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Pilita Clark: I’m thinking of setting up a permanent out-of-office email reply. Lots of people are

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Last week I discovered that something I never knew existed had already been deemed hopelessly naff.

Ending an email by showing off about a book you are “currently reading” is trending down as fast as the workout onesie, the Sunday Times Style magazine declared.

I found this news baffling. “Who puts something like that at the end of an email?” I asked anyone within earshot in the office.

Loads of people, came the reply. This was true, as a rummage through my own inbox confirmed.

It turns out people have been letting me know for ages that they have been reading books about the hidden cost of stress, at-home abortions, and something called “synchrodestiny” by the self-help guru Deepak Chopra.

They were not all trying to show off. Some worked for book publishers, where such signoffs are encouraged. Others worked for performance coaches, who doubtless also nudge their staff to write such things.

But one was an actual performance coach and she ended her email with news of something else again: her current “wellbeing focus”, which was walking in nature three times a week.

I find this sort of behaviour more pointless than irksome. The fact that I didn’t notice what anyone was currently reading, or focusing on, until I went looking for it suggests these alerts are less useful than senders imagine.

I also find them less annoying than signoffs that advertise a sender’s OBE or use of an app that tracks how much they cycle.

But this all confirms how far the humble email signoff has travelled since the early days of office email, when it amounted to little more than “best wishes” followed by a name and job title. It is not exactly clear when the signoff turned into yet another tool in the arsenal of self-promotion deployed in so much of modern corporate life, but I do not see it fading any time soon.

The same goes for a more sobering development that is itself a telling comment on the state of office email: the growing number of people resorting to a signoff that politely tells emailers not to expect a reply.

One man I know who works in a sprawling international network where email bombardment is a constant menace has a signoff that says: “I get a lot of emails and can’t reply to them all. Please call if it is urgent.”

He puts the message in brackets, which softens the blow, as does a journalist I know who uses a similar signoff to manage the deluge of unsolicited emails she receives from around the world daily.

Some go to greater lengths by using something I often think of setting up myself: a permanent out-of-office message warning senders to prepare for disappointment.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson has long had one that, as of last week, says this:

“Thank you for your email. Due to the volume of daily messages, which typically exceed in number the minutes in the workday, I am very sorry that I will not be able to respond to all of them.

“My students, colleagues and family remain my top priorities, and when I have an open window, I will work through the accumulated messages in an attempt to respond to as many as I can.” Edmondson then adds the addresses of others who deal with her schedule and speaking requests.

She tells me the message is permanent, but sometimes updated to deal with things that make her extra unavailable, like an assistant being on vacation.

“My view is that it’s better to alert people that the capacity strains will make it unlikely for me to respond to most messages, compared to simply failing to respond at all,” she says. “And truly, at a rate of more than 500 a day, it would not be feasible to respond to them all … alas.”

She’s right. Email has ballooned to the point that the average worker in the UK and US received at least 32 mails a day in 2022. That’s on top of 21 instant messages, 13 text messages and 12 one-on-on phone calls, says Statista.

Other research suggests the number of emails received is higher. But whatever it is, it’s too much. So use an email signoff for personal PR if you want to. But don’t be surprised if it’s not seen, nor offended by a warning it may never receive a reply. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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