The Out of Office functionality is one of the most widely used features of the Lotus Notes mail template. It allows you to send an automated reply to incoming messages while you're away. The automated reply tells people that you're out and tells them when you're returning. You can also include your own customized message, and specify who should get the automated reply and who shouldn't.
This functionality has been completely re-written by IBM in Lotus Notes and Domino 8, and in this article, I examine the changes in this feature, comparing the new feature set to the old one.
It is important to note that in order for you to take full advantage of all new/improved functionality introduced in Lotus Notes and Domino 8, the following must apply:
In 7.x and earlier versions of Lotus Notes, the Out of Office functionality is managed by a so called “agent” — a script (program) in your mailbox that would be enabled/disabled by you through your Out of Office preferences, and once enabled, would be triggered to run by the incoming e-mails. In Lotus Notes and Domino 8, the enhanced Out of Office agent still exists in the Notes mail template for backward compatibility. In addition, the mail router (a server task responsible for delivering messages to user mailboxes and transporting messages between the servers) has new functionality called the Out of Office service that offers a similar but enhanced functionality as the agent.
There are some caveats. There may be instances when the agent is used rather than the service even if a user’s mailbox design template has been upgraded to version 8.x The Out of Office feature in Notes 8.x is designed so that if for whatever reason the service is not available at the time you are enabling it, the agent will be used instead. When you enable the Out of Office in Lotus Notes 8, it first checks to see if are using a Notes 8 client version and a Notes 8 mail design template. If that is not the case then the agent is enabled. If you are using both the Notes 8 client and template, it then checks to see if it can connect to your home mail server to see if the service was enabled by the administrator. If it was not enabled or if you cannot connect to your home mail server for some reason (eg. Local mail file replica in Off-line Location), then the agent is used instead.
The easiest way to tell if the service or agent will be enabled for you is if you are able to see the option to specify hours when you enable it (see Figure1). The “Specify hours” option is only available via the service so if we see the check box for hours, we are using the service. If we do not, we will be using the agent.
Figure 1 - How to tell whether agent or service will be used
Both the agent and the service perform the same basic functionality; they generate automatic responses to e-mails when the owner of the mail file is out of the office. In a Notes 8.x mail template they also share the same new user interface for modifying the Out of Office settings.
Both the service and the agent can optionally mark the owner’s calendar as busy, support two different responses for two sets of people, and follow exception rules regarding which messages should generate a response and which messages should not.
In addition to the functionalities common to both, there are significant differences as summarized in Table 1 and detailed in the following sections.
Response Time and Frequency
The Out of Office in Notes 8.x supports instant response to an incoming mail message. The response is generated by a router as part of the mail delivery of the incoming message to your mailbox. This functionality is not available in Notes 7.x because the Out of Office agent (as explained in the paragraph above) is processed by the Agent Manager task running on the server, and once enabled by you, the agent is programmed to be executed every six hours (this cannot be customized).
In addition, Notes 7.x sends only one automated e-mail response per sender of e-mail. This means that if a particular person e-mailed you several times during your absence, he/she will receive only one automated response which will be sent in response to his/her first e-mail. This could be a problem if you are away for an extended period of time. IBM was trying to address this issue in Notes 8.x by providing you with an option to send an automated response for every e-mail you receive (1:1 ratio) while you could still exclude some senders based on their e-mail address or words/phrases used in the subject line of the incoming message. Unfortunately, it was discovered during the beta testing that this option could negatively impact the server performance and IBM decided not to offer this functionality in the final version. Therefore, there is no change here from what was available in version 7.x.
The automated response generated by Notes 8.x service now includes additional information on the bottom that tells the recipient (ie. the sender of the message that triggered the automated response) the subject line of the original message.
Notes 7.x does not allow delegated mail file users to enable the agent for the mail file owner; it is not designed for anyone besides the mail file owner to enable it. Only the mail file owner of the database (as specified in the mailbox preferences) has the ability to see and access the Out of Office action button that opens Out Of Office preferences.
Starting with Notes/Domino 8.0, the Out of Office feature supports delegation. This means that an administrator or delegate (a person who you gave access to manage your calendar) has the access necessary to set and enable the Out of Office for your mail file.
Disabling Out of Office
In version 7.x, when the return date is reached, the agent discontinues the e-mail notifications although it stays enabled (you have to manually disable the agent). It sends you a “Welcome Back” message containing a list of all persons notified of your absence. For any subsequent agent executions, if the agent has not been disabled by the return date, it sends you repeat reminder e-mails to disable the Out of Office agent.
In Notes 8.x, Out of Office disables itself automatically at the end of the period specified by you in your preferences.
Duration of Absence
In Notes 8.x, the duration of the absence can be one hour or more, so you can use it to generate notices while you are in a meeting or have a medical appointment. The minimum duration the Notes 7.x agent can be turned on is one day, and remember that it will only run once every six hours.
Known Issues and Caveats
One of the biggest nuisances with the Out of Office agent in version 7.x is that if you specified the “Leaving date” as “today”, it would send automated response as soon as you enabled it to everyone who sent you an e-mail as long as that e-mail was still in your Inbox folder (i.e. you did not file it). This is no longer happening in Notes 8.x when the service is being used in place of the agent. For optimal performance and ideal execution of the Out of Office functionality under Notes 7.x, you should enable it for more than one business day, starting “Tomorrow” or later, not “Today”.
Another known issue is that by default, Out of Office will respond to both legitimate e-mails as well as spam. Since most of the time spam messages are sent from non-deliverable addresses, when your Out of Office sends a reply to such an address, you will in the end get a Delivery Failure Report. One way to deal with this is to enable the option “Do not automatically reply to mail from Internet addresses”, which is available in both Notes 7.x and 8.x, but the limitation of this is that the legitimate senders from outside the Lotus Notes and Domino system (including student e-mail system) will not receive your Out of Office reply.
Out of Office on a BlackBerry
With Domino 7.x using the Agent rather than Service, BlackBerry users had the option to enable the Out of Office feature using their device. Unfortunately, virtually none of the extensive feature set that is present in Lotus Notes or Domino Web Access was ever available on the BlackBerry. The only thing BlackBerry users could have done was to compose/customize the text of the automated reply in addition to enabling or disabling the feature. It was recently discovered that the current version of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server does not fully support Out of Office from Domino 8 (despite previous claims by RIM that it does). According to the statement on RIM’s (the makers of BlackBerry) Web site: “This is a previously reported issue that has been escalated internally to our development team. No resolution time frame is currently available.” Our recent testing has shown that when you enable the Out of Office on your BlackBerry, that change does not get synchronized with your Lotus Notes mailbox and automated replies are not being sent during your absence. Due to this, and some other known issues we do not recommend that you enable your Out of Office through your BlackBerry devices. If you do not have access to your computer and Lotus Notes, you can use Domino Web Access (Webmail) that you can access on any Internet connected computer in the world.
Information provided in this article is based on the following sources: