Why email and vacations are incompatible and always will be

Why email and vacations are incompatible and always will be

Summary: When you take a vacation, how many of you do what just did before I took my vacation?

TOPICS: Collaboration

When you take a vacation, how many of you do what just did before I took my vacation? Even though I was secretly checking email while on vacation, through Exchange Server's Out of the Office Assistant (I'll call this OOA for short) I created an Out-of-the-Office email rule that replied to each email that came in while I was away with a message saying that I was gone on vacation, that I would not be checking email and that if the sender wanted to get in touch with me, to resend their email on or after Sept 5.  In other words, if their email was sent to me during my vacation, I wanted the senders of those emails to think their messages weren't going to get read.  Even when I returned. 

If the question is how to put recipients in charge, then perhaps RSS is the answer.

I wasn't completely truthful.  But, in what signals a complete failure of technology, I see no other way to keep my inbox relatively clear than to scare people into leaving it alone. And even then, they don't listen (in some cases, for reasons beyond their control).

Even though I took more than two weeks off (thanks in part to the the long Labor Day weekend here in the US), I wish I had more time to goof off. But with the psychological psyummer over and the hi-tech business clearly poised to move into full swing this week (actually, things didn't seem to pipe down at all over the summer), I guess it's time to dive back in with two feet.  Not that I totally tuned out.  Sure, I went to Maine (Point Sebago on  Lake Sebago if you must know) for some much needed R&R and firepit-side chat (replete with smore's) with the family. But the last thing I wanted to return to was a mountain of email to wade through this Tuesday morning.  So, what did I do?  In what is best described as the sad state of both vacations and technology, I managed it when I could. But not very deftly so.

For all the good it does, the mobile technologies (devices, networks, etc.) that result in the delivery of email to us anytime and anywhere have wreaked havoc on our vacations (and our sanity). What does it say about us when, even before taking off for some much needed decompression, we start stressing out about what we're going to miss and how we're going to deal with the motherload of messages (email, vmail, snail-mail) and action items that await us upon return? So far have we been pushed that we now use such inundations as excuses to pay attention to them when we're supposed to be recharging our mental batteries.  And the technology is very much there to answer that beck and call.  Well, sort of.

In my continuing long-term testing odyssey of Motorola's supposedly revolutionary Q smartphone, there are few opportunities like a long vacation in Maine to push such devices to their limits to see how they hold up under a real test of remote computing.  While I'll reserve the details for a separate blog entry to be published in the next day or two, let's just say that the Q did play an important role in remote email/vmail management (something that I would not have been able to do without the Q or something like it) but that it was not a pain-free experience (in fact, it was quite painful).

But, back to email itself for a moment, this vacation has taught me that, even after all these years email technology has had to evolve, email is still broken when it comes to handling something as ordinary as vacations. Or maybe vacations are just really good proof of how poor technology is when it comes to exception handling.  After all, who wouldn't want an email system that's nearly as capable as a human administrative assistant who knows what to do with everything that comes your way while you're supposedly unreachable. 

Think about it.  We jump through all kinds of stupid hoops (thinking it's normal) just to manage the exceptions.  For example, you can't set up a vacation "agent" (like I have in the past) that just deletes all email.  What if one of those emails is regarding a family crisis that needs your attention immediately? Oh, that's right.  Your family is supposed to use your Yahoo or GMail address when they need to contact you. Not the inbox you spend the majority of your time with.  And somehow, we think it's normal to use multiple inboxes from a variety of providers as a technique for segregating and managing email the way we need to.  That is, until you equip yourself with that newfangled mobile technology that's supposed to simplify your life (like the Motorola Q) only to realize how such complexity forces you into becoming your own personal systems engineer.

Sure. To handle the family emergency exception, you could program the rules engine in your email system to do certain things with some emails, and other things with others based on who the sender is.  Just make sure you've got a programming expert looking over your shoulder because, for various reasons, most such rules fail. It won't be long before what you thought was a simple rule becomes a labyrinth that turns into an exercise in pure futility.

And why do I want to automatically delete mails anyway?  Oh yeah.  It isn't just that I want less work to do when I come back from vacation. In an effort to keep a lid on storage costs, our corporate email system disables my email if I let my inbox take up too much hard drive space.  First, it starts with a little reminder that your inbox is exceeding the allowed size (which for some reason, is way less than the inbox sizes that Google, Yahoo, and others allow you for free).  Then, if you ignore those messages (as you should be able to do while on vacation), the ability to send mail is disabled.  Things can spiral downward from there.

In other words, let's say a few overly ambitious senders of email send you something with a giant attachment like a video.  You may have thought you left your inbox before vacation with enough room to accommodate everything that comes in while you're gone. But you didn't anticipate an idiotic email that, in one fell swoop, shuts down your inbox so badly that even your especially programmed vacation agent stopped auto-responding on your behalf while you're out of the office.  Even worse, your anti-spam technology is set to funnel emails that come from anyone supposedly named "System Administrator" into your spam folder and it isn't until you check your spam folder where those messages are hiding that you realize that some of them were actually from your system administrator and that you've got a major problem. 

The problems with integrating email and vacations don't stop with storage.  The way Exchange Server (what we run here at CNET) works -- or, at least the way we have it configured -- the only time you'll get a message from me that I'm on vacation is the first time you send me email after I've turned my OOA on.  After that, you won't get any more reminders that I'm out of the office.  You're supposed to remember.  This results in several failures, most of which I think can be corrected. 

A lot of email comes to me by way of my inclusion in some distribution list. Some of these distribution lists are internal to CNET.  Others are external to CNET.  Many such lists are managed by an administrator or designated list manager and not the actual senders that use them. For example, most public relations agencies distribute press releases to the media by way of distribution lists. With a few keystrokes, a single press release gets blasted to hundreds if not thousands of journalists in true form letter fashion. It's probably a good thing for someone who is sending mail to a distribution list (whether they are internal or external to my company) to know that some recipients are on vacation.  But here's where the technology completely falls apart. 

One of the reasons I use the OOA in the first place is so that people will stop sending me email until I'm back from vacation.  Recall from the beginning of this post that inbox management (while on vacation) actually requires some cooperation on the sender's end as well.  Once they're notified by my OOA that I'm out until some date in the future, the hope is that they'll stop sending me email until that point.  Unfortunately, if those senders are reaching you by way of distribution list, there's really no easy way for them to cooperate even if they wanted to.

How, for example, is someone supposed to temporarily remove my name from a distribution list when they don't have the necessary security rights to do so? And, just supposing they had such rights, how could they make that change temporary so that it automatically reverses itself when I'm back from vacation?  Even better, why should something so straightforward need to involve the manual attention of the sender in the first place? Why can't email standards be updated so that my OOA can remotely instruct a distribution list to exclude me from future distributions until a certain date? Just supposing this capability existed, then, wouldn't it be great if I could tune it so that it leaves me on some distribution lists, but not others? In many ways, my ability to temporarily stop an external server from sending me email overlaps the idea of a "relationship termination" protocol that I've discussed in the context of dealing with spam. The idea of recipients remotely controlling external distribution lists in such ways is probably a pipe dream. But is it too much to ask when the distribution lists are behind your own firewall?

I could keep going about the incompatibility between email and vacations, but you get the picture.  They're like oil and water and one of the reasons it's this way is that senders are the ones that are ultimately in charge of what happens in your inbox which, to me, is a problem.  If the question is how to put recipients in charge, then perhaps RSS is the answer.  As I've written before, RSS could be made into an integral part of the email system such that the only things that show up in your inbox are things that you subscribe to. So, if PR Agency XYZ wants to send me press releases about ABC company, they can send me one such release and on my end, the first time I get an email from PR Agency (or domain) XYZ, the system can notify me that XYZ domain is requesting that I subscribe to its email system.  I can look at the email and decide for myself whether I trust the sender and whether I want to subscribe to emails coming from that domain.  If I say no, from that point forward, future solicitations from that domain are refused (and perhaps a polite message is sent back) and I never see email from them again.  If I agree, from that point forward, all emails from that domain come to me by way of RSS subscription (automatically processed in the course of agreeing).

