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Samaritans provides emotional support to anyone in distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. You can call them for free on 116 123 or email [email protected].

Use this Guide if you want to provide staff and volunteers with a new way to communicate with each other. It’s particularly relevant when you’re aiming to replace face to face contact with a new online system.

Steps to supporting staff and volunteers to communicate remotely

You need to consider things such as:

  • Is the communication needed whilst volunteers and staff are doing their roles or in between times?

  • Is the communication mostly about support or information delivery or does it have another purpose?

  • How comfortable are your staff and volunteers with online communication in general

Talk to everyone involved to find out what they need. You may decide to use particular user research techniques to do this. Browse Catalyst's collection of resources to support user research.

Samaritans usually have their volunteers working in the same space when they are answering calls. Because of the pandemic, they wanted to rely on this less. They wanted to work out if they could use online communications to support volunteers remotely.

They wanted to recreate the comforting and supportive environment of their physical workspaces. They needed software that could do that.

They also knew that many of their volunteers had experience of using online communications with friends and family.

When you’re choosing a communication tool you need to think about:

  • How easy is it to use?
  • Does it have the security settings we need?
  • Does it allow the type of communication we need? Are there group chats? What about 1 to 1?

Samaritans chose Workplace partly because it was a Facebook product. The way it worked would make sense to people who were used to talking to friends and family on Facebook. This accessibility was a key priority.

The free version for non-profit use allows lots of different types of communication. This includes video and voice calls, group and one to one messages and a news feed which allows for information broadcasts. Samaritans felt it had a good chance of creating the comfortable and informal feel they wanted.

Some people were worried about it being a Facebook product, for security reasons. So Samaritans reassured them that it wasn’t actually connected to people’s personal facebook.

When you introduce a new tool such as Workplace to staff, do the work first to configure it so they can use it safely and securely, in the way that you plan.

  • Configure the security and privacy settings
  • Set up groups you want people to join

  • Create accounts for people and give them permissions for the right things

Choose one team to pilot the project with. Then work with them to create a set of guidelines for how the tool should be used. Allow some flexibility, but be clear about the goals and reasons that you are providing the system.

Samaritans tested Workplace with their online chat volunteers. The online chat is a way that Samaritans hope to provide advice to the public in the future.

They decided they would need:

  • Some “rhythms and rituals” to help encourage people to use Workplace - such as check-ins and check-outs at the beginning and end of shifts

  • To give staff permission to set up their own topic based spaces within Workplace - to keep the informal feel they wanted

When you encourage volunteers to have group chats or posts with discussion threads you usually need a moderator. This is someone with the power to assess and delete communications that are inappropriate. They can also talk to people about what they are posting and sometimes start positive topics of conversation.

Effective moderation needs clear guidelines for how the tool is to be used. Once your pilot has run for a short period, you can check and improve the guidelines you created at the beginning. Add information about how the moderators are expected to behave.

Samaritans decided they needed moderators. They wanted to keep the feel of the Workplace positive and energised. Without moderation some conversation threads became quite negative.

Samaritans also noticed that some people were not active in Workplace. They asked the moderators to make sure those people had access to extra support.

Samaritans also structured the way people should use chat more. They introduced global guidelines, but gave local teams permission to create extra local ones.

Sometimes online communication doesn’t give people everything they need. Make sure your volunteers can also phone your staff if they need to, and consider if face to face meetings are also useful.

Samaritans decided that all volunteers should continue to have 1 to 1 calls with their designated shift leader. They made the use of Workplace an optional extra tool.

Further information

Looking for other guides on ways to support your staff?

Running a staff and volunteer online chat can be similar to running a community forum.

For more information on this guide.