The out-of-office experiment.
Can an email reply shift culture?

Written by: Tim McCleary, Chief Experience Officer

We’ve all done it. As we prepare to leave for vacation, we set our out-of-office reply. It’s a way of letting people know that we may be slow to respond while taking a break.

During the summer, I sent an email to one of our clients, Cat Kennedy, at Heineken USA. I knew she was “on holiday” in her native Scotland, but wanted to pop her a quick note to read on her return.

To my great surprise, here’s what I received as her auto reply:

You’ve missed me!

I’m on holiday & I’m experimenting with some new rituals of taking time way from the office and not being “in the wings” and kinda-on-holiday-ish!

Whilst I’m out, I’ve set my emails to auto-delete (yep, that’s a thing). I’m part of a great team, who can all help you whilst I’m away, so please feel free to redirect your email to them or, if it’s something that warrants only a Cat Kennedy response, then I’ll kindly ask that in support of this social experiment, that you please resend your email to me 9th July & I’ll respond tout suite (because I’ll not be reading through hours of email streams).

Appreciate you joining the experiment!


Wow. Imagine someone actually talking time off from work – during their time off from work!

Curtain call on that wow. Cat’s emails were being auto-deleted while she was away, preventing the crushing accumulation that excruciatingly washes away the positive effects of a great vacation – one email at a time.

Ok, this is a pretty cool experiment. And, as Cat recounts, one that was met with both “high fives and a few ugh’s from my colleagues.” After all, Cat’s action prompted others to change their behavior. “If their email was critical, they would need to resend it to me, upon my return. If not, they could rely on my great team to respond in my absence,” Cat explains.

What makes this even more compelling is that Cat is the head of organizational development and therefore in a role that influences culture – and culture change. She is walking her talk.

Here are three lessons learned from Cat’s simple experiment:

  1. Take license to try new things in your culture. The reactions may be mixed, but they’ll prompt dialogue that can shake people out of routines.
  2. Find small ways to influence culture change. Think of them as experiments. Use them to take the temperature of your organization prior to launching larger culture shifts.
  3. Be authentic and purposeful. When you’re tuned into your culture, know the boundaries, and have built some trust equity with your colleagues, you are equipped to be intentional with change.

Thanks for being involved today.

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