My Secret to Being Out of Office

Using Social Business Practices to Focus on the Important

April 22, 2013 – It was going to be my wife and I’s 35th wedding anniversary. Discussing our options for celebration, I was told that if I wanted a 36th anniversary, I should plan for a week off.

I serve in a worldwide capacity and have conversations and demands from a large number of individuals. These usually come in the form of emails, instant messages or phone calls…but most often emails. If you are like me, the thought of being gone for a week just caused visions of a swollen in-box that I’d have to suffer through on my return. That is when I decided to leverage our internal social business network.

At IBM we use Notes for email, so I crafted the following “Out of Office” notification:

“I’m out of the office from April 22-26. If you are an IBMer and reading this message, please be aware that I am not going to read your email…not while I’m gone or when I return. If your message was important, please post it on my profile page and I will address it on my return. If you are a customer, please note I will read and respond to your email.”

Then I went on a week’s vacation, totally “off the grid”. I didn’t take my PC or smartphone with me to triage emails. I didn’t sneak off to the corner somewhere to check in during the week. I didn’t care. I spent the week focusing on my family.


On my return, I sorted all the unread emails to locate those from IBMers. There were about 5 screens full, so somewhere around 300. I selected the top one, held the shift key, scrolled down and selected the last one. Then I hit “Delete”. I never looked at the titles, senders names, or topics. If they sent me an email, they saw my “out of office” message and knew what to expect.

I then went to my profile in our Social Business system (called IBM Connections). Of the 300 emails, only 29 turned into posts. And of those, 20 were already answered by people in my network. That is two thirds of my work being done for me. Like the following:


So after a week of vacation, I had only 9 issues from IBMers that needed my personal attention. That allowed me to focus on my customers.

And more importantly, if you look at the example above. The request for help came on April 23rd, the 2nd day of my vacation. And it was answered on April 23rd, the 2nd day of my vacation. For the requestor, they got their response without me. In fact, the responder knew more about the subject than I did anyway. So by asking “out loud” he was able to get a quicker response and better qualified answer.

But what if one of those emails was important? I’ve been taking this same approach every year and I’ve yet to delete an “important” email or be called out for not responding. Important things tend to come back around.

If you think you couldn’t possibly get away with doing something like this, then I would encourage you to ask “Why not?” Your fear of missing the 1 important thing out of 1000 emails is causing you to spend unrecoverable precious time going through the 999 worthless emails..which probably impacts your ability to properly address the important. And if you don’t have a social business solution in your organization, let me know by comment below or reach out to me at and I’d love to share with you how you too can truly learn to be “out of office”.

If you’re interested in what’s next, at IBM we’re combining IBM Watson Cognitive services to communications (like email) to help you identify the important from the trivial. And it’s not based on some filter you create, but rather on the way you work. Who do you interact with? Who are you quick to respond to? What is the tone of the message? Is there a request for some deliverable? All these factors can be applied to help you prioritize your time and attention. For more on this subject, contact me or check out

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “My Secret to Being Out of Office

  1. Thanks, Louis. I’m preparing to replicate your method myself. Also – it seems like your email management ideas were forward thinking – I’m seeing a lot of similar concepts about managing email & social media time-sucks from Asian Efficiency: to Cal Newport’s Deep Work ideas:

    • I’m a firm believer that email has been abused. The technology is a good transactional tool but not good for conversations. I’m sure you’ve seen a historic scene where someone is having a conversation using an old two-way radio. When they hit the “talk” button, it cuts off the other person. They end up using “over” as a key phrase to say they are finished speaking and are ready now to listen. Now imagine if you cell phone had the same limitation. Our “talk” button has been replaced by “compose” and our “over” button is the “send” key. Social conversation tools, IM, video chat, and a host of new ways are making conversations more effective and efficient. We need to evolve. “Over”

  2. Love it – all of it: focusing on family, time spent outdoors which is the best way to recharge, limiting time spent in email where the company social business platform could better serve the senders, while still keeping a high level of customer service. What’s not to like? Well said and Happy New Year Louis.