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by Stephan Maldonado | July 07, 2020


Taking a "vacation" might look a lot different this year—many of us have had to drastically rethink our summer plans in light of the ongoing pandemic. But summer is here, and even if you're not able to hit the beach as you would have otherwise, it's still important to take some time for yourself. Many of us are working from home, which can easily skew our work/life balance as the boundaries between the time we spend working and our personal time become blurred. Not to mention the fact that current events have a lot of people experiencing heightened stress and anxiety. Even if using PTO this summer 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 for taking PTO include blocking off the time on your calendar and setting up an automatic "out-of-office" email. But do you really need to set one of these up when pretty much everyone you interact with is out of the office? And what should you say to let your coworkers know you really mean it?

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

The short answer is, yes, you still need to use an out-of-office email when taking time off during the pandemic. 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 lockdown we are in 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. Summer is officially here and 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 ours) 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 have infrequent access to my emails. I will reply to your message as soon as I can. If you require immediate assistance, please contact [NAME] at [EMAIL]. 


"Taking time off" might be the best option for you if you're concerned about feeling guilty for saying "on vacation" or "out of the office"—which, of course, you shouldn't. But we all know how tempting those email notifications look on our phones when we're spending time at home, even if we're enjoying some much-deserved PTO!