Once all email is coming to me by way of RSS subscription, then, with the right client-side RSS tools, I can very finely tune my OOA.  For example, I can say turn off all RSS subscriptions until Sept 5 except for these people in these domains (eg: Dan Farber in domain CNET.com).  And, as I use my OOA to exercise this degree of granular control over my subscriptions, it can proactively (instead of reactively, the way things are today) notify the senders with whatever standard message I've written that I'll be out of the office until a certain date.

Unfortunately, such tools (for exercising time-based RSS subscription) are completely non-standard today (even though they should be built-in to every RSS reader out there).  If they did, I could use them to turn off any subscription including ones to all the newsfeeds I watch. This way, not only might my email inbox be pretty much clear of non-critical content when I return from vacation, but so too might my RSS inbox. Instead, and sadly however, such tools are uncommon and we must take time -- often, valuable vacation time -- to manage both.  Either that, or tell our employers that they won't be hearing from us during the first two or three days were back on the job as we clear our virtual desks.

Topic: Collaboration

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  • Primarily a workflow problem not a technology problem

    Using RSS won't solve many of the most important problems you describe. Yes, it could relieve you of storage and subscription hassles, but it does nothing to alleviate the essential problem you describe: while you're on vacation, you can't get any work done. When you come back from vaction, you're inundated with work.

    The problem isn't the email system -- that's just a means of communication. Sure, the technology can be improved, but the essential problem (dealing with the communication) remains the same. To illustrate my point, think of your phone systems. Twenty years ago, with no email and no cell phones, your office communication and your home communication were (mostly) neatly segregated. You could put a message on one system or the other letting people know how to reach you -- and since the message was only intelligible to other humans, they could decide if thier needs were urgent enough to disturb you at home, or on vacation.

    Now, however, with cell phones and email, their is no longer a neat segregation between personal and business communications systems. Most of us use the same systems (cell phone and email) for both purposes. We do that for the sake of convenience, in doing so we sacrifice one level of organization. If we do segregate our systems, we gain a level of organization at the cost of increased complexity and time. (Organization ~always~ costs more energy than chaos).

    Sure, we could use better communications sytems (certainly better than exchange), but whether better is easy and chaotic, or difficult and organizaed is up to the user. After all, there's a n easy solution to your mail holding problem -- disable the business account while your on vacation -- that way the mailbox doesn't increase, and every sender gets an undeliverable message. Then re-activate the account when you get back. Chaotic? Sure! But very easy. (excepton handling is also moved on down to the sender -- is it important enough to call? Improtant enough to try and track you down?)

    As for vacations, perhaps it's time we begin to re-evaluate traditional personal-time, business-time distinctions.
  • The proper way to deal with Vacation Email

    Hi. I am on vacation. That means that I am not checking my email to see if something is going on. That would be stealing time from my family.

    Alternative 1:
    That means that my email is going to get really full, and I will have to catch up when I get back.

    Since that can be a problem with email, I have set up my vacation rule to delete all messages that come with attachments. If you just sent such a message, I will not be aware of it, so you may wish to resend a short message (it will have to be under 200 characters, because I delete long messages, too) without any attachment, and it will be a notification to me to get back to you after my vacation.

    Alternative 2:
    In order to keep my email from becoming unmanageable when I return, I have set up a rule that deletes anything incoming, and I will not be aware of what you have sent. If you would like, you may set up a reminder to resend what you would like me to know after I get back. I will be happy to receive it after that time.

    I can appreciate that you may consider this inflexible and an inconvenience of my making. I am not apologizing for trying to use my vacation for its intended purpose, which is to renew myself and my connection to my family, so that I can be more effective when I return.

    Blessings to you...
    • It's the Vacation, S****d

      The problem is not technnological at all. Sit back, and talk to yourself, "What does vacation mean?" If, in your conversation, you hear anything that requires your email, you are not taking a vacation. You are moving your office to a different location. The only thing I can think of that could cross over would be a Travel Blog, but then, you wouldn't use your WORK email for that, would you?

      Technology solves technological problems. It only makes other problems worse. It shouldn't take a Luddite to argue that point.
      • Excellent point!

