Virtual Ombudsing

by Teresa Ralicki, CO-OP®, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver

The following is adapted from a series of articles Teresa posted on LinkedIn. We encourage you to check them out, and then visit IOA's Discussion Circles to discuss your own strategies and experiences with others learning to ombuds remotely!

Virtual Ombudsing: Tips and Considerations

My first ombuds job was at the American Red Cross. Serving visitors located all over the country, and sometimes in other parts of the world, almost all of my work was done virtually for over 5 years. Needless to say, I got pretty comfortable ombudsing from afar.

Many organizations have shifted toward remote work recently. It is always important for ombuds to remain a vital resource for their constituents, but especially so during periods of rapid change and high stress. Over this next week, I will share tips for navigating Ombuds work remotely in a four-part series:  

Part 1: Intake and Visitors
Part 2: Office and Organization Connection
Part 3: Case Consistency: Handling Lulls and Spikes
Part 4: Mediations and Trainings

My aim is to help you continue to offer valuable services effectively during this unpredictable time. Please take all tips as just that – tips. Experiment with all of this. Remote work is a great opportunity to sharpen some key ombuds skills and find new ways to be of service to your visitors and organizations!

Part 1 – Intake and Visitors

It is just as important to have a clear, consistent intake process when working remote as when working in person.

Intake: Have a clear, consistent intake and scheduling process. There should be no question, by ombuds staff or by your constituents, what the process is. Consider confidentiality when designing your process. Communicate the process in multiple ways:

  • Internally. Have a document for ombuds staff to reference at any time.
  • On your website.
  • In your email signature.
  • In your voicemail message.
  • On your office door.

1:1 Visitors: You can work with visitors just as effectively via phone or video conferencing. I have found that most in-person skills translate to virtual visits. Here are some tips that can help enhance your virtual ombudsing:

Working By Phone

  • Find the right setting. Make the phone call in a calm, comfortable setting. What do you need? Tea? A notepad? A quiet room? A back porch?
  • Use *67. If you don’t have a work cell phone and you don’t want people to have your personal cell phone number, press *67 before dialing the visitor’s phone number. This hides your number from the other person.
  • Start a call by connecting. Start by learning something about the visitor’s surroundings. This helps them to ground themselves in their space, and to feel like you are with them.
    • “What’s the weather like where you are?”
    • “Are you at home or somewhere else?”
    • Use audible cues for active listening. Without visual cues, you have to rely on audible cues to let the other person know you are listening. Here are some examples:
      • I lean on kind and sincere, “mmmmmmm”s or “mmm, hmmmm”s.
      • Name the feeling you are hearing and how you are hearing it.
        • “I can hear the frustrating in your voice.”
        • “I hear how stressful this is for you.”
    • Use their audible cues for asking questions and sharing observations.
      • “I noticed that when you started talking about X, your voice did Y.”
      • “You are speaking much faster than you did earlier. Why do you think that is?”
      • Use silence. This is tip is truly golden! You can use silence when:
        • Someone is cycling through their ‘story’ more than three times, regardless of your attempts to help them feel heard. Just stop speaking. Eventually, they will also stop speaking. Stay silent, even though this is uncomfortable. When they say, “Are you there?” You can say,
          • “Yep, I’m just really listening to you,” then go back to silence.
          • “I am. You’ve explained this to me four times now, so I’m just really listening,” then go back to silence
            Key: Stay with silence! Let them make the transition to problem-solving. It is hard not to take back control of the conversation. Resist it as much as possible. Try it and see how it works!
    • Someone needs to hear their own words. When they finally say, “Are you there?” you can say,
      • “I am. I was just really struck by the comparison of when you said X, then you said Y.”
      • “I am. I was giving your last sentence of XYZ some space.”
    • Someone is yelling, criticizing, or attacking you. Just stop speaking. When they say, “Are you there?” You can say,
      • “Yep, I’m really listening to you and your concerns,”
      • “I am here. I can hear how angry you are and I’m giving you space to express it,”
      • “I am here. Your tone and language with me right now is inappropriate. I want to help you. I’m waiting until you are speaking to me with a calmer voice.”
      • Use questions.
        • Your phone questions and in-person questions will probably be pretty similar. Rely on your comfort and style here!
        • Explore your level of directness. I’ve found I can be a bit more direct with my questions, concerns, worries, etc. over the phone than I can be in person. I’ve found people don’t get as defensive as easily. Play around with this.
        • “The reason I’m asking, is….” Give some extra context to your questions. Without body language, it is easier for the other person to misinterpret your intentions or inquiries.
        • Use time.
          • Use time measurements as a tool to move the conversation along or to create boundaries if and when you need them.
            • “We’ve been on the phone for 45 minutes now. I want to make sure we have enough time to help you make a plan.”
            • “I have another call at the top of the hour and I want to make sure you get what you need before then.”
            • End a call clearly.
              • Signal when the call is coming to a close so the visitor is not taken aback.
              • Check for any remaining unsurfaced issues. Before you end a call, recap what you discussed. Then ask if there is anything else you can help with. It can be much easier for visitors to hide the real problem behind the presenting problem over the phone. Give an extra opportunity for the underlying problem to come forward.
              • Do not hang up on someone. If you need to end the call because of how the other person is treating you, tell them, “I need to hang up now. Please contact X at Y to help you with your issue. Again, I need to hang up now. I hope you get the assistance you need.” Then hang up.  You may have to say this while they are also speaking.

