Facilitating safe and effective restorative practice online

 As we continue to navigate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic, online working continues to play a major part of our day to day routines. We have all had to adapt to this new way of working and the restorative community were quick to respond to ensure a continuity of service.

The RJC promptly developed our interim guidance for working online. In April 2020 we released our Remote delivery of restorative practice additional guidance. Within this document we outlined guidance for managing new referrals, maintaining contact with existing service users, managing risks and ensuring safety. Whilst we were aware that remote facilitation would be different, we highlighted within this document that our additional guidance did not override the RJC’s core Practice Guidance. Whichever way practitioners decided to progress cases, we asked that their practice remained in line with our existing guidance.

Many practitioners have now become more comfortable over the past 8 months in using a variety of technology to progress their cases. For some, this has focused on maintaining contact with participants, continuing with preparation or facilitating indirect processes. For others, this has now included facilitating face-to-face conferences online. This new way of working is still evolving and we continue to learn what does and does not work. We are aware that there have been many opportunities for practitioners to network and share practice over the past few months; this has been vital in collating an evidence base for updating some aspects of our Practice Guidance.

Our primary objective is to ensure that online practice is safe, effective and in line with our current Practice Guidance (2020). The RJC’s Standards Committee regularly review emerging evidence relating to online practice; this will inform the 2021 update to our Practice Guidance. Most of the publications we have reviewed over the past few months have focused on safely using online platforms, including the do’s and don’ts of facilitating online. Of course, it is incredibly important that practitioners and service providers are aware of how to work safely online; the RJC’s Remote Delivery of Restorative Practice document summarises the key considerations for facilitating online restorative practice.

Whilst our current Practice Guidance was developed prior to the rapid emergence of online practice, it is important that practitioners understand how to apply this guidance to the virtual world. We understand that simply replicating the way we work face-to-face in an online environment is not possible. Within this article we want to focus on three areas of our Practice Guidance (2020); risk assessment and preparation and delivery of direct restorative processes online.

Risk assessment

Practitioners and service providers should already have risk assessment processes in place and adapting these to reflect the potential risks associated with online facilitation should be achievable.

The RJC’s Practice Guidance (page 26) states:

Practitioners should ensure that all processes and individuals are safe by undertaking full and proper preparation and risk assessment in relation to each process they provide.

When undertaking risk assessments, practitioners should:

  • Identify the risk of different types of processes and determine,e in line with the participants wishes, the most suitable approach (including identifying the risk of potential emotional and/or physical harm to participants, themselves and any others involved in the restorative process)
  • Create an opportunity for a safe dialogue between participants
  • Identify strengths that mitigate risks
  • Identify what needs to be put in place to enable a process to happen safely

Immediately we can see that our guidance refers to restorative processes; online facilitation should therefore be considered an extension of the available type of process which can be utilised by practitioners.

If, having assessed the potential risks, it is appropriate to progress a case remotely, practitioners should consider how this will be delivered. Our current guidance reflects on selecting appropriate venues to maximise participants’ safety and to minimise their anxieties or concerns. This clearly relates to a physical space, however for the purposes of online delivery, a venue should be considered as the online platform being used.

When planning a physical face-to-face meeting we ask practitioners to consider how participants will enter the venue, where they will wait, whether it may be helpful to have additional facilitators present if there is a large group or people needing to be accompanied from different parts of the building and whether there are break-out spaces available. This equally applies to how practitioners should plan a virtual meeting. Practitioners should consider the following:

  • How will participants join the online platform?
  • Will you invite each participant to join at a different time so that they are not immediately in the same online room?
  • Will you use breakout rooms as waiting rooms, allowing each participant and, if appropriate, their supporters a private space to wait before joining the main conference?
  • Do you need additional facilitators present to help manage the breakout rooms?

Within some of the documentation we reviewed it was suggested that practitioners may wish to consider using an administrator to manage the technical aspects of facilitating online. This can be incredibly useful and would allow the practitioner to focus on facilitating the process. Should you choose to use an administrator, this must be discussed with participants prior to the online conference taking place. It would be inappropriate to introduce this to participants as they join the conference. It is unlikely that you would introduce a third party on the day if this were being delivered as a face-to-face meeting, facilitating online should be no different.

Ensuring that online conferences are safe is paramount. We outlined within our Remote Delivery of Restorative Practice document a number of safety considerations that should be put in place to ensure that all participants are kept safe. These include:

Requiring passwords: Create a meeting or webinar password and share it with your participants to ensure that only guests with the password can join your virtual meeting. Be clear that meeting details must not be shared on social media or with other individuals.

Enabling Waiting Rooms: Waiting Rooms prevent participants from joining a meeting automatically. Ensure that you confirm the participant is expected at the meeting prior to admitting them to the platform.

Disabling screen sharing: This prevents participants from sharing unwanted or distracting content. Make sure that you are aware of how to disable this function, in most online platforms screen sharing is automatically permitted. If the facilitator does need to share their screen, they should be aware of what information can be seen by others. Non-essential programmes should be closed, this includes email programmes, internal computer software and documents which contain sensitive information.

Disabling private chat: In most online platforms, the host can lock the chat so participants cannot privately message each other. Some platforms will allow participants to still chat with the facilitator.

Managing unwanted participants: If an unwanted guest has joined your meeting, they should be immediately removed. Most platforms have participant controls which allow you to remove unwanted guests.

Locking your meeting: Most platforms will allow you to lock your meeting once it has started. Practitioners should be aware that if the meeting is locked, it will prevent participants re-joining should they be disconnected.

These all remain relevant considerations, however as we have all become more familiar with hosting online meetings, we also need to consider the following:

Protecting participants identity: It is important that all those participating in the meeting are aware of how to protect their identity. We will all have heard of cases of identity theft because of images being published on social media. Facilitators should ensure that participants are aware of the actions they can take to minimise this risk.

