an out-of-office email.

Even when working remotely, you still need to use an out-of-office email when taking time off. An out-of-office email establishes appropriate boundaries and expectations for the time you're going to be unavailable, and this can be even more important when you don't see your colleagues or your manager every day. 

When you're working from home, it becomes very easy for the hours you spend working to shift or extend. You fall into the habit of answering emails at all hours of the morning or night. Maybe you work till later in the evenings because you don't have a commute, or maybe you start working a few hours on the weekend because the weekend feels exactly the same as the workweek when you're home all the time. Many of your coworkers probably do this too, and this eventually creates the impression that everyone is available all the time. 

An out-of-office email is essential to communicate with colleagues and clients that you're not available to handle any pressing issues—especially when nobody's in the office to see that you're not at your desk.

Setting an out-of-office email is important for yourself, too. Those aforementioned patterns of elongating your workday or always making yourself available are not necessarily healthy habits. Work/life balance is still essential to avoiding burnout, and many managers are still encouraging their direct reports to do so.

As Dr. Barbara Hewitt, UPenn's Executive Director of Career Services, recently told us about managing her team during the pandemic, "...staff members are taking much less time off than typical, partially because [the pandemic] has reduced the possibility for traditional vacations, but also because people are worried about how it will look if they aren’t answering their emails or responding to calls immediately. They worry that it may appear that they aren’t really working. I’ve encouraged my team to take the time off they’ve earned and to relax at home. Disconnecting from technology is more important now than ever."

We're all in the same boat, and we're all worried about perceptions when we're unable to have regular face time with our colleagues and managers. Communication is critical right now.

What should your out-of-office email say?

Sure, it might feel redundant (or even a bit silly) to say you're out of the office when everybody else is too. If you're hung up on the semantics of your messaging, there are a few easy alternatives. Instead of the typical, "Thank you for your email. I am out of the office from X until Y...", you might try something like, "I am on PTO", or simply, "I am unavailable." Anything that conveys that you're not keeping your normal working hours (or your "new normal" working hours) should suffice.

Beyond that, the rest of your message should follow the best practices of out-of-office emails.

  • State the specific date range during which you will be unavailable.
  • Clarify whether you will be checking emails occasionally, infrequently, or not at all.
  • Provide a general timeframe for when the person can expect to hear back from you (even if it's as vague "I will respond to emails upon my return").
  • Advise them to contact the next appropriate person for urgent questions (and make sure that person knows).

Here is a basic template you can use:


Thank you for your email. I am taking time off from X/Y/2020 until X/Y/2020. During that time, I will be checking email infrequently. I will reply to your message as soon as I can when I'm back. If you have an urgent matter that requires immediate attention, please contact [NAME] at [EMAIL]. 


"Taking time off" might be the best wording for you if you feel guilty for saying "on vacation" or "out of the office"—which, of course, you shouldn't. Leaving a detailed out-of-office message will reduce the number of email notifications pinging your phone while you're enjoying some much-deserved PTO!