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The Out-of-Office Assistant in Outlook Online and the Ability to Cancel Appointments

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Just before vacation, it feels like the stress level is at an all-time high, and then, as employees, we have to deal with handing off work for our vacation and other organizational matters like out-of-office notifications, appointment cancellations, etc.

This was exactly the case before my last vacation, which was just 2 weeks ago.

Thankfully, in Outlook – in my example, the online version from Microsoft 365 – there are little helpers that sweeten the start of our vacation. One such helper is the Outlook Out-of-Office Assistant. In this blog post, we will delve into the Out-of-Office Assistant in Outlook Online and its small but impactful features to make the start of your vacation considerably more relaxed.

The Out-of-Office Assistant in Outlook Online

The Out-of-Office Assistant has been around for several years, and it seems like it has always been a part of the Microsoft Outlook application. It’s a handy feature that allows a user to send automated responses to incoming emails over a specified period. This can be especially useful when you’re going on vacation, fall ill unexpectedly, or are simply away for external meetings and can’t respond immediately to emails. How do I access the Out-of-Office Assistant? To activate the Out-of-Office Assistant, we need to go to the settings in Microsoft Outlook. These can be found, for example, in the browser, “top right” by clicking on the gear icon.
A pop-up will appear with settings related to Microsoft Outlook. Under the menu item „E-mails“, you’ll find the „Automatic Reply“ setting.
Within the Out-of-Office Assistant, you can set a general absence (without a specific start and end date). Here, the user has the option to define a message for company employees and a different notification for external contacts. This flexibility can be particularly useful; for example, the message for external contacts can provide directions on whom to contact in case of urgent matters, ensuring that work continues smoothly. Conversely, the message for colleagues might be more succinct.

Note

Often, companies have standard texts that should be used. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to check the company’s guidelines before setting your out-of-office message.

The real magic happens when you specify a period for your absence. With this specified timeframe, the user is presented with options for automated interactions during their absence, such as:

  • Calendar entry – Block for the duration of the absence
  • Automated rejection of meeting invitations during that period
  • Automated rejection of all or selected already scheduled appointments during that period

 

Automated Rejection of New Meeting Invitations
We all know the drill: two weeks on vacation, and on the first day back, we spend hours sifting through our email. A significant chunk of these are meeting invitations that are now redundant since they occurred during our vacation. With this feature activated, Outlook’s Out-of-Office Assistant will automatically decline these invites.


Automated Rejection of All or Selected Existing Appointments during the Period
Especially with recurring meetings, it’s common to have one or more occur during a vacation or unplanned absence due to illness. Microsoft Outlook’s Out-of-Office Assistant offers the option to automatically decline all or selected (as chosen by the user) meetings. The beauty of this is that the rejection message can be customized, making the process even smoother.

The user has the freedom to select which meetings to automatically cancel. If you want to decline „All“ meetings, you simply select the checkbox next to the subject, and all meetings will be selected. Once saved, the cancellation process begins, and simultaneously the absence or planned absence is activated.

Effects on Recurring Meetings

In the past, a significant issue was that entire recurring meeting series would be cancelled, leading to the need to reschedule all future instances of that meeting. This was particularly cumbersome when dealing with external clients. With recent updates to Microsoft Outlook, this challenge has been addressed, and now only individual instances of the series are cancelled, not the entire series.

Conclusion

The Out-of-Office Assistant and the ability to cancel or automatically decline appointments are valuable features in Outlook Online. They help us utilize our time efficiently and ensure we stay on top of our commitments. Even the challenges associated with recurring meetings no longer exist. However, it’s crucial to be aware of and adhere to your company’s policies concerning absences, as these can vary from one organization to another.

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