        This is actually *why* email is such a powerful tool. When someone is using it as it was meant to be used, vacations are not a problem. I send an email to someone on vacation because there is information that I need to deliver to them or get, but not *right now.* I know that it may be a few days after they get back that they read my email or respond to me. That is fine. If I need immediate access, I call.

        I do not check email while on vacation, anyone who absolutely must get in touch with me can either call my cell phone or speak to a gateway person at my office.

        Justin James
    • Why put the burden of your vacation on others

      If someone sends you an email, and presumably this is not a rude person, they sent it for your benefit. To put the burden back on the sender by telling them to resend, makes them have to decide whether every message that they are copied on is important to the receiver. That's not possible to decide, I'm the sender and I sent it in the first place because I thought it was important. The receiver can say they don't want these messages, but putting the burden on the sender to resend those that they think are still important when they made that decision in the first place by sending it to you puts a ridiculous and rude burden on your email correspondents. Just get a big enough mailbox and stop any emails before or after vacation that don't make sense. If they are n't important to have a copy when you return from vacation, they probably weren't important to get when you weren't on vacation!
      • bollocks

        In the real world, many people send you email because they think you MIGHT, POSSIBLY be interested, and then they jump to the automatic conclusion that because they've sent it, it is now in your action list. A fundamental disconnect on their part. And no reason you should carry the burden of their inconsideration.
        Kindly informing them that you do not accept this implied obligation is polite and allows them to rethink their strategy and if something is TRULY important, to follow up with you when you're available.
  • I Like It!!

    Your solution would get rid of spam as well.
  • Sounds like people are using email backwards

    "But, back to email itself for a moment, this vacation has taught me that, even after all these years email technology has had to evolve, email is still broken when it comes to handling something as ordinary as vacations."

    As a previous poster already mentioned, this definitely sounds like a workflow problem, not a technological problem.

    You and the people sending you email seem to using it the opposite of what it is and should be used for. The whole point of email is to deliver a message to someone that they can deal with when it is best for them. I expect email that I send to someone to not be dealt with immediately. If someone is away and I get the vacation notice, I will continue to send email, and make it clear that the items in the email are not time sensitive, or can wait until that person returns.

    If I need or want immediate action, I use a phone, instant message, or a face-to-face conversation. This is the basis for my "four email rule." Anything time sensitive really should not be done exclusively by email. If you send an email, and put in there, "this really needs to be done soon," and you do not hear back from them, follow up in some other way.

    If you (and the people you deal with) thick of email as a FIFO queue, and not a FILO stack, you will all be much happier.

    PS - the more I hear about the email policies you've been inflicted with, the more I see that your IT department is being IT driven, not user driven. Small mailboxes are a sure sign of that! The worst I have seen was a company that automatically flushed old messages. That is probably the dumbest thing I have ever heard of... if I leave an email in my box, it is because I want it there to refer to and I have not finished with it!

    Justin James
    • All good points...

      But email is what it is. We rarely completely foresake communications technologies when on vacation. In the past, before email became a way of life, we may not have used the phone for business purposes on vacation, but we used the phone. We should optionally be able to do the same with email. My son and I played golf while away. I should be able to send an email to the pro shop to confirm my tee time. I should be allowed to use the communication tool to my liking. More importantly, we're really not talking about rocket science here. Technology has solved far more difficult problems than these.

      • Technology *creates* problems like this

        "In the past, before email became a way of life, we may not have used the phone for business purposes on vacation, but we used the phone. We should optionally be able to do the same with email. My son and I played golf while away. I should be able to send an email to the pro shop to confirm my tee time. I should be allowed to use the communication tool to my liking."

        Yes, and while we were on vacation, we were using payphones and the hotel phone 10 years ago, and the only people who could reach us at all were people who knew which room we were staying in. The moment we got cell phones, this changed.

        If you want to use email on vacation, you will need a throwaway email address or a super-personal account that no one else has, just like if you do not want work to call you, you need to leave the cell phone behind. It stinks, but that is sadly where the world is at now.

        "Technology has solved far more difficult problems than these."

        Yes, but none of them were social issues. The real issue is, "why are the other people not able to function without reaching me?" It all comes back to how people work and intract, which is a business culture and process issue, and no amount of technology can change that, unfortunately.

