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

Raymond Chen

“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.


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