The In-Office Automatic Email Response

«I am in the office collaborating today. I will reply when I’m back in my home office.» – How the world has been turned upside-down.

Last week, a team of WDHB colleagues (Kim Schürch, John Levesque and Marcus Hitzberger) and I had the pleasure of contributing to the break-out sessions of a client’s virtual event – the Shaping the Future Day, an annual gathering of alumni of Swiss Life Group’s talent development program.

For weeks, we had been ramping up for this day – working on the event architecture, writing scripts and speakers’ notes, accompanying various teams of the current cohorts as they shaped up their content input, planning the break-outs with a team of 14 facilitators using virtual whiteboards, designing trailers with a video production company and planning out the livestream from a TV studio. It was good to be back in the adrenaline-game after months of lockdown-induced slowness. And it all came together brilliantly.

As we came to the conclusion of the 5.5h mega-event, split over a morning and an afternoon portion, with two break-out segments in between, the event’s moderator wrapped up the day with a conversation with Swiss Life’s Group CEO Patrick Frost and the Head of Group Human Resources, Stefanie Weber.

They were talking about the big shifts that have affected our workplace reality in recent weeks and months and how this could shape the future of the office. In the talk, Steffi shared an anecdote that blew my mind. Recently, she had received an automatic e-mail response that went something like this – I’m paraphrasing: «I am in the office today collaborating with my colleagues and might not have the bandwidth to respond to your e-mail. Please anticipate a response with delay as I will reply when I’m back at my home office.»

«Bam!» Just like that. The world had been turned upside-down. The Out-of-Office Reply feature, so common in e-mail applications, has been used for an In-Office Reply. «Sorry, honey, I’m actually doing real collaborative work right now and will be able to get back to you only when I’m back in my own little pod at home where I generally tend to focus on the nitty-gritty such as e-mail correspondence.» I still can’t get over how beautifully this exemplifies the changes we have been experiencing «thanks» to Covid-19.

And it made me think back to a conversation I had the week before with the SVP Global Talent Strategy & Development at Warner Music Group, Scott Allender (check out his new podcast «The Evolving Leader» on Spotify and iTunes). We were talking about the increased need for new leadership capabilities and he mentioned that Covid-19 just accelerated shifts we had all been seeing on the horizon from anticipated 5 years down to 5 months. And he said: «The current context is forcing us to trade one set of assumptions against a new set of assumptions.»

«Covid-19 just accelerated shifts we had all seen on the horizon – from anticipated 5 years, down to 5 months. This context is forcing us to trade one set of assumptions against a new set of assumptions.»

Scott Allender


And suddenly it all made sense. Just as the Out-of-Office Reply is a manifestation – the proverbial tip of the iceberg – of our old set of assumptions about workplaces and the role of the office, the In-Office Automatic Response is the artefact that represents a realistic future (and in many cases already a very possible present) of how we think about work. And, analogue to when we talk about cultural transformation, it is so important that we do the translation work from real-life expression down to our assumptions and values and take the time to evaluate what new assumptions and values are conducive or straight-up required to make a desirable future (and its articulations in real life) happen.

This all tied in brilliantly with the contribution of the external keynote speaker that Swiss Life had gotten for its Shaping the Future Day event: world-renowned futurist Gerd Leonhard who spoke to the audience from his home studio. He elaborated on the importance of a Future Mindset and how it is mission-critical for leaders to adopt it in a hybrid fashion alongside the mindset needed for leading their teams and managing everyday operations. To take the time – as a core leadership duty – to think about possible futures, their desirability and implications on, again, not only operations, but also on their leadership attitudes and behaviors.

«It is mission-critical for leaders to adopt a Future Mindset in a hybrid fashion alongside the mindset needed for leading their teams and managing everyday operations.»

Gerd Leonhard


This was it. We were done with the Shaping the Future Day 2020. The story had gone full-circle and I was ready to have a drink with the Core Org Team. But the wheels keep on turning.


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