I use Zoom and have been using it for the past five years for my online mediations. I have personally settled on Zoom because I have found that they have the capability and functions that allow me to do anything that I would have done in an in-person mediation, in the video-conference. For example, I can caucus, use separate “conference rooms”, use a whiteboard and create a waiting room. In addition, it is one of the most popular programs available, so I find most clients and participants are already familiar with it as are attorneys and other professionals.
For the video-conferencing part of the mediation it is but I do have some other programs that I also regularly use to facilitate other functions in the remote mediation experience. For instance, I use Dropbox for secure document transmission, DocuSign for document execution and PayPal or Square for payment processing. The main thing is that you need to think ahead about how certain functions that would normally happen in person, such as taking a check for payment, will occur when all participants are remote from each other.
All you really need is a laptop or computer that has a microphone and camera. However, I find it helpful to also have a backup computer at the ready in case of issues, good lighting so that participants can see me easily, over-the-ear headphones so that I can hear participants when there is background noise and my iPad Pro and cell phone for alternate sources of video-conferencing and/or communication.
When either the mediator and/or the participants have a poor internet connection it will cause the screen to freeze repeatedly, the audio to freeze or be distorted and hands down is the #1 reason for an unsatisfactory online experience. I personally have a hard line into my computer and the highest level of Wi-Fi available from my internet provider.
The main difference for the mediator is that the participants’ environment is out of their control unlike the situation when they are in the mediator’s office or conference rooms. The mediator can ameliorate this issue by educating the clients and setting expectations in advance of the process so that any issues that might arise are averted. My training centers in large part on effective methods for mediators to maintain control and set those rules.
One of the reasons that I love Zoom is that the “Share Screen” function allows the mediator AND participants to easily share their computer screen which allows all participants in that meeting room to view documents, programs, and Zoom’s built-in whiteboard, with just a few simple clicks of the mouse. In fact, this is just one of the areas where I think that the online experience is superior to the in-person experience because as humans we are very visual and being able to all see the same thing at the same time is extremely helpful to the process. In fact, it is why we use a whiteboard in mediations in the first place.
I am often asked this question by participants and I think it stems from the fact that many people are familiar with the fact that Zoom, and other video conferencing programs often include a recording function. However, in Zoom the mediator-host can arrange the settings to preclude the participants from recording on the program. As the mediator, I also include language in my Agreement to Mediate that makes it clear that I will not, under any circumstances, record a mediation session and that all participants are not permitted to do so in any fashion as well. What many people fail to recognize is that even in an in-person mediation, with the capabilities of the average cell phone, any participant could surreptitiously be recording the mediation sessions. All mediators should likely prohibit recording in any mediation, in-person or online, if recording is a concern.
This is handled with one of Zoom’s best features, the Breakout Room function. Zoom allows the Host to create up to 50 separate Breakout Rooms which they can then populate with the participants in any combination that the mediator chooses. The mediator has total control of who may enter a separate Breakout Room and can go between and join the separate Breakout Rooms to meet with the individuals who are there. The Breakout Rooms are entirely separate video meetings where participants can see and hear each other, share their screen and chat. This function is easy to use and extremely intuitive and most mediators that I train are instantly relieved and pleased when they try the function out for the first time themselves.
I am often asked this question by other professionals who fear they will have difficulty creating rapport with the participants in their dispute resolution proceedings. They are afraid that the online platform creates a distance that makes the connection that can be so helpful to the process will be lost. I have to say that my personal experience, as well as anecdotal information and feedback from those who have taken the program, is that the opposite is in fact true. Because such a large part of human communication is conveyed through facial expressions and voice inflection, both of which are amplified by the focus on video and audio in the online platform, the connection is there and people very quickly forget that they are communicating online.