Skype and Teams are not suitable for mediation

Picture this. Your clients are due to arrive at for their mediation session with you. Because you haven’t got a waiting room, the first to arrive sits with you. To pass the time, you chat amiably about the weather or something else seemingly innocuous. To appear friendly, you smile. When the second person comes through the door they immediately notice that the other has already arrived. Even if you were not smiling or talking, they feel uncomfortable. They’re wondering if you’ve built a relationship with the first person already. What they’re seeing doesn’t feel impartial. And how can the mediator be neutral now they’ve spent time with the other person (and who is so charming)? As a mediator, you wouldn’t work like this, right? It doesn’t sit well with the principles of mediation and may encourage justifiable complaints. Read on.

The sudden lockdown caught many mediators unprepared. The ability to hold mediation sessions in-person disappeared overnight. Those who had only ever worked by meeting with participants round a table in their consulting rooms faced significant financial hardship unless they adapted to the circumstances.

How to mediate using video

Understandably, there’s been a mad rush by many mediators to quickly learn how to mediate using video. But like with any rush, there’s a bandwagon not far away. There have been lots of blogs published and training courses offered since the lockdown started offering advice and training about mediating online. Some are by mediators who clearly have the requisite knowledge and experience of online working. Some are not. I say buyer beware. Why? It’s mainly in their approach to the question of which video platform to use.

Which video platform is best?

I’ve been mediating online since 2011 after I completed extensive training over a period of a few months with the Virtual Mediation Lab. Zoom became the meeting platform choice for those of us who tried and tested many of them back then, and it still is for me. Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype for Business, GoToMeeting, WeBex, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are some of the alternatives They may be perfectly suitable for one-to-one webcam meetings but is their widespread use by mediators for joint meetings exposing them and their clients to unnecessary risk?

Security issues

(Before I explain why Skype, Teams and the others should be avoided, I just want to mention security. In early April, there was some adverse publicity around Zoom’s security. There were reports of meetings being interrupted by uninvited guests and hijackers sharing pornographic images. These problems, though, were not with the platform itself, but in the way the meeting hosts had set them up. They had failed to understand the meeting setting options. No system is impenetrable to the most sophisticated hacker, but providing all Zoom’s security options are chosen, and the meeting host understands the controls at their disposal, no uninvited guests will be able to join a meeting or share images.)

Waiting room

So why should mediators avoid Skype, teams and others like them, and use Zoom wherever possible? It’s simply this. None of the others have a waiting room for participants, as far as I’m aware, (but I’m always pleased to learn otherwise). With Zoom, I can set my meetings to automatically include a waiting room. When the participants log in to the meeting, they are held together (but unable to see or speak to each other) in the waiting room. If, by the time the meeting is due to start, only one of them has arrived, I can send the one in the waiting room a message to let them know the other hasn’t arrived yet. I could also let them into my room, explain the other person hasn’t yet arrived, and then pop them back into the waiting room. Once they’ve both arrived I will admit them into the virtual meeting room simultaneously.

Breakout room

he alternative platforms don’t have this great waiting room function (or Zoom’s other great USP – breakout rooms – which I’ll cover in another blog). This is largely because they are designed for meetings between people who work together (Teams) or between organisations with relationships (Skype for Business). If you use either of those, when you start a meeting, the first participant to join the meeting will be in that room alone with you when the second arrives. See what I mean? Potentially not a great start to your mediation.

Never say never

Now I always say “never say never”. Of course, if Zoom is unavailable or not working at the last minute (or was to fail during your meeting), you’ll want a back-up option. Teams and Skype fulfil the basic requirements of providing audio and video. They are also great for your initial one-to-one private consultations, For these reasons, they should not be dismissed altogether.

As mediators, we should be constantly assessing our processes to ensure we are minimising risk to our clients and ourselves. If we choose to use Teams and Skype routinely instead of Zoom, could we be said to have carried out that assessment carefully?