Are you connected to your email all day with customers, co-workers and business partners expecting an immediate response until home time?
Email etiquette is partly set by expectations. If you are in a role with high levels of communication, people will grow to expect a quick turnaround to their questions. This can be frustrating and annoying, but if they are customers it can also be a great opportunity to show off the company’s customer service.
In these cases, how you handle vacancies from your desk is obvious. The Out of Office Assistant in Microsoft Exchange (or equivalent in other email applications - they all have them) can let people know that you won’t be able to give them the instant response they may be expecting.
The away message should give a brief description of what you are doing, when you will be back and when you will return their emails.
It could also leave an alternative form of communication ("if it’s urgent please call my mobile") or point of contact ("if urgent please ring the receptionist").
Don’t leave your customers guessing.
An out of office message shows your email contacts that you respect the effort that they have made and that you value what they have to say.
It also acknowledges receipt of their message, if only by automated response. Email is still not a 100 percent reliable form of communication; legitimate emails can get caught by spam trapping software, they can get accidentally deleted by a wrong key press, or an email server can crash and messages disappear.
When someone fails to get a reply to an email they will inevitably wonder whether the receiver has reacted negatively to the email’s contents. Was it not important, offensive, over-reaching?
Even if you’re not in a customer facing role, using an out of office responder is a professional touch that can increase the likelihood that a customer or business partner will try to get in touch with you again, just because they will expect an answer if they don’t see the auto-responder message.
Of course, you need to make sure that when you are in the office you respond to emails promptly. If you have an extremely busy schedule then set aside a half hour in the morning and in the afternoon to respond to emails. Regular contacts will know that receiving a response in the middle of the day is unlikely and will modify their behaviour and expectations accordingly.
Google and Microsoft have instant messaging applications which can transmit your "status" to all your contacts as either available, away from your desk or busy. This can reduce the amount of phone tag where two people get stuck in an endless round robin of voicemails.
For most people, email is the preferred mode of communication. The key is to set up a predictable routine, stick to it, and treat the emails you receive with the same respect and attention you hope other people treat yours.