Misunderstandings in the hybrid work world can be uncomfortable and awkward, making apologizing an all-too necessary skill to improve as communication techniques change. With expert advice from Dr. Rick Brandon, Ph. D., President of Brandon Partners, and author of Straight Talk: Influencing Skills for Collaboration and Commitment, we’ll break down how these hiccups happen and how to apologize professionally even if you’re working remotely.

The history of the remote work apology

The popularity of remote work and teleworking has skyrocketed over the past twenty years. This has caused a slow cultural shift in the way people apologize, which COVID then exacerbated – but this new way of relating wasn’t entirely out of the blue.

“It is logical that apologizing at work would be less prevalent in a stressed, high pressure, too busy, warp-speed work world–– with people more likely to have oversights and be too busy to notice much less handle them,” Dr. Brandon says. Whereas offices used to have one remote colleague apologizing for a barking dog or crying child, now we have an entire team doing so. But is that the best way to communicate?

The problem with apologizing professionally at work remotely

While you used to be able to stop by someone’s desk and apologize for any potential misunderstandings, Dr. Brandon says that the remote world has made apologizing at work professionally a bit more complicated.

“There are less frequent in-person apologies—with more via virtual communication vehicles, like video conferencing, phone, email, and text threads,” Dr. Brandon says. “But more serious offenses necessitate an in-person apology to demonstrate the apologizer takes the issue seriously.”

Written apologies are complicated

Additionally, though apologizing through a written medium like text or email must suffice in the remote world, a lot can get lost in communication.

Dr. Brandon references data from UCLA researchers called the 7-38-55 rule. Regarding messages about feelings, 7% of those messages are conveyed in spoken words, 38 percent are paralinguistic (found in vocal tone), and 55 percent are in visual cues like facial expressions. Given those findings, Dr. Brandon says, video apologies are more than likely the most effective at relaying a given message.

“Written channels run the risk of being less emotionally impactful because of the lack of visual and vocal cues,” he continues. “Phone-based apologies at least allow for vocal cues. Video discussions have visual and vocal cues of body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice that convey sincerity and empathy for the other’s feelings more.”

However, Dr. Brandon says there is a time and a place for a written apology.

“Even though many [advice] writers stress the importance of apologizing in person, this is not as easy to do in our increasingly remote world,” he adds. “In fact, putting an apology in writing, especially through email or a letter rather than using a perfunctory text, can seem even more professional.”

“It shows that the offender has devoted time and effort into the apology and provides physical evidence of accountability, integrity, humility, and remorse–– all qualities of professionalism.”

Apologizing remotely can become unprofessional

Though you might not intend for your remote apology to become unprofessional, Dr. Brandon says that social faux pas can and do happen – especially remotely.

“Unprofessional apologies entail trying to defuse the awkwardness with humor or blaming others make excuses like copping out from taking responsibility,” Dr. Brandon says. “While sharing the circumstances and context of one’s misdeed, for instance, the stress you were under or newness to the task, can build empathy and forgiveness, some people do this to justify or excuse negative actions.”

Dr. Brandon also cautions against bringing the other party into the apology, even if they have some culpability, as forcing others to share blame can create unnecessary tension.

“Some people cite the offended person’s role in the problem, which leads to defensiveness,” he adds. “If you sincerely take responsibility and apologize, others already know their part and may come forth with it.”

Knowing when to apologize is difficult

Dr. Brandon mentions that another key feature of apologizing professionally at work, especially remotely, is knowing what instances warrant an apology. He says you can issue small apologies for errors, such as typos, low sales, or customers leaving. You can also craft more elaborate apologies for personal offenses such as breaking someone’s confidence, putting someone on the spot, hijacking a meeting, or undermining someone’s credibility. And finally, you’ll need very formal apologies for blatant offenses like writing inflammatory emails, repeatedly not completing work, ignoring emails or voicemails, or causing undue emotional harm to coworkers.

Five steps to apologizing professionally remotely

No matter how you’re apologizing, Dr. Brandon recommends this five-step “Apology “A” Team” to execute the perfect professional remote apology and turn the process into a constructive one rather than a destructive one.

1. Admit your mistake

The first step to apologizing is taking ownership of your mistake, along with the negative impact your actions had on the person you’re apologizing to.

Start with: “I need to tell you that I …”

2. Apologize using the words

Next, you want to express sincere regret. Don’t say you’re sorry that your words made another person feel a certain way, as that blames their reaction rather than your action.

Start with: “I’m sorry for…” or “I apologize for…”

3. Acknowledge feelings

Here, you’ll try to empathize with your coworker and imagine what they must have felt in the face of your mistake. You can also acknowledge how the remorse made you feel if it caused you anxiety, sadness, or unease.

Start with: “That probably made you feel…I wouldn’t blame you for feeling…”
“I feel awful about this, and even lost sleep…”

4. Action offers

Then, you tackle how to fix the problem and what you’ve learned to ensure a future where you don’t make the same mistakes again. Fixes include formal apologies, taking on work for your team, fixing what you got wrong, attending an HR training, and more.

Start with: “Since I made the team look bad, if you agree, I’ll write an apology taking full responsibility…”
“Here’s how I’ll prevent this from happening again…”

5. Ask for forgiveness

Finally, after addressing every point in the apology, making your emotions known, and empathizing with theirs, you’ll be ready to discuss how forgiveness will look and what it will take to repair your relationship.

Start with: “I hope you’ll forgive me since I value our working relationship…”

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