Recommendations
on employment
problems

4.2 Text-based online mediation

Guideline for employment problems / COMMUNICATING: 4.2 Text-based online mediation

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

During the orientation process of the available literature, we identified the following interventions as most plausible for understanding and uncovering needs and interests of disputes parties in employment disputes:

  • Text-based online mediation
  • Face-to-face online mediation

Online dispute resolution was first used to resolve disputes arising from e-commerce. Lately, it has gained traction to resolve disputes between employers and employees, especially due to the conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Anticipating a surge in employment disputes, China has established an Internet Arbitration System (Ministry of Justice Government Network 2020). But even prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, online mediation was being used to resolve workplace conflicts. Magontslag.nl and Result Mediation in The Netherlands provides a platform for employers and employees to resolve disputes. The National Mediation Board (NMB) facilitates labor management disputes for

U.S. railroad and airline industries. It offers ODR services through the use of Web-based video conferencing and other ICT to enable the drafting of agreements online;60 it also uses asynchronous online platforms for “submissions-only arbitration.” “…e-mediation systems come in many different forms (e.g., technology-automated or assisted by a third party, synchronous or asynchronous) and can use many different technologies (e.g., email, video, phone)” (Parlamis, Ebner and Mitchell 2016, p.245). 

What makes online mediation a good fit for resolving employment disputes is the fact there exists a power imbalance between the employer and employee which makes face-face-face mediation challenging for the employee, given that he or she has fewer resources and power compared to the employer (Hammond 2003; Bollen and Euwema 2013). In this recommendation, we compare two types of online mediation: text-based, online mediation and face-to face, online mediation to assess which of the two is better suited to resolve conflicts in the workplace. What sets one apart from the other is the model of communication. Scholars posit that ‘changes in communication tools affect the communication they support, and the interactions this gives rise to’ (Parlamis, Ebner and Mitchell 2016, p.239). Therefore in this recommendation, we try to assess which one of these modes of communication are better suited to tackle workplace disputes. 

Text-based, asynchronous online mediation

“One basic distinction is between synchronous communication and asynchronous communication. In synchronous communication, parties transmit and receive messages in-real-time, with no time-gap. When communicating asynchronously, a party may receive a message a minute, an hour or a day after it was transmitted, and might respond a minute, and hour or a day after receiving the message, all of which introduces time-gaps into the interaction” (Parlamis, Eber and Mitchell 2016, p.239). Text-based mediation falls under the category of asynchronous communication. It includes emails and platforms developed specifically for parties to communicate such as chat rooms that allow forum discussions and space from private chats between different parties. Although instant messaging is also a text-based media, it is not a synchronous form of communication.  So for the purpose of this recommendation, we define text-based communication as one that offers asynchronous communication. In the beginning, text-based mediation was the preferred way of mediation disputes online.

Face-to-face, synchronous online mediation

This refers to mediation that is conducted on video via platforms such as Skype, Zoom or specific platforms that have been designed for the purpose of e-mediation. “virtualmediationlab.com has examples of video-mediation designed to resolve workplace conflicts. These videos show synchronous virtual conferencing with a human mediator” (Parlamis, Eber and Mitchell 2016, p.246). Face-face mediation is a synchronous form of communication.  With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the proliferation of video conferencing platforms such as Skype and Zoom, face-to-face mediation is gaining ground (Ebner and Rainey 2021; Ebner 2021). 

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to an employment dispute looking to understand each other, is text based online mediation or face-to-face online mediation more effective for well-being?

Search strategy

Google scholar was used to identify key literature to develop this recommendation. The databases used are: HeinOnline, ScienceDirect, SSRN

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: online mediation, synchronous mediation, e-mediation, face to face online mediation

