Automatic messages when you’re not in the office – the infamous OOF


"OOF" is a word you hear a lot at Microsoft. KC Lemson gave the etymology a while back (though my recollection is that it stood for "Out of Office Feature", not that my memory is good for much nowadays). Incidentally, KC is profiled on the Microsoft Careers site, though she goes under the top-secret code name "KC" there.

Most people set their "vacation" message to something pretty straightforward. A brief message, a return date, and a flowchart of who can be contacted in the meantime. Here's what one might look like. (For the sake of illustration, I made up a "Teapot project" as well some imaginary members and team mailing list. I did not make up "Kansas", however. Believe it or not, that's a real state!)

In Kansas until March 3, checking email sporadically. Teapot shading: Fred Smith
Teapot rotation: Bob Wilson
Teapot general: tpteam
Emergency: 425.555.9595

The OOF is an opportunity for small-form-factor humor. When he left on holiday at the end of December, Marc Miller's OOF message introduced the "flowchart" section with the heading "These people are probably also OOF". Jensen Harris's OOF earlier this year read

Out of office, Thursday March 31. Back on Friday.
If you are injured, dial 911.

(But don't call 911 for a non-emergency like this lady. On the other hand, KC called 911 because she couldn't get out of bed.)

As for me, I try to keep my OOF under twenty words. Part of the trick is getting rid of the "flowchart". I remember one time I simply wrote "Returning dd-mmm-yy. You'll just have to cope until then."

The "flowchart" section of the OOF is one of those places where beginners go overboard, listing a half dozen topics and the corresponding backup. It's a sort of ego trip, where you can quietly show off, "Wow, look at all the things I do. How would you ever survive without me?" As with email signatures and the amassing of physical objects, the more seasoned you become, the more you value the ability to keep it short and simple.

Comments (28)
  1. required says:

    Am I the only one who finds these messages annoying? If I need to speak to you then I a) probably already know you are OoO, or b) can look it up on the calendar if I feel the need to speak to you. I won’t go into the security implications as that might be too paranoid even for me.

    I got so annoyed by them that when I left my last employer I put an OOF message into the email system saying that I was out of the office permanently and that if you needed to speak to me you were SoL.

  2. Andreas Sikkema says:

    I’ve even got a filter to delete them, for most of the variants I receive. I hate them.

  3. robdoyle says:

    Why oh why do we call it OOF? This one of the most annoying and idiotic acronyms in MS.

  4. I work with a lot of people who do not work in the same city, or even the same state.  I do not necessarily know when these people intend to take vacation.  So, sometimes, these messages hold value for me.

    It’s usually only annoying when I have to send an e-mail to a list, and I get deluged with ‘I’m not here’ messages.  But, I kind of look at this philosophically, and figure it acts as a disincentive to send pointless e-mails to large lists of people; keep your e-mails focused to just the right group of people.

  5. When I worked for Intel we called it OOP which I understood to stand for Out Of Plant… But who knows?

  6. Stu says:

    Is ‘OOF’ still stupid enough to reply to itself?

    Does it still cause mailing-list floods?

  7. HA HA HA says:

    u got threedigit momnths uot the’re?!

    bunncha wierdos…

  8. Anonymous Coward says:

    At a previous employer, one of my co-workers managed to get an infinite loop going when he enabled OOF (it involved forwarding all of his e-mail somehow) that crashed Exchange Server.

  9. David Candy says:

    I’ve called 000 3 times in last 15 months.

    1. Neighbour dying of heart attack. I sent someone to call ambulance once person lost consciousness (TGFSC – thank goodness for spell check). Told him what to say – an accurate listing of signs and symptoms without a diagnosis (but I included a history of heart attacks). Person didn’t come back. I’m getting frantic – is an ambo coming. When ambulance arrived pt died (because I stopped first aid to brief ambos). But the sent us a general duties ambo. So GD ambo had to call intensive care ambo. 40 minutes later they attempt to restart his heart. I give em F.

