• Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Out of sight, out of office, but no longer out of reach

Technology that enables us to stay in touch while on holiday is a mixed blessing

IT'S THAT TIME of the year again. E-mails bounce straight back labelled “out of office auto reply”. They declare something like: “I am away from my desk until 6 August and will not be checking e-mail.”

But it is getting more difficult to be “out of the office”.

It used to be easy. When you were away it was so extraordinarily difficult to call home that nobody really expected you to stay in touch. I remember, only a few years ago, being on vacation in Puerto Pollensa, Majorca, when a particularly important transaction was under way. As our villa didn’t have a phone, I had to go to a special “international phone call centre” and be allocated a booth for my important calls. After a few of these complicated arrangements, it became easier for everyone if the folks back at the office just got on with the project without me.

Now that mobile phones have learned to “roam”, it is just as quick and easy, if not anything like as cheap, to be reached on a Mediterranean beach as it is on the train to Glasgow.

Which raises the key question – what is the etiquette for contacting somebody on holiday. If their voicemail message says: “I’m away until 6 August”, what do you do?

Remember it will cost them extra to receive your message, and they might not think that doing so is as valuable a use of their time and money as you do. It’s more likely they would prefer to be “out of the office”.

I recall, a few years ago, I was with a senior Japanese executive in a karaoke bar in Osaka. After a few drinks and a few songs, he began to reminisce about the good old days.

“Life used to be very much more simple,” ruminated Yoshikawa-san. “An airmail letter would arrive from our subsidiary in the United States. We would open it and pass it round. After a period of consideration, we would reach a collective decision and draft a careful reply. This would then be placed into an airmail letter and posted back to the United States.”

This kind of careful consideration and collective decision making is what the Japanese like, so it is perhaps surprising that they pioneered the fax machine.

Yoshikawa-san recalled the arrival of the fax in his office with regret: “People in our subsidiaries around the world started requiring very quick decisions, and it was never quite the same again.”

Of course, as every Scottish schoolboy knows, it was a Scotsman, Alexander Bain, who actually invented the fax machine in the 19th century. But, as usual, it was left to the Japanese to actually make money out of it.

Now that the internet has taken over, you can catch up with your e-mail almost anywhere. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, has set up a chain of 21 internet cafés around the world, including outlets in central Edinburgh and Glasgow, all open 24 hours a day. One of these, on New York’s 42nd Street, is now the largest in the world.

But for most of us as we go on holiday, we are still reduced to fiddling around with modem cards, odd foreign sockets and finding an ISP to dial into. Then there is the fervent hope that your friends will not send you an e-mail with a 10Mb file attached.

Michael Jackson, the self-confessed wild man of the Scottish internet scene, has surely taken all of this to the limit. Jackson is the chief executive of, the ultimate online store for outdoor equipment. He has decided to climb K2 this summer.

If you think being a Scottish internet entrepreneur is risky, it is but a walk in the park compared with climbing K2. While 164 people have done it, 49 have died in the attempt. Since Jackson is doing the climb with three colleagues, this statistic is concentrating their minds somewhat.

As the chief executive of an internet company, he cannot afford to be completely away from the office for two months, so he is taking a satellite phone and a laptop and is going to continue to run his business from the top of the world. Just make sure you don’t send him a 10Mb attachment.

Ian Ritchie is away until 6 August – he is not going anywhere near a mountain.

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