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Synchronous Process (face to face interaction/video)
Asynchronous process (Text based communication)
Video interaction fosters more trust among disputing parties as compared to text-based forms of mediation. Mediators find it easier to build trust among disputing parties as video is a richer medium. “…research has found video interactions to be generally more conducive to trust emergence than other media other than face-to-face interactions (Bos, Olson, Gergle, Olson & Wright, 2002)”…(as cited in Ebner and Thompson 2014). “These findings suggest that the richer the medium, the more tools negotiators and mediators have at their disposal for trust-building. They establish quite convincingly that even working largely intuitively, negotiators and mediators are likely to do better at establishing and maintaining trust via video conferencing as opposed to email or other text based platforms” (Ebner and Thompson 2014).
In asynchronous processes, mediators don’t have to respond immediately to the disputing parties. This gives them time to deliberate before responding to messages and not react instantaneously in the heat of the moment. “In asynchronous processes, the slowed-down pace can allow the mediator a more intentional application of the mediator’s toolbox. This enhances opportunities for nuance and subtlety. Mediators might find it easier to tweak and reframe messages” (Ebner and Rainey ,p.18). “Just as disputants can react emotionally to new developments, neutrals can get caught up in the immediacy of a face-to-face session. Third parties can benefit from the cooling distance provided by asynchronous interaction, allowing them to pay greater attention to their own biases and perhaps enabling them to become more reflective practitioners” (Rule 2000).
Mediators have the discretion to establish contact with parties privately if required. This is not possible in synchronous processes, where such actions are likely to be perceived as a threat to neutrality of the mediator. Similarly, mediators can caucus with either one of disputing parties without having to worry about wasting time of the other party. “Mediators can create opportunities for behind the scenes contact with each party to a greater degree than face-to-face processes allow, as private communication reduces threats to perceived neutrality. Working with asynchronous methods, mediators can conduct simultaneous caucusing, saving process-time” (Ebner and Rainey ,p.18).
Disputants have the flexibility to choose a time that is convenient for them when interacting with the mediator or with each other. This gives them buffer time in which they can consult someone or deliberate over next steps and not respond emotionally which can potentially derail the discussion. “Disputants can connect to the ongoing discussion at different times, and even defer their response until after they’ve had time to consult with others, do some research, or just contemplate the situation” (Rule 2000). “Instead of reacting emotionally to a new development or escalating a discussion out of surprise, parties can consider an issue and communicate in a considered way. They can still react emotionally, but they have the option of stepping back and reflecting before they respond” (Rule 2000). “Parties and mediators can engage in text-based discussion without the immediate time pressure and other dynamics associated with synchronous, face-to-face conversations” (Ebner and Rainey, p.19). “… asynchronous online mediation is the most popular form, allowing greater flexibility because of 24-h access to the platform” (Alexander 2006 as cited in Mania 2015).
Text-based communication can be easily archived and referred to if disputing parties cannot recollect the discussion or need clarification on certain points. parties can deny hav“Postings in an online context are usually archived, either just for the length of the mediation or even beyond the end of the mediation. Mediators can re-visit archived communications to help clarify issues, or to remind people of statements they had made earlier in the discussion. In a face-to-face session, once a party says something, it’s gone. Later a mediator can remind a party of a statement that had been made earlier in the session and the party can deny it, portray it in a different context, or reinterpret its meaning” (Rule 2000, p.75).
Mediators can refer to training materials that can help in taking the discussion ahead without alerting the disputing parties about using training materials. This will prevent disputing parties from doubting the qualification or capability of the mediator. “Mediators can also consult training material or suggested steps for parties to move through in an attempt to reach resolution, all in the middle of their ADR process. In a face-to-face session, consulting materials such as these might delay the process or make parties question the experience of their neutral” (Rule 2000, p.76)
A study conducted with mediators revealed that it’s easier for mediators to keep the big picture in sight in asynchronous communication than in synchronous where conversation dynamics are likely to consume their attention.“There was 100 percent agreement by mediators that the asynchronous nature of online communications helped them to focus on the broader picture of the conflict and not just the moment-to-moment interactions. For example, they did not have to concern themselves with interruptions from disputants. 100 percent (of the mediators) also agreed that having time to craft their responses enabled them to express their questions and comments effectively. All considered that this advantage led them to design more effective interventions” (Hammond as cited in Ebner and Rainey 2021, p.30).
Communication dynamics among disputing parties improve as they cannot interrupt one another. “…asynchronous, textual communication actually improves communication dynamics between the parties. One of the challenges that mediators face is keeping parties from interrupting one another” (Braeutigam 2006, p.295)
In face-to-face meetings, disputing parties have lesser control over vocal tone, facial expressions and body language are they are reacting to the discussion, which can potentially escalate tensions between the parties. This will help parties in maintaining focus on issues at hand instead of being sidetracked by negative body language. “Early on, developments in the field uncovered that e-mediation can be positive for high emotion or high cost issues such as family mediation or workplace conflict (Goodman 2003) as it removes a lot of the contextual cues (such as vocal tone, facial expressions and other non-verbal communication) present in face-to-face mediation that may further escalate existing tension between parties” (Parmamis, Ebner and Mitchell 2017, p.240). “When the distractions of non-verbal cues are eliminated, parties are better able to focus on the substantive issues, rather than the negative emotional content conveyed by the visual or auditory cues that are present in face-to-face encounters” (Braeutigam 2006, p.293).