        One day I will write a long piece of the "Wehrmacht Method of Management," which I beleive to be a superior way of running an operation. In a nutshell, it involves empowering the people on the ground & at the scene to make their own decisions without needing to consult upper level management, provided that they have been properly trained and seasoned so that they make roughly the same decisions that the upper echelons would make. That kind of system eliminates a lot of these issues entirely.

        Justin James
        • The Vacation And The Slave

          Not too long ago slavery was the only way to survive for the masses in some (developed) societies. The master would issue instructions and the slave would oblige. Only very rarely would the slave prompt any conversation; chiefly due to the (unequal) nature of the relationship. While many masters worked their slaves to death, the prudent ones appreciated the need to set time off for the slave to recuperate and regenerate (vacation). However, any slave on time off could be immediately recalled if the master felt it was necessary. The slave had no say in the matter.

          Eventually, slavery became politically repugnant and was abolished. Or was it? The law (again generated from political processes) had to step in to guarantee a vacation (time off)for the employee because the (slave-master) Employer was reluctant to arrange on their own. And even before email and the cellphone, the employee had to deposit their telephone and snail-mail contacts that could be used to reach them before proceeding.

          Email and cellphones have returned employment to the master-slave era, where the master has a tighter grip on the relationship. Notice that the master today (the super-rich, large shareholder) is ALWAYS on vacation.
          • I have noticed similar things

            I have noticed that my boss now ducks out at 2 PM every day, and is averaging 1 day a week totally out of th office. Meanwhile, the only time that I have taken off from work in calendar year 2006 is 1 sick day, 1 day to take the cat the vet, a half day to take the cat to the vet, and 2 half days to attend funerals. I do not even feel comfortable with the idea of leaving the office, because it seems like there are projects scheduled for me from now until forever. The last time I was out of town, to go to training, I had to do 8 hours of training a day, and then another 6 hours of my usual work back at the hotel room. It is rediculous.

            Master/slave is a bit harsh, but I understand the metaphor, and it is about right. Those in charge make the rules, but apply different rules to themselves than they do for the rest of us.

            Justin James
      • Email is not a way of life

        You need to separate business email from personal email. If you are on vacation, you DO NOT CARE what business email pops into your inbox back at the office. If you are checking personal email, check your PERSONAL email account, not your business email. All of the things you've said you should be able to do, you should be doing from your personal email account, which, since it's not business, you may very well want to use on vacation.

        This is really no different than the old days of paper letters, memos and phone calls. Those sat on your desk or in your mailbox or on the voicemail until you returned to the office. You weren't expected to call in from vacation to check your memos, why are you doing it now? We've always said it didn't do any good to go on vacation, nobody did our work while we were gone so we had it all piled up waiting anyway. So let it pile up, is it really bad for someone to get the "mailbox full" message? Then they know for sure that they have to re-send their message.

        As for family emergencies, anyone that EMAILS you about a family EMERGENCY hasn't got a clue. That's why they have your phone number, and I presume they have your cell number as well.
        big red one
        • Email separation

          I learned early that I needed separate email accounts. I had a business account at my place of employment (Eaton) and a personal account through my home network. Very few of my family and friends ever contacted me through email at work and I gave my home email to only those whose personal messages I was willing to receive.
          When you receive 100-200 messages daily at work and 40-60 messages daily at home, it can be overwhelming. They do need to be separate. Now that I am retired, only three persons from my previous place of retirement have my email address. It is working just great!
      • Ah but

        I'm sure you did not use your work phone while on vacation (cell phone used for both doesn't count). And there isn't really a good reason you would need to use your work email account for confirming tee times either. I'm human, I use my work email for non-work things too, but that's my problem, not my email system's.
    • Agreed

      Much of the problem with e-mail is that the e-mail isn't that important. I get things of a personal nature (not solicited), from well meaning people who think the content may interest me (to be fair, usually it does). I would prefer that they send it to me at home, especially if it has an attachment. After all, that's part of the reason I have broadband access. But it's so much easier for them to send it to work. Of course, part of the problem is that we don't have a policy here that restricts the use of e-mail for personal use or the sending of large attachments. The problem is that most of our people are probably not knowledgable enough to know when they are sending something that might be a problem.

