Auto Reply: Fixing the Exchange Admin Center

Exchange Admin Center

The Exchange Admin Center is not ideal for managing Exchange Online Mailboxes.

There. We said it. As politely as we could.

And this statement is not just something we made up. It’s based on feedback from hundreds of companies we served as consultants and application vendors.

But talk is cheap. Let’s take a closer look at a concrete example to illustrate our point: The management of automatic replies (out-of-office).

Auto-Reply: Where Are You?

Let’s dive right into it: Where do we find the auto-reply setting in the Exchange Admin Center?

To analyze the user experience (and for the fun of it), let’s assume you’re a first-time user of the Exchange Admin Center.

You manage to search out a mailbox and click on it. Now you want to configure an auto-reply.

This is how a first-time user will likely process the interface, step-by-step.

Auto-Reply configuration with Exchange Admin Center
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Reading from the top. In section one, there are three options:

  • Hide mailbox
  • Email forwarding
  • Send on behalf

Nothing really smells like auto-reply, so you move on to the second section, which presents five options:

  • General
  • Organization
  • Delegation
  • Mailbox
  • Others

As “General” could be anything, you’re now forced to read the entire contents of section three. Unfortunately, no luck.

Increasingly frustrated, you go back to looking at the remaining options in section two:

“Organization” and “Delegation” doesn’t sound related. But, like “General,” the title “Mailbox” could be anything.

So you click on “Mailbox,” and again, you’re forced to read a lot of information only to find out nothing is related to auto-reply:

Auto-Reply configuration with Exchange Admin Center
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Finally, you select “Others.”

It seems like we’ve arrived at the trashcan of Mailbox settings.

Stuffed in between two entirely unrelated items, “Custom attributes” and “Convert to shared mailbox,” you identify the link to manage automatic replies:

Auto-Reply configuration with Exchange Admin Center
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Auto-Reply: What’s missing?

Having finally located the auto-reply settings,  you click on it.

This is what you now see:

Auto-Reply configuration with Exchange Admin Center
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The settings allow you to enable or disable automatic replies and configure an internal or external sender message.

Also, you can define the scope of external senders to reply to.

However, if you’re familiar with the layout of auto-reply in Outlook, you’ll notice one crucial setting is missing:

You can’t see or configure the scheduling of the auto-reply configuration.

For reference, this is what the auto-reply configuration looks like in Outlook:

Auto-Reply configuration with Exchange Admin Center
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The absence of scheduling in the Exchange Admin Center raises a serious question:

What will you see in the auto-reply configuration in Exchange Admin Center when:

  • A schedule is enabled but is not yet active (start date is in the future)?
  • A schedule is enabled and is active (start date is in the past, end date is in the future)?

The answer to both questions is: The auto-reply setting will be shown as disabled in Exchange Admin Center.

That’s right! Even if the schedule is enabled and active, Exchange Admin Center will show auto-reply as disabled – even though the opposite is true.

This definitely does not make life easier for a helpdesk employee troubleshooting a mailbox with an active schedule.

An Alternative to Exchange Admin Center: Easy365Manager

Easy365Manager is a snap-in to Active Directory Users & Computers that integrates Office 365 administration with Active Directory.

Easy365Manager version 1.7 is being released in mid-December 2022 and includes support for auto-reply management.

Let’s look at the user experience for a first-time user.

With Easy365Manager installed, AD user properties include a mailbox tab:

Auto-Reply configuration with Easy365Manager
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There are six buttons to choose from, and the descriptive text on the left-hand side makes it clear that the auto-reply configuration is available under Delivery Options.

Clicking Delivery Options opens up the following form:

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In this form, you see the best of two worlds:

  • Similar to the Outlook client, you can correctly view and manage the schedule of the auto-reply.
  • Like the Exchange Admin Center, you can view the internal and external replies in one view.

Additionally, the use of radio buttons and checkboxes has been minimized relative to the Outlook client.

Design Matters

This analysis of the auto-reply management in the Exchange Admin Center is just one out of several examples that underscore our final point:

The ability of your helpdesk to immediately locate and manage the settings they need should not be underestimated.

An intuitive application design can significantly reduce the training needed before new helpdesk team members can contribute to incident resolution.

You’ll find that great tools for daily operations can help mitigate stress, minimize conflicts, and reduce employee turnover.

Visit Easy365Manager to learn more.