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How to Set an Out of Office Message in Outlook (Automatic Away Reply)

This post is part of a series called How to Use Microsoft Outlook (Essential Tutorial Guide).
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Time off is a common perk offered by most businesses. According to statistics from the Center for Economic and Policy Research the average U.S. worker takes ten days off a year.  The amount of time off for workers in other countries is much higher, though. A USA Today article reports that the average number of days off in many European countries is 30 days or greater—with Austria and Portugal tied for the highest number of days off (35).

We love our time off!  And why wouldn't we? Personal days can be used for anything from vacation to doctor appointments and more.  But if you're going to take time away from the office, the professional thing to do is set up an automatic out of office email message. The message will let clients and colleagues know that you're unavailable and instruct them what to do until you return.

In this short tutorial with a video, you'll learn how to set up an out of office message in Microsoft Outlook using the Outlook Rules Wizard. We'll provide step-by-step instructions on how to set up an automatic out of office reply in Outlook. We'll also share some It also some vacation email best practices.

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How to Set Up an Out of Office Message in Outlook (With Video)

In the screencast above learn how to quickly set up an automatic reply in Outlook. Or, read on for written instructions to help you set up an Outlook away message, best practice tips to follow, and more:

How to Set Up an Automatic Message Responder in MS Outlook

If you don’t have a Microsoft Exchange account, you’ll need to set up your out of office message using Outlook's rules functionality. You can learn more about using MS Outlook rules in this tutorial:

1. Create a Message Template

The first step to setting up an Outlook out of office reply is to create the text of your out of office message and save it as a template. Start in your Outlook inbox:

email inbox
Your first step in creating an away message is to open a new email message. 

Click the New Email icon on the upper left. The New Message window appears:

new message window
Type the body of the Outlook away message in the new email you just opened.

Note: This message uses the 1000 Email Signatures template from Envato Elements. You can also download and customize your own email signature from GraphicRIver.

If you use email signature images or any other type of embedded image in your email, make sure your message format is set to HTML. Learn more about email signature templates in this tutorial:

Type your Subject line and the body of your email message. You don’t need to fill out the To field because the message will automatically be sent to whoever sends you a message.

Here's an example: 

away message in Outlook
Keep your Outlook away message brief and to the point.

Once you’ve completed a draft of your message, you need to save it as a template. Select File > Save as. A Windows Explorer prompt appears so that you store and save your message.

Choose a file location on your computer to store the message, type in the file name and save the file in Outlook template format:

save an out of office message template
Save your out of office message as a template.

2. Create the Rule and Turn It On

The next step in creating an automatic out of office message is to create a rule for sending the message. Click File on your Outlook inbox to go to the Account Information screen:

account information screen
You can access the Outlook Rules from the Account Information screen.

Click Manage Rules & Alerts. Make sure that the Email Rules tab is selected.  The Rules and Alerts window appears. You’ll see a list of your current email rules: 

Rules and Alerts window
You can create a new email rule from the Rules and Alerts window or modify an existing one.

Click the New Rule icon above the rules list to display the Rules Wizard:

rules wizard screen 1
Start your away message with a blank rule that'll be applied to messages you receive.

Under the Start from a blank rule category select the Apply rule on messages I receive option. Click the Next button. The second Rules Wizard screen displays: 

rules wizard screen 2
In this screen, define the people who'll receive your out of office email address.

Note: some security experts now recommend that you limit who receives your Outlook out of office reply rather than sending it to everyone who sends you an email message.

To determine who gets the out of office reply, check the box next to from people or public group under Step 1. Click the link under Step 2 to open your address book and choose who'll receive your autoreply message and then click the From button. Most likely you’ll want to choose the email addresses of coworkers you deal with often as well as the emails of important clients. When you’ve selected who’ll receive the autoresponder, click OK and then click Next on the Rules Wizard.

If you don’t want to limit who receives your out of office reply, click Next without making any selections on this Rules Wizard screen. Your autoreply message will be sent to everyone who sends you an email message.) 

Either way, the third Rules Wizard screen appears:

rules wizard screen 3
In this screen, choose the away message template you created earlier.

Select the reply using a specific template option under Step 1. Under Step 2 click the reply using a specific template link. The Select a Reply Template window appears:

select a reply template window
Choose the template that contains your automatic away message reply.

Select the template you created earlier and click Open. (If you didn’t save your template in the default location, you may need to Browse to find it.)

Click Next to go to the next Rules Wizard, which asks about exceptions. We don’t want to specify any exceptions. Click Next and you’ll be prompted to name the rule: 

final rules wizard window
Use the final Rules Wizard window to name the rule and turn it on.