      Another problem is that the e-mail account is set up on the server, so the files are on that storage system and not on the local one. That has the advantage that we can access the account from any machine that has Outlook and can log onto the network. But it also means that the server has to maintain files with large attachments; often multiple copies, if the message came from someone within the system and was sent to others within it. So the solution was to automatically delete files over 90 days old. Of course that means that things that should be saved won't be. We have a similar issue with the voice mail system. And if the server or the network is down, we won't be able to get to messages already received (or calendar items). At least with the e-mail, I can create a personal folder and move messages to my hard drive. On the plus side, I use that as an opportunity to organize message by sub-folders. But not everyone is knowledgable or disciplined enough to do that.

      OK, I've gotten a bit off topic, even if it does relate to the problem of running out of space. This isn't to say that I don't get e-mail that matters. But those usually aren't larger ones, since the large ones are almost always clever videos.

      We're also not set up to be able to log on and check messages outside of work. It's possible, but usually reserved for people who travel frequently for work. I wouldn't mind checking periodically, because I tend not to travel on vacation. But that isn't really an option, even though I just stay home and relax (too many trips have tended to leave me needing a vacation when I come back). I do have the option of checking my voice mail and if I'm home, I usually do.

      When I send e-mail, it's for one of three reasons, generally. I may want the person to respond or have the option of responding, but to have time to craft the response without being rushed to come up with answers on the spot. I may have something to attach that is easier or quicker to send electronically. Or I may not have any other contact information readily available. Most messages fall into the first category and so don't require immediate action. But not everyone thinks of it that way. And the other two may need something quicker.

      Ultimately, though, when I'm away on my own time, that's it, short of a genuine emergency. I disagree with an earlier poster, who said that part of the reason for going on vacation and being free not to be bothered is be recharged when we return to work. That may be a reason for my employer to see some benefit in giving me time off, but to me, it's in recognition that it's necessary for my mental and physical health. And that my employer owes that to me.
      • The Benefit of Vacation

        You're spot on! We don't disagree at all. The reason to reference the value to the company is to remind the sender that the office benefits from my vacation. The auto-reply IS office correspondence, so I believe making that point is appropriate. That doesn't deny that the principle benefit is for me and my family.

        But the moratorium on office email does require that you have been diligent in keeping work and personal email separate. Surfing the internet and sending/receiving private email is legitimate activity for your vacation. I was in Hawaii and took the laptop down to the front desk to do some surfing and email. Hawaii! But, I didn't touch my work account.
  • Simpler solution (maybe)

    1) Create your automatic response (no email please)
    2) Remind your family you're on vacation and to text your cell phone if emergency
    3) Create a temporary Google email account
    4) Forward all vacation emails to Google
    5) Delete all originals automatically
    6) Turn off rule when back in office

    Then go to google mail and sort by sender. If you have time.
    • Boy, talk about unnatural acts

      No doubt a somewhat workable solution but it's the equivalent of checking your spam folder to make sure none of it is spam. Talk about inefficiency, unnatural acts, and unnecessarily passing traffic across networks..... Oh,... and that's antoher reason RSS works so well. If I don't want the email, it never crosses the network in the first place.

  • The bad old days weren't so bad after all

    A few days before I read this article, an older colleague and I were discussing the "bad old days". You know, the ones where the only computers were bigger than the yet-to-arrive-and-now-ubiquitous minivan and couldn't be taken home with you. Those days without pagers, cell phones, laptops, and email systems which didn't exist at the time! We were thrilled to get keypunches with memory so you could playback most of what you keyed in and correct a few columns, then ecstatic to get dumb terminals to edit our code. Sure, we weren't as productive then as we are now, but once we left work, whether to go home for the day or on vacation, we weren't reachable except in extreme emergency. In fact, I don't ever recall being called at home except when a major snowstorm caused an office closing! Now, like David Berlind, I check email while on vacation or suffer through a full day or more reading the past week's email when I come back. Most of it is stuff that is cc'ed to me to keep me in the loop, which I can't determine until I open it. The more technology we have, the less freedom we seem to have. Though I will retire soon, I'll still be a slave to my personal email.