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The secret history of the Out of Office message and other fun facts about this workplace staple

If vacation had a starting bell, it should be the out-of-office message. More precisely, it should be the moment, defined by the click of a button, you turn on your out-of-office message, signaling that work can wait, fun is commencing and those little red exclamation points heralding “high importance” will be totally ignored.

To celebrate that moment, Microsoft launched the “Center for Out of Office Excellence,” a cheery, not-so-serious site to help you create your own OOO (out-of-office) memes just in time for the holidays. Upload an image, choose a design type and revel in the joy of OOO.

The “Center” is also a recognition that achieving more sometimes means doing less, with tools like Automatic Replies in Outlook to help you unplug, recharge, connect with loved ones and enjoy the holidays.

Generate your own OOO memes at Microsoft’s Center for Out of Office Excellence.
Generate your own OOO memes at Microsoft’s Center for Out of Office Excellence.

“I think most of us who live a lot of our lives online are learning that breaks from being constantly reachable, present and ‘on’ can help in every aspect of our lives,” says writer Emily Gould in an essay penned for Microsoft. “A break of any length makes it possible to come back refreshed – to appreciate what there is to appreciate about digital connectivity.”

Gould’s essay was a follow-up to her piece in The New York Times on the “art of the out-of-office reply,”  in which she examined OOOs funny to self-important in a look at the whole auto-reply phenomenon.

Social media and flexible work hours mean many of us are publicly online a lot, but not always working. Within that, Gould has found a benefit in out-of-office replies. They provide “plausible deniability” when trying to set work limits and be “present in the moment IRL.”

“When work has no boundaries, it’s up to us to set them for ourselves,” Gould writes.

Of course, being OOO doesn’t always mean vacation; you could be at a conference or the dentist’s office. But in a recent survey of about 1,000 people, Microsoft found that many people feel happy when it comes to all things OOO. More than 77 percent of respondents said setting their OOO feels as if vacation is “officially starting,” and 60 percent said they like seeing creative OOOs from other people.

More than 44 percent of respondents said other people’s OOOs made them feel “excited that things are slowing down! Can’t wait to turn mine on too!”

If there was a downside to auto-reply, it was the potential for FOMO (fear of missing out) upon receiving someone’s out-of-office email. Nearly 30 percent of people have succumbed to the feeling, in which they wondered, “Why aren’t I on a tropical vacation, too?!” the survey found.

The secret history of OOF

Auto-replies are so universal that they’ve spawned their own legion of acronyms: OOO, OoO, OOTO and OOF. They all make sense — OOTO stands for “out of the office” – except for OOF. What does that “F” stand for?

Turns out OOF is a quirk of Microsoft culture, dating back to the company’s pre-Exchange Xenix email system of the late ‘80s. “Oof” was the name of Xenix’s auto-reply feature and a command to call it up. Decades after Xenix transitioned into Exchange Server in 1993, people still say “oof,” which, like all good slang, has a malleable usefulness. It’s both a noun and adjective.

According to Microsoft Corporate Archivist Amy Stevenson, local lore has always attributed OOF to the phrase “out of facility.” She theorized that the developers of Xenix – a version of the Unix operating system – may have come from an academic or government setting where people said “facility” instead of “office.”

But Stevenson found no material showing that anyone ever said “out of facility,” and she wonders if someone just decided that OOF sounded better than OOO.

“You can’t really say OOOOOOO. There’s no way to end it,” says Stevenson. “But OOF you can say.”

Whatever your acronym of choice, auto-replies are great for telling people you’re unavailable. But what about that avalanche of unread emails when you return? What if you’re worrying about missing an important email when you’re supposed to be snowshoeing with friends? That’s where Outlook’s Auto Replies comes in handy.

Doug Thomas, video creator at Microsoft’s Office help site, shows you tips on using Auto Replies and making Outlook your trusty office-sitter when you’re gone. His video covers how to schedule OOOs, forward emails when you’re out and other helpful tricks of the trade.

“What’s the point of being on a beach in Bora Bora for two weeks, if you’re just buried by email when you return?” Thomas says.

Imagine that: Letting Office be productive for you while you’re at the beach. That’s an OOO state-of-mind worth celebrating.