Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Virtual Online Meetings- What You Need to Know

As we navigate the new landscape of 2020 during the current pandemic, when so many people are obliged to stay home due to Social Distancing, it can feel intimidating to shift to meeting with others online. Here's a "quick start" guide to get you comfortable with understanding and using technology for connecting with your therapist, clients, employer, friends, family, etc.


  • Treat it like a "normal" appointment

You will get much more quality and overall benefit from your appointments and "live" social engagements if you treat them with as much value as if you were still meeting face-to-face. It can also lend structure to your routines, and improve self-esteem, to get yourself ready for your day online- having your coffee or tea ready, going through a morning routine as though you were headed out for the day. 
All of this may seem awkward at first, but once you and the other person/people have settled in to the online format, this tends to melt away, and instead you are able to focus more on relating to others.

  • Types of online and virtual communication 

-2-Way Video Calling.
Most cell phones and messaging apps now have a person-to-person video function. Each of them work a little differently. Keep in mind that only device-to-device calls are "private", especially if they use certain privacy apps such as Signal. Social Media apps (Facebook Messenger for example) can NOT be considered private, and are still under the Social Media site's terms and conditions. Google, to date, has made available a private version of Hangouts Meet that can be used for therapy sessions.


-Virtual Meetings/Groups. You may meet with people at work, have a virtual appointment with your doctor's office, therapist, etc., attend an online event, or even hang out with your friends and watch a movie together using a Virtual Meeting platform. Zoom is the most common right now, but there's others (doxy, GoToMeeting, private platforms used by online health care management systems, and more.) These generally feature an event organizer or presenter who runs the meeting, and can control the settings- but you can also potentially share directly with all the other people in the group in real time. 


-Virtual Presentations and Webinars. These use similar setups as Virtual Meetings (the alternate of GoToMeeting is literally called GoToWebinar), however they focus on a one-way demonstration from the presenter to an audience. These are used for work-related trainings, presentations or classes by teachers or topic experts; sometimes for entertainment purposes too. They usually include a way to send questions or comments to the presenter in real time, such as a text box. 

Some Presentations will only be offered "Live"- that is, you have to plan to access them during a specific day and time- and some offer a limited-time "replay", or will store the video recording to watch later at any time. Read the description of the event to find out whether recordings will be available, and whether these will be for free or for sale- every event varies! 


-Facebook and Youtube, etc. Live. This is essentially a Virtual Presentation hosted on a Social Media platform, but it's a combination of Presentation and video calling, since anyone on the Social Media site can start a Live Stream, and choose who to broadcast it to. These also may or may not be recorded. 
You can use the Social Media framework to hold discussions, submit your content to the presenter, or ask them questions during the Live Stream. 


-Text. You can hold a person-to-person or group chat on phone text, or over Social Media. This isn't the same as talking "live", as people sometimes do other things while they're texting, and take varied amounts of time to respond. Some virtual therapy and support companies, such as Better Help or 7 Cups, advertise text-based communication with your therapist or helper- but few companies offer text-only therapy sessions. 


-Phone Appointments. Most of us are familiar with how this one works. As mentioned, phone appointments are preferred when you can't- or don't want to- have a video call with your therapist.

  • Why use video and not just phone or text?

As a therapist, I often encounter people wanting to just talk on the phone, or sometimes text, instead of meet virtually face-to-face. These folks might feel less comfortable, or uneasy, about video calling for a variety of reasons. 
However, professional organizations such as the American Counseling Association encourage video calling over voice or text wherever possible. Why? Well, it's been documented that over 50% of communication is expressed non-verbally, as is explained in the article HERE. So limiting communication to phone only might miss out on a lot! And with texting, which doesn't have streaming face or voice, you're getting even less. It could be easy to miss out on some important clues to how a client is doing if we can't see or even hear them- and that means a lower-quality appointment for you. 
While I would never force someone who is video-phobic to have to use video calling, it's worth tackling some short-term, mild discomfort to try something new- and possibly exciting! Remember, you're always in charge of how, and how much, you communicate online.

  • Plan Ahead - space, time, privacy

Due to "shelter in place" and quarantine demands, many of us may be at home for the time being, without access to the ideal space. Family members, kids, pets, and so on can pose potential interruptions to a private video or phone appointment. Think ahead about where you could have some quiet space to yourself, to better focus on your time online. Do you have a guest room, walk-in closet, sun porch, or garage you can make use of? Can you plan to use your car as a "phone booth" (whether you drive it someplace else or not)? Could you go someplace outside, in good weather? If you don't have space to yourself, can you schedule your time with family members so they can let you have the living room or a bedroom to yourself for your appointment? A little planning ahead can make a world of difference in being able to hear, focus well, and make good use of your call.

  • Set your tools up well to have a great call. 

There are a few basics to setting up your equpiment, that can make a world of difference in your virtual communications:

-Connection. The more reliable your phone or Internet connection, the better it can handle smooth, easy to see and hear video and voice. Cell phone quality varies by phone, carrier, and how strong the cell signal is in your area. For Internet, quality goes in order from coffee-shop or other public Wi-Fi connections being the least reliable, to "high speed" cable or fiber Internet on your own private line being the most reliable. Try to use the most reliable connection you can afford or borrow, for important appointments and meetings. 

-Dedicated Phone/Tablet Spot. If using a hand held device, you have a place set aside to park the device you will be using, so that the image isn't shaky. You have it set up vertically so the camera is upright (and your image won't be coming out sideways.) 

-Device Readiness. You've made sure your device settings are all ready to go (Internet connection is on, other texts or conversations are muted, desktop camera is active, other tabs or apps that might be open are closed, etc.) 
-Image Readiness. You've set the camera at your eye level, so that the person looking at you will see you making eye contact with them. You're sitting at least 12 inches away from the camera, so that your face won't be distorted. You have enough lighting that the other person can see you clearly (hint: setting a light behind your monitor or device can help light up your face. You can bounce it off a wall to get softer lighting and prevent eye strain).

  • Get ready for "Tech Check"

Technology industry folk are familiar with this custom- arriving a few minutes ahead of a planned meeting or appointment, so that there is time to check your phone or Internet connection, test out your call or meeting app, and make sure everything's working as it should. If you're not sure whether your planned setup will work, try testing it out on a friend or family member before your appointment, and leave time to trouble-shoot or find ways around problems.

  • Considerations for group meetings

With most group meetings, the person presenting or organizing the group will control how the group interacts. You can trust them to tell you when, and how, it is appropriate to talk, ask questions, or provide input. You should always be able to get a hold of the event organizer to ask for help. 

If you are on a group meeting, such as on Zoom, you will have control over your audio (muted to everyone or un-muted to everyone), your video (everyone else can see you/no one else can see you), and text question/answer. Zoom also has a feature that lets you draw on a whiteboard and share it with others. 
It's polite to keep your audio and video "off" unless it's encouraged by the event organizer. When you have these "on", the meeting app will share your screen on top of everyone else's when you are talking. So it's important to know when to take turns! 
Texting questions goes into its own container, so this should always be available even if you don't get to talk out loud. This also lets you text a question or comment to the group whenever you like, and the presenter or group organizer can review these during question-and-answer time.

  • Considerations for Ergonomics

Since so many events and activities are moving online, you may find yourself spending a lot more time in front of your device or desktop computer. This can quickly get tiring if you aren't used to it. You can read about ergonomics for computing HERE. Basically, think about how you're positioning your body, if it's comfortable for long periods, whether you are getting up and moving enough in between work or visiting sessions, and how you can help yourself reduce eye strain.

  • And Please Remember- try to stay patient and be flexible as we adjust to this new "normal"- your efforts will be well worth it, and much appreciated!