A criticism of text-based communication is that written text can be easily misinterpreted in the absence of non-verbal cues. A calming remark can be misunderstood to be patronising. However, people increasingly use emoticons and different types of formatting (written text) to convey tone and emotions. “Further, text is often interpreted differently than words spoken in the shared context of face-to-face communication. For example, a calming remark might come across as patronizing when typed or a joke might turn into an insult because the reader did not catch the intentionally sarcastic tone. Without tone of voice, it can be difficult to capture and convey the emotional content of words. For example, it may be difficult for the participants to catch a sincere and empathetic remark, or they may not feel the mediator has understood the degree of anger and frustration they are experiencing” (Braeutigam 2006, p.287). “… as prevalence of text-based online communication has increased, so has our ability to convey physically perceptive information in text. Emoticons, such as “Smileys”, have become a useful way of communicating emotion online. Simple typing techniques operate similarly. For example, “SHOUTING” or an “angry email” is accomplished by using ALL CAPS. Abbreviations have also become a common way for online communicators to convey tone and emotion in their messages. The abbreviations IMHO (in my humble opinion) and LOL (laugh out loud) are descriptors used to temper a direct statement, and to underscore humorous statements. Additionally, online communicators will often mark a statement with the desired tone and meaning. To illustrate: “Today is a beautiful day! I’m so lucky to be inside working! ” (Braeutigam 2006, p.291).
The absence of non-verbal cues in text-based mediation is often considered to be a shortcoming (Braeutigam 2006). But research shows that people are just as comfortable expressing themselves in written format as they are expressing themselves orally. “In her work, Anne-Marie Hammond found that the reduced communication cues and textual communication did not significantly impact participants’ experience in online mediation. The study revealed that the lack of body language in online mediation experience did not constrain participants’ ability to express their emotions or to feel understood. Participants noted that the textual form of communication was effective because people write like they talk and thus felt they had no trouble getting their meaning across. Interestingly, a majority of disputants felt they were able to overcome the lack of non-verbal cues. Many disputants felt more at ease expressing themselves in writing than in spoken word; felt more confident in their communications, felt the mediation was less hostile, felt their communications were honest and open…” (Braeutigam 2006, p.290).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Synchronous Process (face to face interaction/video)
Asynchronous process (Text based communication)
Parties to the conflict are likely to react emotionally during interactions which can escalate the conflict. “Synchronous interactions can easily escalate a conflict because a person’s first response might not be his best or most reasonable. It is not uncommon for disputants to be sarcastic, angry, or insulting in heated moments” (Braeutigam 2006, p.295).
Disputants cannot take advantage of non-verbal cues in text based mediation. “Disputants who engage in mediation primarily via e-mail will miss out on the cues they would receive from body language, facial expressions, and other in-person signals” (PON Staff 2021).
Disputing parties can develop harmful communication patterns like interrupting one another. “Disputants often develop frustrating and destructive communication patterns, like interrupting one another and tuning out to what the other person is saying” (Braeutigam 2006, p.296).
“Parties may be tempted to “flame” each other (sending hostile or insulting messages) on e-mail or abandon the mediation entirely when frustrated” (PON Staff 2021).
Usually disputing parties agree who can be present during mediation sessions. In video based communications, one can deceptively invite an unauthorised person to witness the discussion while pretending to abide by the rules. “Even audiovisual platforms pose challenges; an unauthorized individual can easily sit outside the viewing area of the video camera” (Exon 2017, p.651)
Given that the parties involved can respond at a time of their convenience, the pace of communication can slow down. “[T]he asynchronous format means that mediators and parties must be prepared to work at maintaining consistent contact” (Braeutigam 2006, p.287).
Video-conferencing makes people feel more vulnerable as they might feel exposed to the opposing party. “…some disputants want to use ODR, yet prefer not to utilize available video conferencing for the purposes of convening; the reduced social presence of their counterparty, it seems, lends to an enhanced sense of personal security on an emotional level” (Ebner and Zeleznikow 2015, p.158).
“The anxiety and doubt that accompanies waiting for the other party to respond are a natural breeding ground for distrust and anger” (Ebner, p.390).
Video based communication gives the impression of converting non-verbal cues but in practice it does the job only partially, given that only a portion of the person’s body is visible. Also, given that disputing parties equate face-to-face online mediation with in-person face-to-face mediation, they do not adapt their communication style to requirements of online platforms. “…video-based communication does not fill in the full range of cues and psychological impacts lacking in text-based communication. It only fills them in partially, and alters others – while giving the impression of providing them in full. Communicators’ expectations that video would be the same as in-person may lead them to forgo conscious filtering of the unique set of contextual cues provided by online video communication. These could pose even greater challenges to mediators aiming to build trust, given the opportunities for misreading these cues by all communicators involved” (Ebner and Thompson 2014).
“Another problem with asynchronous communication is that as time passes, people forget things” (Ebner and Rainey 2021, p.37).
During Covid-19 when people were increasingly relying on platforms such as Zoom, it became apparent that video-conferencing takes its toll on the mind. People feel tired, restless, self-aware, exhausted and find it cognitively dulling to sit for long periods of time in front of the screen. “…videoconferencing imposes an unusually high cognitive load, triggers biological responses we are unaware of, and generally sends our brains into exhausting spin. Brains aside, consider the physical effects of sitting rigidly in a chair for extended periods of time. By the middle of a video conference conference (or right from its inception, if it is our third call of the day) participants might experience a host of reactions that all feed directly into negative affect: depletion, exhaustion, enhanced self-awareness, cognitive dulling, physical, discomfort, restlessness and more (Ebner and Thompson 2014).”
The stationery camera used in face-to-face online communications can give rise to awkward pauses or interruptions. “…videoconferencing relies on a computer-based stationery camera that typically focuses on a person’s headshot or upper torso, which can create an uncomfortable conversation modality due to awkward pauses and/or people interrupting or talking over each other since participants cannot see or scale each other like an in-person experience (Exon and Lee , p.112)”
If the strength of the internet is weak, it can cause video-freeze, disrupting the flow of the conversation. “…poor reception may distort or limit facial expressions (Exon and Lee 2019, p.128).