Working via Zoom, Skype, or Other Video Platforms

  • Learn how to use these tools. Go to YouTube or Google, or check with your IT department to see if they have trainings for the platform you will be using. There are almost always functions in these platforms beyond the obvious that you can use to enhance the experience. Also, the more comfortable you are with your video conferencing tools, the more you can focus on the visitor’s needs. (I’ve included a few online resources for learning more about various tools at the bottom of this post.)
  • Do a trial run. Test your video platform with a friend or colleague before you start using it with visitors.
  • Establish the right setting.
    • Create a comfortable physical space for yourself that projects what you want the visitor to see in the background. Remove any visual distractions from the background (especially anything that moves, including pets!).
    • Arrange the lighting so you are well-lit and not in shadow.
    • Adjust the camera angle so your face is well framed. I prop my laptop up on a few text books so the camera looks slightly down toward me instead of up at me.
    • Mind your appearance.
      • Pay attention to your clothes. Avoid wearing striped patterns. Find the balance between “we are all working from home in our pajamas” and “business” that works best for your organizational culture. My goal is to look professional and approachable while also being comfortable. (I tend to get chilly when sitting still so I often wear a scarf and have a blanket available for my legs).
      • Check your hair and teeth for any “distractions” before starting the call.
      • “Touch up.” This is an option in Zoom that helps your face appear less shiny.
      • Look into the camera in important moments. We tend to look at ourselves or at the other person’s eyes in our computer. Looking into the camera helps the visitor feel you are making eye contact with them.
      • Use your in-person skills. The skills and techniques you use for in-person meetings will help you in video meetings.


Video Tutorials for Zoom:

Video Tutorials for Skype:

Video Conferencing Best Practices and Etiquette:

I am certainly not the only one who has experience with virtual ombudsing! Please comment below with your own best practices and tips, and add your questions or challenges, too. The more we collaborate and support each other, the better we can serve our constituents through these unpredictable times. 

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Virtual Ombudsing
Part 2: Office Dynamics – Work and Home

When working remotely, I have to think about the dynamics of my work relationships and productivity as well as how I can stay focused, productive, and healthy in my home workspace.

I coach my visitors on ensuring transparency and consistency in all communications to build and maintain relationships. This becomes even more important when communicating virtually. Again, the keywords are transparency and consistency.

Ombuds Office coordination:

  • Ombuds Teams: stay connected with your office colleagues:
    • Create a consistent and structured process for staying in touch
      • Weekly meeting, at the same time, with an agenda
      • Daily check-ins, at the same time, with specific intentions
    • Create a process for communicating your work. How will you all know who is doing what and when?
      • Use an online team communication platform like Slack, Trello, or Microsoft Teams
      • Ensure your calendars are up to date and visible to all team members
      • Keep your status updated.
      • Offices of 1: Create some consistency for yourself!
        • Have a bit of structure to your workday and workweek.
        • Working from home can be even more isolating than working in your office of 1 on-site. Create a check-in time and structure with another Ombuddy or colleague. Look to Ombuds networks like IOA, EON, ABA DRS, etc.