    2. Walking home at midnight from shops. See feet sticking out of shop doorway. Think "ah-ha drunk british backpacker (they sleep where they pass out – usually on people’s front lawns). Go to check just in case. It is a man breaking into shop, drop eye contact. Make sure him and his tools don’t follow me and hit me over head. Call police. Police ring back 30 minutes later and ask where was it again.

    6 months go by. 10pm on a friday night. Hear people at security door, presume it’s a pizza delivery person. Hear knock on my door, still assume pizza delivery as it was common for a neighbour to not give unit number. Open door and herbal smoke rolls out and engulfs police. Oh dear. Lecture time. No they want a statement about the B&E. and they want it that night as some police woman is going on holidays and can’t go till she finishes her cases. I refuse to go to police station so they take statement using pen and paper.

    Person was stupid to hang about for 30 minutes after I caught him. So the police, when they finally made it (50 metres from police station) caught him.

    Grade F

    3. 14 days ago. On way to supermarket at 8pm. Another neighbour has hose connected to exaust of car. Engine running. Car filled with personal possessions. Think who is this idiot trying to fix running out of petrol or trying to steal petrol via an exaust pipe. I’m puzzled. Then he gets out of car and talks to me. I say are you committing suicide, he says no. The conversation died. Go on to supermarket. Realise that it can take a 1/2 hour to walk, line up, walk home. Decide that’s too long and call 000. Gee whiz they asked stupid questions.

    Is the person conscious. Yes

    Is the person breathing. [My patience becoming exausted] If he is conscious then he must be breathing.

    Sent 3x police cars and 1x ambulance. Person hid. Police go away person reappears and asks me to call police and tell them he’s ok. Police come back very quickly and take him to hospital. He tries to escape (after waiting for them). Gets charged and goes to cells for the night instead.

    For the next week people stood outside and threatened to kill me. After the third night of this (to use an americian phrase correctly unlike Richard Armitage using Australian phrases) I used the three strikes and you are out rule and went to police station. That was a waste of time. The only police officer at station would have to wait a day till he was rostered on a bus (presumbably he meant a paddy wagon) to do anything.

    Grade. C for initial response. F for harrassment.

  10. Jim Howard says:

    If you have an ‘out of office’ email responder and you subscribe to an active mailing list, then you should be sent to the seventh circle of hell if you forget to go ‘nomail’ before you leave.

  11. Gene Cash says:

    It’s usually only annoying when I have to send an e-mail to a list, and I get deluged with ‘I’m not here’ messages.

    Is your system at least smart enough to send only one such message a day? e.g. if you email them again the same day, you shouldn’t get another message.

  12. schwiet says:

    I’ll be OOF 5/12 and 5/13, fyi.

  13. mastmaker says:

    In my previous office, I received the following chain of emails (directed to the developers group mailing list in the company)

    1. from A to say he is taking the thursday and friday off

    2. response from B to say he is taking a couple of days off the next week.

    3. response from C to say he is expecting to take a couple of weeks off at the end of the month since his first baby is due around that time.

    4. response from D to say he will be taking his annual leave of 3 weeks in September (2 months away)

    5. response from E (a director of the company): I always take a couple of weeks off in December, but I think this is getting ridiculous.

  14. James says:

    My shortest to date is simply:

    Je ne suis pas ici

  15. Lots of comments:

    1.  I don’t know whether it’s a relatively recent feature of Exchange, but at Microsoft the server doesn’t send an OOF on your behalf when you received the message via a DL – only when you were sent the message directly.

    2.  It also won’t send the same message to the same person twice.  If Raymond is OOF for 2 weeks and I email him twice a day every day, I’ll get his OOF only the first time, unless he changes his OOF message.

    3.  OOF is tremendously valuable for me – this is a big company, and I communicate with people EVERY DAY without knowing their OOF schedule.  (And sometimes things come up that aren’t scheduled.)

    4.  MS Office Communicator has a great feature where you can see an OOF message for your contact without having to email!

    5.  Raymond makes fun OOFs – I’ve seen a couple of them in Swedish.  Other people have used HTTP responses in their OOFS, such as "302 Object moved permanently" when they’ve changed positions, or "404" if they’re just out.

