Server-side rules run on the server rather than in the Outlook client, so they let you apply rules before messages ever hit your system. Here’s how they work and what you can do with them.

What Are Server-Side Rules?

When you set up normal rules in Outlook, they only work when the Outlook app is open on your system. These are called client-side rules because they work in the Outlook client app. They’re great for things like filtering email into different folders because the rules fire off when you open Outlook or when any messages hit your inbox.

But what if you want rules that fire off when Outlook is closed, such as forwarding messages to a colleague while you’re on vacation? For that, you need server-side rules, which work on the server that handles your mail regardless of whether you have Outlook open on your computer. Outlook lets you create those as well, so let’s step through the process.

Caveat: Server-side rules work if you are using Microsoft Exchange for your email server (either cloud-based O365 or an on-premises Exchange server), but not if you’re using Outlook to process mail from a provider like Gmail or Yahoo!.  You can still set up an out-of-office reply and rules for a non-Microsoft account, but you’ll have to leave Outlook on and running.  If that’s what you need, we’ve got instructions for you.

How to Set Up Server-Side Rules

You create normal (client-side) rules in the Rules Manager by going to Home > Rules, but we’re not using those. Instead, go to File > Options and click the “Automatic Replies” button.

To start crafting a server-side rule, click the “Rules” button.

This brings up the Automatic Reply Rules panel, and as you can see, there’s not a lot you can do except click the “Add Rule” button.

The Edit Rule window that opens is where you can form your new server-side rule.

You’ll see that the options for these rules are much simpler than in the Rules Manager. This is because you are limited to actions that can be performed by the server. If you want Outlook to play a specific sound when a mail from your boss arrives, you can only do that with a client-side rule.

Let’s say one of the team is away, and they want any mail about How-To-Geek to be moved to a specific folder and forwarded to a specific person. First, they’d select the “Sent directly to me” option. Next, they’d enter “How-To-Geek” in the subject line. They’d then select the “Copy to” option and choose a folder. And finally, they’d check the “Forward” option, select the recipient from the address book, and then click “OK.”

The rule is added to the list of server-side rules and then will be run regardless of whether Outlook is open.

You can add as many of these rules as you like. And obviously, you can do more with them than the simple example we’ve shown here. You could use them to change the importance of messages from specific contacts or that contain certain words in the subject. Or you could have a server-side rule delete certain types of messages before they ever reach your inbox.

Profile Photo for Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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