Audio and video conferencing are often seen as ‘second- best' alternatives to meeting face to face, but when the WFP Ombudsman's office needed to reach staff in more than 30 countries to raise awareness on conflict and dispute resolution, there was only one option.
UN reforms announced in 2009 and WFP's belief in the importance of informal conflict resolution meant that a mediation programme needed to be designed, including a strong awareness raising and educational component. In 2011 the Office of the Ombudsman embarked on such a project. "Mediation is often a lower cost option for resolving disputes than formal channels, and we wanted to inform staff on mediation, assess their opinion and be ready to clarify any doubts or concerns" said WFP's then Ombudsman, Georgia Shaver.
(WFP’s video conferencing facilities allow staff to hold “face-to-face” meetings across a range of locations and time zones, without the need to travel).
In the interests of fairness and to maximise the success of the new service, the awareness raising campaign targeted all employees located in a representative sample of country offices, sub offices (if possible) and all regional bureaux.
Working with a consultant who had previously delivered remote training at FAO, the Ombudsman's office ran a series of conferences that reached 600 staff in 35 countries over a period of more than two months. To maximise the service a pre-recorded presentation was sent in advance, staff were asked to watch it and come to the audio and/or video conference prepared to discuss and ask questions. Remote delivery was "absolutely" time effective, and the most financially efficient way to reach large numbers of staff. "We would have covered far fewer countries if we had had to go face to face," she said.
In addition, there was no jetlag, and fewer disruptions to day-to-day work. Some staff enjoy duty travel, and field staff value face to face contact, but in financially constrained times, Ms Shaver asked, "Is this the best use of our resources?"
She acknowledged that there were technical issues: low connectivity in some offices led to sound quality challenges on video calls and occasionally staff dropping off the line. ICT staff in HQ and on the ground were "incredibly helpful", she said. "It helped enormously to establish contact with ICT staff on the ground in each participating country. And sometimes, low tech solutions worked better than high tech.
Access to busy meeting rooms was problematic in some duty stations. Sometimes rollout was delayed because the focal point said ‘we can't get a conference room," she said.
Despite the challenges, Ms Shaver says reaching out to such a wide range of staff was a tremendous learning experience for the presenters too, because they were exposed to many different ways of working. In some offices and cultures, questions were very forthcoming – in others, it was much harder to encourage staff to express their views. It was also important to deliver the presentations in languages other than English; there was a lot of appreciation from the staff when the presentations were made in French and Spanish.