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How to recover from embarrassing tech mishaps when you're working remotely

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It wasn't that long ago when a video of a toddler (joined later by the rest of the family) interrupting her father's live TV interview was just a cautionary tale of someone else's work-from-home experience gone wrong. Surely the viral moment was something we'd never have to live down ourselves.

Then, as the coronavirus pandemic sent millions of office professionals to work from home, we all suddenly became the BBC Dad.

With meetings taking place over video and phone calls from home, a host of personal overshares — needy kids, noisy pets, under-dressed spouses and messy rooms — have waded into our professional lives. Whether you're dealing with "caught on-camera without pants" levels of embarrassment, or something a little more tame, here's how to recover from the technological disasters that come with working remotely.

A little bit of preparation goes a long way

First, it's worth noting that simply giving yourself time to set up for a video meeting or phone call can eliminate the majority of awkward technical mishaps, says multigenerational workplace expert Candace Steele Flippin. If your home allows, have a designated space for meetings and presentations for which you'll be on camera. If you share your space with others, communicate your meeting schedule so you're able to have the space to yourself. If that's not possible, let your housemates know ahead of time when your microphone and camera will be on so they can adjust their behavior accordingly.

Frame your shot so you're aware of what will be visible to others, Steele Flippin says. If possible, aim your camera so no one can walk through the background unannounced. Remember that the scope of your frame could vary depending on the platform you're using for your video meeting. If your room isn't tidy, opt for a virtual background so your living area is obscured.

In the case of an accidental screenshare, it's also best to make sure your digital work space is professional before your meeting, adds Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute. That means exiting out of windows and files that may have sensitive or personal information you wouldn't want posted onto someone else's desktop by accident.

And in the event that you're called into a meeting with little advance notice, it's OK to acknowledge that your space isn't camera-ready and join with audio only.

Helpful tips when you're on a phone or video call

Much like there's a code of conduct for meetings in the workplace, you can adjust them to the remote-work environment and revisit them as needed, Steele Flippin says. People leading meetings can give reminders every now and then if there are recurring distractions that need to be addressed. 

For example, maybe you had a no-devices rule for your weekly team meetings, and you included that in a note with every agenda you sent out. Similarly, at the top of your online meetings, you could go over some house rules such as reminding staff to mute their lines when they're not speaking, hold questions until the end of the presentation or be mindful of their background visuals.

Meeting hosts should balance empathy with clear expectations of professionalism.

"Be mindful that people are inviting you into their personal space," Steele Flippin says. "I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on someone's choice of decor or how they choose to live in their personal space. But meeting rules could say, 'Make sure your work space is presentable.' I think that's a reasonable expectation." 

For example, while your colleague may have no other option than to take video calls from his bed, it's reasonable to expect that his bed be tidy so it's not a distraction.

In general, it's good practice to mute yourself in a group call when you're not speaking, especially if you're not able to control the noise in your environment.

Of course, interruptions will happen, whether your kid wanders into the room or your dog starts barking from the kitchen. For the sake of the group and your ability to contain the situation, the best thing to do might be to disengage from the meeting entirely and rejoin when you've resettled. Steele Flippin suggests using the same exit and rejoining strategy if you need to leave the meeting for a bathroom break, instead of going about your business assuming you're on mute.

The art of moving on as if nothing happened

Sometimes the best thing to move on from a blunder is to sweep it under the rug. "There' an art to discretion, of letting the moment pass and giving everyone the benefit of not having to relive it," Post Senning says.

If acknowledging and apologizing for a tech glitch causes more problems than it resolves, it may be best to let it slide.

Also be aware if calling out the situation would relieve you from embarrassment but then put the spotlight on someone else. Let's say you're giving a presentation one of your team members put together and you come to an unfinished slide with a distracting placeholder image. Instead of deflecting and calling out your colleague for the mishap, it may be best to briefly acknowledge the snafu, apologize for it yourself and move on.

If necessary, you can later address the issue with the meeting host or your colleague in a one-on-one conversation off the call.

When to apologize for a technical mishap, and how to do it

If you're going to apologize, timing and delivery is crucial. For a small interruption, like having to pause your presentation while an ambulance drives past, thank participants for their patience and continue on with your point.

If you've done something embarrassing in the background while someone else has the floor, don't interrupt them or the flow of your discussion in order to apologize, says Heidi Brooks, an organizational behavior professor at the Yale School of Management. Instead, wait until it's your turn to speak to address the situation, and then continue on with your original point.

One situation when you definitely shouldn't move on is when you've impacted someone else's time. For example, if you had a technical issue and had to start a meeting 10 minutes late, own up to it and thank participants for their patience, Steele Flippin says.

"Leaving an elephant in the middle of a conversation doesn't make it go away — it draws attention to it," she says. "If you acknowledge it you can move on with grace. Otherwise, the minute the call ends, the instant messages [among colleagues] will start."

If you're taking the time to apologize, make sure it's sincere. Apologize because you know you've committed offense, not just "if" someone else found your action offensive. If you've done something to embarrass yourself, some self-deprecating humor might be appreciated. If your offense involves someone else, be extra considerate of your tone.

Make sure the weight of your apology matches the weight of your error, Post Senning adds. Preparing a five-minute speech for misspelling someone's name in an email is likely overkill and could make the situation worse. A drawn-out apology also puts the burden of forgiveness on the other party.

And if your lack of addressing a glitch is fueling even more conversation, craft your apology to address both the original situation as well as your timing.

What to do if you've embarrassed someone else

Say you've made a joke at someone else's expense and accidentally blasted it off via the dreaded "Reply All." Or you made a snide comment about someone when you thought you were muted on a conference call. If what you've said doesn't actually make sense without additional context between yourself and your intended recipient, don't clue the audience into your insult for the sake of trying to apologize for it.

Instead, Post Senning says this is the type of situation where it makes sense to apologize directly to the person you've offended. If they weren't on that email thread or phone call, assume they'll hear about it from someone else and take action to redress it as soon as possible.

In your apology, you can offer that you'll make a formal statement to the larger group. But give them the option to decide how they want you to address the offense on their behalf. 

Extending empathy to others trying to navigate various remote-work mishaps will make the whole experience better. Remember that we're all having to adjust to a new way of working, and if you're able to help someone else who's not as tech savvy, it helps everyone become a better worker and colleague. "Just be patient with everyone as we're learning to communicate using technology in ways we never thought we'd have to," Steele Flippin says.

Ultimately, Brooks adds, "it's a time to have some compassion and humor about our perfectionism."

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