Last week I was on the road attending an industry conference 3,000 miles from my home office. I spent the time visiting with clients, potential clients, and manufacturers, as well as giving the keynote presentation at the conference. As many of us do before business travel, I created an out of office automatic reply for my email account. You know the kind – "I'm away from my desk this week…replies may take longer than usual…I'll get back to you when I return…etc." It's been considered good business practice for as long as email has existed to let people looking for you know why you may be hard to reach. The funny thing is that it's absolutely not true anymore.
For starters, in-flight Wi-Fi made me fully reachable for the five hours I was on the airplane heading to the event. I was able to answer messages, complete collaborative work on documents, and stay on top of what was happening with my colleagues. Then, during the week, anyone who needed me just called my mobile phone, as they always do. I haven't received a business call on my landline office phone (other than cold sales calls) in years. Whenever I had a break, I checked my email on my smart devices – tablet and/or phone. I dealt with the messages I could handle immediately right on the spot and flagged the ones I needed to get back to, just as I always do. While I was giving the presentation and speaking with attendees, I ignored my devices, but after a couple of hours I was able to catch up with my messages. When my firm's CEO asked me to join a project-related video call in the middle of the day, I simply took the elevator to my hotel room and used my tablet to join the call. When a client called and needed me to chat with some of his executives, I found a quiet corner with my headset and handled the call.
I contemplated all of this as I returned home. It was a great week of meeting new people, advancing projects, and sharing my thoughts with industry colleagues – but was I really "out of office?"
If I define my office in a 1980s sort of way – a building I go to that has a desk and a chair just for me in a room with my family photos and industry recognition – surrounded by my colleagues with similar spaces, then yes, I was out of office. The truth, however, is that I've been out of office for many years now. My office isn't a building I go to or a desk or chair I sit at. My office is me.
Modern collaboration technologies for both personal and professional use let me stay in touch with my projects and my colleagues from wherever I happen to be. My workspaces are the desk in my home basement, the airport club, the airplane seat, the industry conference exhibit floor, and so on. This is true for all organizations that have adopted a good collaboration strategy.
Because the main concept of smarter working is work is what you do and not where you go, out of office will have to take on a new meaning – describing individuals and organizations that have broken free of old 1980s concepts and empowered themselves to increase productivity and reduce costs.
So all this means that it's time to retire the out-of-office message. It's both a straggler from an unconnected world and a concept about offices that no longer exists for modern organizations. If yours isn't there yet, you'd better hurry up. You wouldn't want to be out of office and miss the future.
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