• Jenny Stallard

Out Of Office Feels

So I’ve gone away for a few days. To a friend’s wedding, in Italy. Definitely an event I’d like to focus on, rather than work! Which meant that I tied up all the loose ends I needed to, told people who needed to know I was away, and set the out of office. Simple, done. Nothing more to say, right?

Well. We all know that’s not true, especially when you’re freelance!

When we work in a staff job, setting the out of office is the final hurdle of what’s usually a busy day finishing off bits of work, but then that final flourish, pressing ‘save’ on the message, joyfully knowing you’ve set someone else’s name as a contact to deal with your urgent messages while you’re away. Happy days.

When we’re freelance, there’s usually no other person to delegate those urgent emails to.

And, much as we want to, we struggle, I think, to set an OOO, as they’re known. Because we worry. We worry we’ll miss out on some work, a new client, that million pound commission (if that’s ever happened, I’d like to know about it!)

Lately, I’ve been getting more and more Out Of Office notifications as commissioning editors go on holiday. I’m sure there’ll be more in August, too. Fair play – it’s holiday time, right? But why, then, as a freelancer, do we find it often so hard to set our own out of office?

And when we do, why are we unable to stick to the words we have typed in it? Go on, you’ve set your OOO then checked emails while away, right? Straining to see the screen while a hire car or train goes along the Amalfi Coast/French sunflower fields/Wales/Cornwall and instead of watching the scenery or playing some travel scrabble, you are staring at an email about something that really could wait.

The thing here is, we can set the OOO and the person emailing can accept it and wait till we’re back but… can WE? Can we obey our own out of office, and not check our emails, or send one back? Because if we do engage, we’re essentially saying ‘that’s not really true, I am available’. And it gives people licence to interrupt us, when we’d asked them not to. It’s no surprise, on reflection, that often clients and editors are confused when I set a message saying ‘I’m not around for three days’ and then reply to an email – basically saying ‘I am around, actually, for you…’

It gives them a power they don’t need, and it can be really debilitating to our mental health.

This has happened to me. I engaged with an editor on an edit last year, when I was away on a walking holiday in the Lake District. I think the second to last straw was trying to respond to a message halfway up Catbells (Wainwright never had to deal with this kind of thing!) and then a huge bout of tears as more ‘desperate’ ‘urgent’ messages came through at a friends’ wedding at the end of the week.

But was it, on reflection, the editor’s fault? I hadn’t said I was away until the day I set the OOO. Should I have managed their expectations? I think yes, I should.

I also think I should have been stricter. It’s ok to say ‘I’m out of office’, if you’ve told them. If there is a deadline that week that they only tell you about on the day you say you’re going away, then that needs to be managed between you. It’s not a ‘they set the deadline and you have to jump no matter what’ scenario.

That’s hard in journalism, as it often is, though! If an editor decides it’s time to work on a piece, sometimes they just think you’ll be ready to jump on it, too.

But I do find if I forewarn, and say I’m away, then I can fall back on that. If I say to someone today that I’m away for three days and they THEN say ‘but we were going to pubish your piece while you’re away’ then is there some responsibility on their part to have said that when they commissioned?

We’re all only human, and I digress. My point here, is that if we set an OOO there need to be two things in place: You need to stick to it, and you need to have everything sorted before you go. But oh, doesn’t setting it bring up the FEELS? Course it does.

When we’re freelance, we have an amazing level of freedom: I’ve not had to ask anyone if I can take these three days off. Yay! I just book the time I want in my diary and work around it. But that freedom also means that we often find ourselves working way more erratically than we might in a 9-5 job.

We do jump on things at weekends (I was interviewing some experts last Sunday), and we do work through into the late evening, when we have a plane the next day (yep, that’s me last night, along with some ironing!).

As an aside, does anyone else only iron PJs for holiday? Just me? Ok…

Personally, there’s a huge work FOMO panic that sets in for me when I go away. As soon as I set the OOO and I have an idea (I have ideas every second of the day), I begin to worry that it’ll never find a home. It’ll never be a commission. That gives me a lot of emotional pain. Like nobody will ever see this GENIUS IDEA I’ve had.

There’s a strange people-pleasing thing in pitching – when they want my idea it’s like the child in me is validated. So when I have an idea and I’m on hols and I don’t pitch it, it’s like I’m failing at that goal of pleasing them. I’m sure half of them don’t even know I’m out of office!

I decided to stop trying to race to get some copy done not to the right standard and reached out to the editor. She came back and said the week after my hols would be fine. The relief was HUGE. I had felt so daft, and silly (are they the same thing?!) about asking, but I needed some more time and she didn’t mind. There’s this desperation, almost, to deliver, to see the person who is the client as a god-like puppet holding all the strings, rather than the work as a business transaction between two adults who are empathetic and able to communicate. I vow to try and be more communicative pre-OOO, as it’s really rewarding and often a huge weight off your mind.

And while we wonder and worry if we’re letting clients down by being what we sometimes see as being ‘unavailable’, they’re busy setting their OOO or even announcing it on Instagram like Stylist Magazine.

Which is FINE. I think we need to take a leaf out of their book. To accept that, if our schedule is empty, we can set the OOO. To accept that actually yes, we might miss some work. Hopefully whoever wants to reach out will wait until we’re back, or send a follow up we can then perhaps (I know, I know) answer…

But it’s best not to. Because they need ot know you can stick to your word, right?

You deliberate over whether to set it, what to say… jaunty, formal, short and sweet or more long winded.. and then you get a load of OOO back beacuse they’ve already set theirs. It’s like a battleground of I’m away no, I’M AWAY. Whose holiday is more important?! Everyones! And the best flip side to the OOO I find, as I work through August while the newsdesks go into what we know as Silly Season – their OOO gives the name of the person to contact instead. Great – new contact, right there! Winning at contact building.

An out of office is funny for a freelancer because, well, lots of us don’t have an office. Should we set an ‘out of bedroom’? ‘Out of local café’? I’ve been tempted to do that before I posted this to see what happens. But what I am going to do is post this link. Perhaps it might lead to some new connections finding Freelance Feels. What I do hope is it highlights to anyone who thinks their schedule should override my holiday schedule that I’m having a few days off to recharge and that’s vital for my mental health. Anyone who thinks that’s a bad idea is not someone I want as a client in the future.

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