Put the right info in your vacation email message

Photo courtesy Flickr user Esparta

(MoneyWatch) It's vacation time, and many of us are taking time off to visit family, go to Disneyland or just goof off. No matter how you spend your vacation days, you should take steps to minimize the amount of time it takes to get back into the swing of things when you return to the office.

Email is one of the biggest obstacles. Depending upon where you work, you might get as many as a hundred emails a day, and if you weren't clear about your vacation before you left, you could have some real catastrophes to contend with. That's why the auto-responder is so important. You do use one, right?

Here are some things to keep in mind the next time you get ready to leave the office for a few days:

Turn on your email client's auto-responder. In fact, I highly recommend using it even if you're only out of the office for one day, such as a long weekend or s sick day. A lot of people don't bother with the auto-responder for short absences, but this is how people will know to try someone else in case of an urgent problem.

Turn it on for all of your email accounts. People often remember the auto-responder for their main account -- like Outlook Exchange -- but neglect their Gmail and personal POP or IMAP. You should turn it on everywhere.

Don't forget about Outlook's two-sided auto-responder. Have you ever turned on your Outlook auto-responder, but folks outside your organization -- such as clients and partners -- never got the message anyway? That's because Outlook's Out of Office Assistant dialog box has two tabs, and the second one (Send an auto-reply to each sender outside my organization) is easy to miss. Even worse: Once you turn on the second tab once, it's on by default; but if you don't change its text, it'll go live with the message you used last time. Always copy and paste your message into both boxes.

Say when the vacation starts and ends. Don't send an out-of-office message that says "I'll be back on Friday." Be specific about when your break starts and ends, and include the date, such as "Friday, August 22." If not, which Friday you'll be back is anyone's guess.

Indicate what people should do in your absence. Who is filling in for you? Be clear about what folks should do while you're away. Divide up your responsibilities and specify who can handle each of those roles while you're away.

How can you be reached? Will you be reading email, or truly offline? Will you be checking email? Can someone contact you via phone in an emergency? Depending open where you work and what your role is, a vacation might truly be a get-away-from-it-all communication blackout. Or you might need to remain accessible. Whatever the answer, be specific about it in your out-of-office message, so there's no ambiguity.

Warn people ahead of time. Especially if you'll be out of the office for more than just one or two days, send an email to your entire team and to the folks whom you work with most closely. A few days before your vacation starts, send them a note warning that you'll be on vacation soon and say something like, "If you have anything you need me to do, be sure to get it to me no later than noon on Friday." This prevents unwelcome surprises when someone sends you something urgent on Monday only to discover that you'll be gone for a week.

Turn it off when you get back. Don't you hate getting out-of-office mail from people whom you know have been back from vacation for two or three days? It's unprofessional. Be sure to disable all of your auto-responders the day you return or, even better, the previous evening (the Sunday night before you return to work on Monday, for example). The best option of all: If your mail client supports scheduled out-of-office messages, program the start and end dates right up front, so you don't have to remember to do it at all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Esparta