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Out-of-office e-mail and what it's really saying

When I was at university, I spent a summer travelling around Europe with some friends and one of them suggested we drop in on his parents' place in the south of France.

There are two things I remember about that visit. There was the mortification of being greeted by a butler who ceremoniously carried my tatty luggage - a few things stuffed into a plastic bag - to the suite of rooms to which I'd been allocated.

But what stays in my mind even more was the image of his father - who turned out to be a famous tycoon - clad in small swimming trunks with cigar clamped between teeth, holding a gin and tonic in one hand, and a telephone receiver in the other.

The year was 1979 and this was what power looked like. The man was too important to be out of touch with the deals he was doing. So he had installed a telephone line by the swimming pool and passed his summers issuing instructions from a lounger by the water.

A quarter of a century later, technology allowed all of us to pretend to be tycoons. We might not have had the butler or the pool house but everyone could head to the beach with a BlackBerry packed along with their towels.

And because we could, we did. Only, for most of us, what we were doing was not deals, it was responding to mundane inquiries that could have waited two weeks - or forever.

This year, I decided to do something radical that I hadn't done for almost a decade. I took a proper holiday.

I disconnected myself from work altogether. I didn't open any work messages. I spent time reading, walking, looking at the sea - and sometimes getting into it - while I thought about not much at all.

When I returned to work and reacquainted myself with e-mail, it was perfectly straightforward. I deleted almost all of them unread, responding only to the things that looked interesting.

Far from feeling overwhelmed, I felt a certain excitement in the sudden immersion in work. It was a new-shoes and sharp-pencil sort of feeling that used to go with the beginning of a school term.

Over the past week, it has started to dawn on me that my radical action was not radical at all. I was merely following the latest fashion.

Last week, I sent an e-mail to an entrepreneur I know and within seconds the automatic reply came back: "I am on holiday until Aug 30 and will not be checking messages."

This was particularly remarkable, given that the last time I'd seen him - some five years ago - he had told me how he expected all his employees to respond to messages instantly wherever they were and whatever they were doing.

So I e-mailed back asking what had made him change his mind - but all I got in return was the same automatic message telling me he wasn't reading whatever I was sending.

The very next day, I got an e-mail from a woman I had contacted before I went away. It began: "Sorry for my radio silence - I have had a blissful two-week holiday and am just catching up on e-mail on my return."

Here was the same thing again: a driven, 30-something entrepreneur who wanted me to know not how hard she worked on holiday but how she loafed around, and how much she enjoyed it.

To see how widespread this change is, I've done a little experiment.

I've collected all the out-of-office e-mail I've had this summer, and counted the number that were followed at once by an e-mail sent from the beach. Three years ago, it was very unusual for an automatic message not to be quickly followed by a real one.

This year, I've had a total of 38 automatic messages telling me the sender was away, only six of which have been succeeded by a personal, poolside reply.

Bragging about not working on holiday seems to be part of a wider trend - which I wrote about a few months ago - in which fashionable execs flaunt not their long hours, but their short ones.

To be e-mailing from the pool does not prove you are powerful, it is starting to be seen for what it is - a sign of weakness, poor time management and an inability to delegate.

If you can take two weeks off altogether, it shows you have overcome all gadget addiction and, like a modern-day tycoon, can control when you work - and when you don't.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Out-of-office e-mail and what it's really saying'. Print Edition | Subscribe