  16. Sven Groot says:

    I’ve done a few OOFs in my time. I even remember setting up a "Sorry, I don’t work here anymore, if you needed help with something I worked on, tough luck" when I left Unit4Agresso just to see how long it would take for the sysadmins to delete my account (iirc, it took them something on the order of six months)

    Nowadays I don’t do them anymore. One of the main reasons is that there’s no good way to prevent them replying to spam, and even an OOF in reply to a spam message just screams "hey look, this e-mail address is still in use, why not spam it some more?"

  17. Cooney says:

    One of the main reasons is that there’s no good way to prevent them replying to spam

    If only you could restrict replies to messages from your same domain…

    1.  With Exchange (at least the way we have it set up), OOF is sent internal-only, unless you specifically configure an External OOF (via an add-on? I don’t know – I’ve never used External OOF)
  18. Kennedy says:

    The "flowchart" section of the OOF is one of those places where beginners go overboard, listing a half dozen topics and the corresponding backup.

    I soon realized:

    1. Despite what the schedule is, it often doesn’t matter if something is late – most things are.

    2. People working closely with my team already know the go-to persons and chain of command.

    3. The rest of the world doesn’t understand what teapot is and therefore can’t figure out the appropriate contact. Therefore it’s better just to list one knowledgable team member – e.g., boss.

    4. Nobody ever said I had to use OOO messages. Is this still part of modern office etiquitte?

  19. viking says:

    One of the problems with OOF’s is that you never know who will be reading it. Raymond’s Teapot example brings back memories of a colleague who had set up his OOF something to the effect of

    Hi,

    I’m out of office.

    For urgent [NameOfTopSecretProject] matters, please contact Steve Robinson.

    Now, obviously, to find out what new products we were working on, all our competitors had to do was email this person… :-(

  20. Adam says:

    Jim> "If you have an ‘out of office’ email responder and you subscribe to an active mailing list, then you should be sent to the seventh circle of hell if you forget to go ‘nomail’ before you leave."

    That’s only a problem with brain-dead OOO responders.

    IMO, an OOO responder should only send a response if you are explicitly named in the "To:" field of a message.

  21. Cody says:

    u got threedigit momnths uot the’re?!

    >bunncha wierdos…

    I believe the dd-mmm-yyyy format is for printing dates like 10-May-2006 or 31-Dec-1999.

  22. Jen Kilmer says:

    When I left Microsoft, my account was deleted by the next morning.

    My voicemail, however, stayed active for nearly a year…one ex used my "I no longer work here" message to track me down eleven months later.

  23. Nick Lamb says:

    Jim / Adam

    The Unix vacation agent got this right decades ago. The fact that other companies (and Microsoft is just the biggest) actually sold companies Internet email software that didn’t get this right is just a reminder of how big the gap is between the quality of the software and the purchase decision.

  24. Merle says:

    OOF has inspired a couple of funny knock-offs.  If someone is a little crazy, they are OOM–Out of Mind.  And if someone is has been terminated, they are POOF–Permanently Out of Office.  :-)

  25. MSDN Archive says:

    I want an OOF that looks like an NDR, just for spammers.

  26. Sergio says:

    I would love for the OOF message to be tied to the calendar.  If I mark that I’m OOF in an appointment or meeting, the OOF message should use that appointment to generate fill in a template.

    So my OOF message could be:

     I’m out of the office from {startDate} to {endDate} due to {subject}.  If you need assistance, please contact {contacts}.

    Then we wouldn’t have to remember to set the damn thing when we’re rushing out the door the day before.

  27. ender says:

    One thing that irritates me about OOFs is, that way too many of them manage to subscribe people to double opt-in mailing lists – a worm sends itself with the list’s subscribe address to somebody, his OOF replies, the mailing list server sends a confirmation, and OOF again replies (since it’s a different address, which also contains the confirmation code).

    Being a moderator on a fairly large (even if it’s low-traffic) list is a pain thanks to these. We get at least one subscriber a day this way, and then we get those people responding to mailing list messages "Why am I gettings this???"

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