Balance of Outcomes

Text-based mediation has been the norm in online mediation. Evidence indicates that text-based mediation helps disputing parties as well as the mediator in communicating effectively, as opposed to face-to-face online mediation where people are likely to react in the heat of the moment and not deliberate before responding. It’s likely in workplace disputes, disputing parties are likely to have several or serious grievances against each other. To be able to resolve the dispute swiftly, without any fuss, it is in the interest of the parties to compose themselves and reflect over an issue before contacting the other party.

Because face-to-face online mediation has recently emerged in the field of dispute resolution, it’s merits and demerits have not been researched by scholars. So far, scholars have uncovered few unequivocal advantages of face-to-face online mediation, one of which is that it’s easier for the mediator to build trust among disputing parties as compared to what is observed in text-based mediation. Majority of the other benefits of face-to-face mediation are disputed. 

For instance, proponents of face-to-face online mediation state that it provides rich cues of non-verbal language which the other party can use to understand the party’s stance. However research has shown that such cues often distracts parties from tackling core issues and is likely to escalate the tension. Moreover, in recent years, people are increasingly using emoticons and language that is used on social media to communicate their feelings. So text-based communication has overcome the hurdle of not being able to communicate emotions. However, one must take into account that not everyone can articulate their feelings in-text. Neither is there substantial evidence to prove that people are able to articulate their feelings in online mediation. Therefore, we urge the reader to treat this point with caution. 

Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the desirable outcomes of text-based mediation outweigh its undesirable outcomes as well as the desirable outcomes of online face-to-face mediation mediation. 

Therefore, text-based mediation is preferred.

Recommendation

Taking into account the balance of outcomes and quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to an employment dispute looking to understand each other, text-based online mediation is more conducive to well-being than face-to-face online mediation.

Technical Remarks

As mentioned before, face-to-face online mediation is slowly emerging in the field of online mediation. Scholars are yet to explore its merits and demerits fully. We have made this recommendation based on the amount of evidence currently available. However, as the usage of face-to-face mediation increases and so does the amount of literature available on the topic, this recommendation will have to be reconsidered in light of new evidence. 

Table of Contents

4.2 Text-based online mediation
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