Regardless if you are a team of 1 or an office with multiple staff members, having a consistent process for your work will also come in handy should anyone in the organization inquire about your remote work process.

Communication with your Organization:

  • Communication with your constituents… Revamp your marketing and outreach
    • Share your new virtual process with your constituents in as many ways as you can think
      • Office website
      • Voicemail message
      • Sign on the door
      • Organization, department, college, student online newsletters, etc.
      • Communication with your leadership:
        • Increase communication with your leadership.
          • Share your intention for your communications
            • “During this time of virtual work and uncertainty, I will be sending you weekly emails to update you on the work of the office. You do not need to respond unless you would like to discuss anything further. My intention is to empower you with information of how we are serving our constituents.”
  • Share your process for intake, outreach, and services
  • Weekly or biweekly report on services you provided and any themes that may have arisen.
  • Include reminders of how you can be of assistance to them or others as needed.

Home “Office”

Working and living in the same space can have some big impacts on your day-to-day life – including your sleeping patterns, eating habits, physical aches and pains, and mental health. Here are some general work-from-home tips that help me:

  • Have a schedule and stick to it. Have a morning routine, a dedicated time to eat lunch away from your workspace, and an end time. Also, have a bedtime routine to make sure you get the good rest you need.
  • Schedule breaks. It is even more important to take breaks when working from home. Creating space between your work life and your home life is incredibly important, and that includes leaving your work zone every once in a while.
  • Get fresh air, a few times a day if possible. I like to go for a few short, 15-20 minute walks. One mid-morning and one mid-afternoon.
  • Make an extra effort to move your body.
  • Have beverages (water, tea, seltzer, etc.) by your workspace at all times. This helps me not snack all day because I’m so close to/in my kitchen.
  • Change your view from time to time during the week. Sit on the other side of the table or switch rooms for a few hours.
  • Use music or other background noise. I listen to classical music when I need to think through ideas or design projects. I listen to drum & bass music when I need to be efficient and productive.
  • Watch your posture. It is incredibly easy to get aches and pains from working in a setting that was probably not ergonomically set up for you as a workspace. (I included this one because I am currently feeling some major tension in my neck and shoulders from not attending to this all day).
  • Explicitly create boundaries and expectations with others that may also be living in your workspace. How and when can others ask you questions or make requests? What will you say and do when you need complete un-interrupted time? Get creative and fun with this! Make fun signs or use different household items to symbolize different ‘zones’ or ‘needs.’ Maybe make up fun code words or phrases.

Again, I welcome additional best practices and tips in the comments! What works for you?


Since yesterday, I’ve come across two additional resources that might help guide or inspire you:

Here’s one on a great work from home policy:

Here’s UCSB’s Associate Ombuds Don Lubach providing virtual meeting tips to his constituents: 

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Tips and Tricks for Virtual Ombudsing
Part 3: Case Consistency? How to handle lulls and spikes

During times of uncertainty, your caseload may change from what you are used to. When working at the American Red Cross, I noticed there was a lull in our caseload for about three weeks immediately after natural disasters. At first, everyone’s attention was focused on the emergency in front of them. After that phase, the cases and visitors started flowing in like a released dam.  

I can’t predict how changes to organizations world-wide will impact your caseload, but here are some tips should you experience lulls or spikes in your work:


  • Create structure. Make a plan for how your day will look; this includes start times, end times, and breaks. Stick to that plan. You can’t be effective at helping others if you are not taking care of yourself. Clear boundaries are essential for good care.
  • Clear process. If you have more than one person in your office, make sure everyone knows who is responsible for what and when. Trust that plan and check in once a day to make sure everyone has what they need.
  • Theme gathering. Check in with your colleagues at least once every few days to learn what each person is hearing in their casework. It is easy to miss an emerging theme or trend amidst commotion and disruption.
  • Theme sharing. Raise themes and systemic trends and issues as soon as possible. Your organization’s leadership is working moment to moment to make decisions. As an Ombuds, you may have insight into how some of those decisions will impact vulnerable populations or certain pockets of your constituency. Providing that in a timely manner is imperative.


