Time dependent “out of office” email replies

Outlook can be made to send “out of office” replies after a certain time each day.

This system works great for my wife, who works flexibly and finishes each day at 2pm. After 2pm she sends an auto reply setting out her working hours and when she will be available to read the message.

It also worked great for sharing details of the “out of hours” service when I was doing on-call media for a 24-hour emergency services organisation. In work hours we gave one phone number to call if it was urgent, out of hours we gave a different instruction.

So how does it work?

Every email has a header. Outlook doesn’t show you the header of the email (though you can view it) but it contains technical information about when the message was sent, who sent it and who it was sent to.

The plan here is to use the Header Information (and specifically the time information in the header) to send an automatic reply.

In Outlook click “File” 🡆 “Manage Rules and Alerts” 🡆 “New Rule” 🡆 “Apply rule on messages I receive” 🡆 “Next”

Then tick “with specific words in the message body” and select “specific words” in the step 2 box at the bottom.

As the dates in the header are in a specific format, you can use this to your advantage. Assume you want to only issue the response after 3pm (15:00:00). You need to find a format that will work for emails sent after that time – so you want to reply to emails that include 2022 15: because that will find emails matching the following from the header:

Received: by 2002:a17:90b:2397:0:0:0:0 with SMTP id mr23csp5928634pjb;
Wed, 8 Jun 2022 15:38:03 +0100 (BST)

You will also need to include all the other matching hours (this can be easily created in Excel and copied and pasted across).

Once you’ve added the relevant search terms, click “OK” 🡆 “Next” then select “reply with a specific message” or “reply with a specific template” (this depends if it is on an exchange server or not).

Once the rule is in place, any emails that meet the header criteria will be replied to!

Caveats and further tweaks

This is not absolutely fool proof – so test it thoroughly before using it for business critical functions! Here are some of the issues I’ve had with it:

  • Check your email server’s timestamp by viewing an email header. Most corporate email servers will be in the same time zone you are in, but Gmail uses PDT (so you may have to adjust the times you are sending the email).
  • Check if your email server is adjusted for daylight savings or not (otherwise you may end up sending the email while you are still at work in the summer).
  • I use the year as well as the hour, because the hour number on its own (or even with the colon) tends to appear randomly in the header, whereas with the year and space, it is much less likely to hit a match.
  • Including the year DOES mean you have to update the matching rules each year – but it is a good thing to do for that weird time between Christmas and New Year (set a reminder including a link to this blog, or just fill in five years worth and hope you will have left before then!)
  • You can go further and respond to emails sent at a 10 minute interval ( 2022 15:1 for instance) but it starts to get silly!
  • As these are actually “rules” not “out of office” your colleagues won’t get the automatic notification tag in Outlook before they send you an email that you are sending an “out of office”. Also, they will get one for every message they send you (not just the one Out of Office).
  • You can also target specific days of the week. My wife doesn’t work Fridays, so she can have a different rule that looks for “Fri, ” (again the comma helps to keep it more specific).

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