When it comes to settling tough conflicts between labor and management, successful mediation and dispute resolution often thrive on face-to-face interactions.
But in-person is off limits during the current pandemic.
Luckily, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service had dabbled in virtual mediation before the pandemic, with some of its mediators experimenting with video and phone teleconferencing capabilities even five years ago.
“We dipped our toe in early, and we started experimenting with a number of different video conferencing platforms,” Josh Flax, FMCS’ chief strategy officer, said in an interview. “We eventually settled on a few different ones that we work with.”
Before the pandemic, one-third of FMCS’ mediators were equipped to conduct virtual mediation using at least one video conferencing platform.
“Obviously like a lot of other agencies and organizations, what we had to do in the national emergency condition was move our entire workforce to the virtual state,” Flax said. “But because we had a decent background in it, it’s actually been going pretty well.”
Today, all 150 federal mediators are connected and conducting virtual mediation using at least one video conference platform, Flax said.
The service recently hit a new milestone: Mediators have conducted more than 1 million minutes of online meetings using their main video platform within 30 days.
FMCS attributed the milestone to the steps it had taken well before the pandemic even began. The majority of the FMCS workforce already had laptops and the equipment necessary for video conferencing, and federal mediators are relatively mobile by their nature, Flax said. Their jobs often consist of traveling across county and state lines to listen and facilitate discussions between labor and management.
But when the Trump administration instructed agencies to maximize telework for much of the federal workforce, FMCS shifted its focus toward expanding video conference capabilities and training all mediators on the platform.
In the agency’s early days of video teleconferencing, FMCS packed training seminars full with 50-to-100 employees. Today, they’ve learned smaller sessions are better.
“What really works is our live demonstrations or live demos with just a few people on the line, and what we also call the sandbox sessions where we convene a small group,” Flax said. “They jump on the video conference and they try and break it. They push all the buttons and they figure out exactly how it works. That worked so well that for future technology updates or other platforms that we’ll choose to adopt in the future, I would absolutely pursue that route for teaching, training and getting our folks up to speed.”
The FMCS video conferencing platform also allows mediators to host private, confidential meetings with just one of the parties.
Now, Flax said FMCS mediators are convincing their clients these virtual engagements are just as secure as their typical face-to-face meeting.
“The next leap is to convince traditional clients, let’s say a labor organization and an employer who might have been using traditional, in-person collective bargaining for decades already,” he said. “They too can make the leap and do this virtually. That’s taking some work, and it’s working.”
Whenever federal offices do reopen and some semblance of normalcy returns, FMCS mediators will continue to use these video platforms for some virtual sessions.
Though video teleconferences won’t completely replace in-person mediation, Flax said the current environment does give FMCS an opportunity to rethink how it can use both practices together in the future.
“Best practice would say that, where possible, it’s still really important to engineer these face-to-face encounters, and that’s what mediators do so well,” he said. “On the other hand, it could be that the mediators are able to use these platforms and the knowledge they’ve gained to take that hybrid approach. Some of the smaller lead-up meetings can be done remotely and virtually, and that will all lead up to an in-person set of meetings, obviously in a safe setting.”
Flax said the agency is preparing for a probable influx of mediation requests, especially from private hospitals, grocery store chains or workplaces that provided essential services, which may have put conflicts aside during the pandemic.
“We are ready,” Flax said. “Our mediators will be able to work with those folks either in person, if it’s safe, or remotely. Especially for remote work, we’ll be able to offer virtual mediation right away. We feel pretty good about that, because it’s highly likely that, for example, employers and unions in certain settings might have different ideas about what safe workplace means going forward.”