  • Projects. Make a list of all of the projects you have been wanting to do but have been too busy or distracted by walk-ins to complete. Then tackle them! Start with the one you feel most excited about. And because you have some time, let your creativity flow! Don’t feel bound by completing tasks a specific way or in specific amount of time. Go where your ideas lead you! Who knows what you will create?
  • Proactive themes. Think about systemic themes and issues you’ve been noticing or that you expect and make a plan for how you might help. Then reach out to relevant parties and enact that plan. Don’t let working virtually stop you from connecting and doing your work because it is unfamiliar to do it virtually. You and your organization will figure it out along the way.
  • Connection. Establish connections with leaders and key players in your organization. Make sure they know you are there and available to them. During these times of change and unpredictability they may need someone to brainstorm with or to help them feel grounded. Also, take extra time to share with all of your constituents how you are able to help them.

Again, I welcome additional best practices and tips in the comments! What works for you?

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Tips and Tricks for Virtual Ombudsing
Part 4: Mediations and Trainings

For Part 4 of this series, I’m joined by my colleague Liz Hill, Associate Director of the CU Boulder Ombuds Office. She also has quite a bit of online mediation and training experience as well. In addition, we both attended Susan Guthrie’s online mediation training sessions.

Like working with visitors, use what you already know about conducting mediations and delivering trainings and think of ways to adapt them to a virtual setting. Make a list of the ways you succeed at both of these practices and brainstorm ways to translate them online.


Set up:

Get your computer and system ready:
  • Be familiar with the video conferencing platform you are using. Use available tutorials to learn all functionality.
  • Turn off all other computer functions.
  • Sign in at least 5 minutes early to make sure everything is working well.
  • Enable “wait room” for the parties until you want to start.
  • Only use secure Wi-Fi.
  • Open and minimize any documents you may want to reference and share online.
  • Turn off all other technology so there are no distractions.
  • To co-mediate assign the co-mediator as your co-host. They will have all the administrative rights you do.
  • Disable recording functions and remind participants there is absolutely no recording.
Prepare your parties:
  • Provide a document including ground rules and what can be expected in the mediation (process, structure, technology fails, etc.)
  • Your environment: Make sure you are in a safe, comfortable, quiet setting – free from interruptions
  • Their environment: Include guidelines for how they should prepare in your ground rules and prep document. Include considerations like no one else in the room during the video meeting, no typing/texting/etc. unless taking notes on paper during the meeting, test technology, no recording, etc. Use the same guidelines you are using for yourself as an outline.

Soft Skills:

  • Learn from people who do this regularly! Maybe take an online mediation training.
  • Eliminate awkward moments or perceptions of partiality by using a virtual waiting room for participants to join before admitting them to the joint space.
  • Use break out rooms to effectively separate participants and caucus. People assigned to the same breakout room can see and hear each other. You may create multiple breakout rooms as needed. 
  • Use screen sharing to share documents with participants.
  • Use the whiteboard function to write and share information or conduct visual mediation. You may link your iPhone or iPad and use them to perform this function as well.
  • Remember, you are the tool for consistency and flow. Be prepared to summarize, reframe, and take the conversation in a particular direction more than you would in person.
  • List any agreements and share your screen to show everyone their progress from time to time.

Online Training:

  • Less is more!
    • Focus on one or two main points. If you need a lot of time for the content, consider breaking up the training into multiple parts over a few days or a few weeks.
    • Don’t take more time than you need to. I like 30-minute trainings. The shorter time helps viewer engagement and focus. If the subject matter takes longer than that, consider doing a series over the course of a week or every Wednesday for a month.
    • Engage your viewers:
      • Use group polling tools. Learn about these in online tutorials and practice them in advance.
      • Use the “Chat” option to ask for answers to a question you pose in your presentation
      • Supporting materials:
        • Give the viewers something they can take away. I like to make participant guides and send it to them after the presentation.
        • Feedback:
          • Send out a brief survey for feedback on the content as well as delivery.
          • Rely on visuals and not on text. You don’t want your audience to just read your slide then get bored.
          • Allow for a delay when changing slides or images.
          • Incorporate activities. In a 30 minute training, have at least 1-2 interactive activities built-in.


This is the final of this 4 part series. This does not need to be the end of our learning and sharing. Please, let me know how some of these tips are working for you. What is working well? What did you change or do differently? We have a lot to learn from each other's experiences! I welcome yours!

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