Participants need to be aware of what can be seen in the background, make sure that the webcam does not pick up personal documents or other items in the background which contain personal information. Within some of the documents we reviewed, the use of virtual backgrounds had been considered. The consensus was that whilst these can obscure the actual background, they can be distracting. In some of the more popular platforms, these quite often do not offer a high-quality background. For example, within Zoom, the virtual backgrounds can become distorted without having access to a green screen. However, the blurred background available as standard within Microsoft Teams provides a good way of distorting the background.

Managing Recording: Most platforms allow recording by either the host or participants. Recording by participants should be disabled prior to the meeting starting. If the facilitator wishes to record the meeting, this should be made explicitly clear to the participants at the start of the meeting. You should also be clear as to why you are recording, how this recording will be used and where it will be stored. It is important to remember that most platforms store recordings remotely, you need to be confident that these cannot be accessed outside of the organisation.

Whilst you can disable recording, this does not necessarily mean that participants do not record. It is possible to record audio only using a mobile phone or voice recorder. Other participants would not be aware that this is the case. Practitioners can mitigate this risk by requesting that participants use headphones which prevents the devices audio being recorded.

Likewise, it would not be obvious if participants were taking screenshots during the meeting. Practitioners should discuss this with participants prior to the meeting taking place. It could be included within any ground rules that are agreed and the facilitator should make it explicitly clear at the start of the process what has been agreed.

Back-up plans: Some aspects of facilitating an online process will be out of the practitioners’ control. Meetings being interrupted, loss of connection or unforeseen technical issues. Having a back-up plan is essential to mitigating potential risks. This might be as simple as ensuring you have contact details for all participants so that you can send out text updates or you may have scheduled an alternative time when the meeting could take place. Whatever your back-up plan is, you should ensure that this has been discussed and communicated with participants prior to the meeting.

Preparation

Preparing to facilitate online should follow the same steps for preparing participants for face-to-face meetings. The RJC has set out clear guidance on participant preparation within our Practice Guidance (page 28).

However, we did notice within some of the documents we reviewed that it was assumed participants would understand how to use various online platforms. This is not necessarily going to be the case; practitioners certainly do not want to have to try and explain how to use the platform at the start of the meeting. The RJC strongly recommends that during preparation, participants are provided with opportunities to experience the online platform you will be using. If you intend to use breakout rooms, you should include opportunities to experience moving between rooms, leaving breakout rooms to return to other meeting spaces and using other functions such as facilitator chat. The more comfortable participants feel with using the platform, the more successful the process will be.

Practitioners should also have a good understanding of how platforms work on different devices. Do not assume that your participant can see what you see. Joining a meeting online will provide a different experience to joining through an app. Likewise, joining through a mobile device can be different to joining through a laptop or desktop computer. Providing opportunities to experience the platform before the meeting will allow the facilitator and participant to familiarise themselves with the technology.  

It is also important to consider some of the basic practicalities of participating in online meetings. Lighting is a key consideration; facilitators should discuss with participants where they are located during the meeting. Wherever possible, light sources should come from behind the device being used. Sitting with your back to a window will often make the  onscreen image dark and difficult to see. Side lighting can also cause shadows which again can make it difficult for others to see clearly. Preparation meetings provide a perfect time for the facilitator to discuss these points with their participants. 

Consideration also needs to be given to other potential distractions; facilitators should ensure that participants are aware of how long the meeting is likely to take place for so that they can arrange to have access to a quiet space. Background noise can be distracting, facilitators should discuss with participants how this can be mitigated. Consideration should be given to ensuring that mobile devices are placed on silent, computer notifications are switched off and that participants locate themselves in a place where they are unlikely to be disturbed. Again, the use of headphones can significantly reduce the amount of background noise which can be heard. Facilitators should also encourage participants to mute their microphones when they are not talking. Most online platforms allow the host to manage this. It is important to remember that for those who are not used to the online world, it is easy to forget that you are muted! Preparation sessions provide a good opportunity to practice this.

Delivery

We know that online facilitation is going to be different; it is going to be challenging to recreate the physical setting that many will be familiar with. This will be particularly evident should you need to provide translators or sign language interpreters. Within the documentation we reviewed, some thought had been given to how this may be managed, particularly for those requiring a sign language interpreter. Most platforms now have closed captioning facilities. Whilst this can be a useful function, it should be used with caution. When testing the use of closed captioning on both Zoom and MS Teams, there was a relatively high degree of inaccuracy. We did find some useful tips on using Zoom with a Sign Language Interpreter which has been published by Deaf Unity; this article provides some useful guidance for making online meetings more accessible.

As it has already been outlined, the RJC’s Practice Guidance applies equally to facilitating online restorative processes. Within some of the documentation we reviewed there were examples of practice which contradict our Practice Guidance. One area which was of particular concern was that of co-facilitation. Our Practice Guidance is clear, co-facilitators should work together throughout all aspects of the restorative process. Co-facilitators should have established a good working relationship and have had the opportunity to meet all participants during the preparation stage. This should also be applied to online facilitation. In one document we reviewed, there was an example of co-facilitators meeting for the first time during an online conference. Whilst this was based on a mock case, practicing in this way can potentially lead to a negative outcome for participants.

We can all accept that online practice is still relatively new and the evidence base available is, at the current time, somewhat limited. As we continue to adapt to the online world, it is important that we do not compromise on our standards of practice. Practitioners and service providers should continue to manage cases in line with our Practice Guidance; of course, there needs to be flexibility, but our core guidance provides a framework for safe and effective practice.

 

You can join in the discussion by submitting your response using our ONLINE FORM or emailing us at Communications@restorativejustice.org.uk