Out of Office

People in various offices have been taking vacations (fondly referred to as PTO – paid-time-off, in case you did not know) for decades, if not centuries.  However, it is only in recent times (this century?) that this phenomenon has attained the status of a ceremony. Let me explain myself before you shoot me down.

People in large organizations (as well as small organizations pretending to be large organizations) have the need to know where their colleagues and coworkers are, on a given day, in order to palm off work or, if feeling kindly, ask for help. Fair enough that globally shared calendars are annotated with who is not available when.

Taking this a step forward, it is also understandable that you let people know about your unavailability when they try to contact you via phone or email. Enter the ubiquitous ‘out of office message’ (let us call it ‘oom’ to make it interesting!). Those who have spent enough time in the corporate world readily know that receiving a oom is equivalent to death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you are lucky, the oom could be a one-liner such as “I will be away from …. to ….; will respond upon return”, delivered at lightning speed in response to your email. But, more often than not, you are likely to get a multi-page essay on the following lines:

“Thank you for your email. I am sorry I am not able to be of assistance (did I ask for help?) as I am away exploring colleges for my son who is entering middle school next year (do I need this detail?). The Internet connection could be spotty at times as I am traveling through mountainous regions (someone, please shoot me!), but I will check my mail periodically…….. I will also check every night ……Thank you for your understanding (did I just pull out a bunch of my remaining hair?)……. Hope to catch up with you soon (no, no, never….)”.

There are variations and extensions to this popular corporate game. In a group email chain (a corporate norm, by the way), with everyone hitting the reply-all button, multiple copies of the delightful oom (perhaps from multiple people on PTO at the same time) are generated in no time. The more diligent veterans of the game do not fail to create an equivalent oom on their phone extension in case someone is still old-fashioned enough to contact them over phone.

The oom concept can also be used to brag about yourself and your domain of control, to emphasize your importance in the organization. Take a look at this elaborate oom:

Thanks for contacting me. I am away on vacation in the Himalayas (I bet you did not know I was a certified mountaineer). I know your call is important and needs urgent attention (even if you think otherwise). Please contact:

Joe at …, for Sales related matters

Amber at …, for Payments

Mary at …, for the Cafeteria menu

Ben at …, for HR related matters

Kate at …, for the upcoming Customer Conference related matters

My executive assistant, (Yes, I have an executive assistant), Liz at …, if you would like to wish me Happy Birthday (I will keep a count of people who did not wish me on my birthday)

(Unsaid disclaimer: I may not be in charge of all the things mentioned above)

Gossip as a Corporate Strategy

While the management gurus pound you with advice on great strategies, propagated all the way down from Peter Drucker, simple day-to-day tools are often seriously overlooked. Gossip, in the hands of the shrewd executive at the right level, beats any of the management theories taught, after paying thousands of dollars, at management schools. In many cases, it takes small talk to an entirely different level with richer rewards.

First, all gossip is not the same. Second, for the best effect, all gossip must be released to the right person at the right time. Two low level executives may have a casual conversation in the parking lot wherein they may exchange gossip about the habits of a new Director who has recently joined the organization; or exchange rumors regarding an upcoming promotion and who the favorites are; or even the affair between the CEO’s secretary and the VP of HR. But such exchanges of mundane gossip do nothing more than help foster a feeling of comradery between the executives.

To become a strategic tool, the art of gossip must be refined and used with a touch of finesse – and this comes from experience and constant practice. Let us say it is the budgeting season where favors, I mean budgets, are being doled out to various departments. The CFO is struggling with cutting costs by chopping off funds approved earlier. To ‘help her along’, you, the Head of IT, whisper into the ears of the CFO, “Hi, I hear that our CEO is rather upset with the lack of returns from the liberal serving of dessert during our quarterly sales review meetings –  and maybe….. the funds are better used for buying more laptops for our IT department…”. Later on, you feign surprise when you are told that your IT budgets have been approved without any cuts.

At the highest levels, judicious injection of gossip into conversations helps keep your subordinates on edge and plunge them into (un)healthy fights over non-existent issues. Let us look at a scenario where the COO is having a ‘casual’ conversation with the VP of Administration.

COO: Hi Jason, how is it going….

VP, Admin: Very well, thank you. Just struggling with controlling increasing travel costs in the company. I …….

COO (“here is an opportunity”): I have been noticing that too. I hear that the sales people are having fun parties while on visits to unqualified prospects.

VP, Admin: Thanks for that tip (I don’t care if this is true or not). I will tighten the belt.

Soon, there begins a cold war between the VP, Admin and VP, Sales on a non-existent problem. Travel expenses are brutally cut down leading to disinterested sales people refusing to travel. In the meanwhile, the originator of the gossip, the COO, with one less thing to monitor, moves on to ‘tackling’ other ‘C’ level executives in the company.