Type the name of the rule. Make sure the Turn on this rule checkbox is checked.

Click the Finish button on the Rules Wizard. Then, click the Apply button on the Rules and Alerts window and then click OK.

You’ve just created an Autoresponder in MS Outlook!

3. Test the Outlook Away Message

Now that you’ve created your out of the office message, it’s a good idea to see if it works before you leave your office.

You can test the autoreply message by sending a message from another email you own—as long as you’ve included that email in the rule as one that is supposed to receive the autoreply message. Or, you can enlist the aid of a friend whose email you included as one that’s supposed to receive the out of office message.

After a short wait (some email systems retrieve incoming messages in batches), check the email you sent the test email message from. If you followed the steps properly, that email address will have received the out of office autoreply.

4. Turn the Outlook Away Message Off

When you return to the office, it’s time to turn the out of office message off. From your inbox select File to go to the Account information screen.

account information screen
You need to return to the Rules and Alerts window to turn the out of office message off.

Click on the Manage Rules & Alerts icon. The Rules and Alerts window appears:

turning off the Outlook out of office message
Use the checkbox to turn the Out of Office Reply rule off.

Remove the check from beside Out of Office Reply (or whatever you named your rule). Click the Apply button and then click OK. Your out of office reply has been turned off.

To turn it back on again, return to the Rules and Alerts window. Check the box next to your rule, then click Apply and OK.

MS Outlook Away Message Best Practices

Since your Outlook away message will be received by your clients and customers as well as your coworkers, you need to make sure it's professional. Here are some best practices to follow for Outlook away messages:

1. Be Cautious About Using Humor

If you know exactly who'll be receiving your messages, you probably understand their sense of humor. You can insert some tasteful humor into your out of office message—but be careful. What you think is funny may seem unprofessional to others. If you don't know who'll be receiving your message, it's probably a good idea to skip the humor.

CollectiveHub has a list of funny out of office email messages. I'll let you decide which ones you think are appropriate.

2. Format Your Out of Office Message Appropriately

Your out of office message is a professional communication, and you should treat it as such. It can be brief, but you should at least include the following:

  • Subject line. This doesn't have to be detailed, but it should be there.
  • Salutation. While you can't greet the recipient by name, you can include a generic greeting such as "Hello."
  • Introduction. This email is likely to be short. Most likely it'll be a single paragraph. So, this is one case where you can skip an introduction.
  • Body text. In general, keep your language professional. We've already discussed how you should be cautious about using humor here.
  • Conclusion. Your conclusion will tell the recipient what to do if they need help right away.
  • Signature. Professional emails should include a signature so your recipient can see immediately who you are.
  • Signature image (optional). Including a signature image on your professional email is optional, but nice to have. You can incorporate one with a signature template.

For more details on how to master proper business email format, study this tutorial: 

3. Include Detail, But Not Too Much

Traditional advice for out of office replies had the message creator stating when they'll leave and when they'll return. It also often advised the sender to name a colleague who could help those who email you while you're gone. Some message creators even included details about their vacation, such as where they were going.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Many experts now feel that such detailed out of office messages may put you at risk—especially if your message is being sent to everyone who emails you, which could include spammers and even criminals. It's safer to keep your message general for out of office replies that automatically go to everyone who emails you. Another alternative is to control who receives your Outlook out of office reply, as I did in the example I created.

4. Include a Signature

If you know who'll receive your Outlook out of office reply, you should treat the automatic responder just like any other professional message that you send. That means you should include an email signature with this message. (If you don't know who'll receive the away message, a full email signature may have too much detail.)

If you've got a signature template set up for your emails, using it here's an important part of your branding. This is especially true if you're a small business owner or freelancer.

5. Don't Check-In Unnecessarily

If you're taking a vacation, you may be tempted to check your email often. And our cell phones and smart phones make checking in so easy.

Don't give into that temptation. Unless your job requires you to check in, let your break be a true break. You'll be back at work soon enough. Enjoy your time off. When you get back you'll feel much more rested.

Learn More About How to Use Outlook Email Effectively

Creating a automatic reply in Outlook is just one of the things you can do with your email system. To learn more about how to use Microsoft Outlook, study these tutorials:

Also, we have a great resource that'll help you organize your email inbox and gain control of your email. It's called: The Ultimate Guide to Inbox Zero Mastery and it's yours free when you sign up for the Tuts+ Business newsletter.

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Be Ready for Vacation. Create Your Outlook Out of Office Reply Today!

You've just learned how to set up an automatic out of office reply in Outlook. Why not go ahead and create an Outlook away message today? Also, if you don't already have a signature image for your email, you can go ahead and download one from Envato Elements or GraphicRiver.

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