How to make remote contact meaningful


With the COVID-19 pandemic, many Circles services that have been completed face to face had to be delivered by telephone or video call. These calls were a vital support and connection during a period when so many Core Members (CMs) were isolated and anxious. Although Circles have now returned to face to face provision, supplementary telephone and video contact is still being used when necessary. This guidance enables the use of telephone and video call contact to be meaningful and purposeful.

There is a further issue that many CMs do not have access to the internet, where most of the population is finding out information about the pandemic and seeking social interaction. Remote contact needs to take this obstacle into account.

This document refers to Core Members (Individuals who have been convicted of sexual offences and who receive Circles of Support and Accountability from trained and supervised volunteers), but the principles outlined would be equally relevant to other individuals subject to Criminal Justice sanctions and interventions.

It is likely you are already using many of the strategies below in your interactions and that you have other effective ideas; this document is to provide a baseline of what can be delivered to CMs remotely.

Issues with remote contact

  • Difficulties in seeing the initial presentation of the individual; we do not pick up their body language as they walk in; it is hard to see if they are pale/thin/exhausted/energetic/any visible health issues
  • Even by video call, both sides miss many non verbal cues throughout the discussion, making the interaction less rich and nuanced
  • Reticent individuals may find it even more difficult to speak openly  Unless specific efforts are made, it is easy for the contact to reduce to a brief check in “Are you OK? Are there any issues? Ok, talk to you next week”.
  • Fergus McNeill (2020) in his recent blog states many telephone check ins can be described as “stilted, perfunctory and unsatisfying”
  • There may be barriers to the volunteer communicating freely, because their work has been brought into the home arena; confidentiality, alongside the presence of children or other adults, could impact what they feel able to say and ask
  • An important factor in the efficacy of the call will be the length and strength of the previous working relationship, but even when this is well-established, it can be worth tailoring the approach to a remote setting

Ways to make the contact more meaningful and helpful

  1. Negotiate a time and physical working space for the call that works with both parties to optimise confidentiality, time and ability to focus. Both the CM and volunteer need to be in a place they will not be overheard. It is worth checking out that the CM is alone at the beginning of each call.
  2. Even if it feels artificial, allow the CM plenty of time to respond to queries. It is so easy to talk over each other and miss important information.
  3. Ask as many open questions as possible (where they cannot answer just yes or no)
  4. Demonstrate curiosity and interest in the CM’s daily life to elicit information
  5. If there is an ongoing concern (eg high anxiety levels), a useful way to explore this is to ask and record the current severity of the issue on a scale of 1-10. Improvement and deterioration can be tracked more easily
  6. Put a primary emphasis on the physical and emotional well being of the individual. Compared to the general population, CMs are likely to be facing significantly more hardship during this pandemic. They are more likely to be socially isolated, endure poor physical and mental health, be more financially fragile and be spending nearly all their time in inadequate housing. Looking for joint solutions to mitigate these issues or seeking avenues of support in the local community (eg food parcels, debt advice) will be a necessary first consideration.
  7. Consider the remote interaction as something that is planned in advance. Many effective conversations follow the following format
    • Check in (How are you? How was your last week? Is there anything important you need to share?)
    • Review (of any plans made at the last session)
    • Content – see below
    • Summarise what has been decided and who will do what – it is clearly more powerful if the CM takes responsibility for actions
    • Arrange the next call

The Content

  1. Plan to bring something new to the call each week.
  2. The CM needs to feel that the call is purposeful and brings something to their life
  3. The topic should, where possible, be responsive to what has been discussed in previous calls
  4. It is unlikely the conversation will focus specifically on previous offending, but attention should be paid throughout to potential risk indicators or safeguarding issues – any such should be escalated as usual
  5. Content that is likely to be helpful in the current situation includes
    • Ways of managing anxiety
    • Advice around poor sleeping patterns
    • Social interaction – who and how they can spend time with people
    • Ensuring the CM is accessing the healthcare they need
    • Talking about healthy habits, food, exercise, use of alcohol etc
    • Motivational work – many people are feeling bored, but lethargic and the CM might need encouragement to sort out presenting practical issues (benefits, housing etc)
    • Information about local resources (foodbanks, debt advice)
    • Information about Covid 19 if they have limited access to the News.

Further ideas

It is likely remote forms of working will be with us for some time, so we would like to review and add to this document as expertise in this area increases. Please make further suggestions if you have them.

Liz Hickey
National Quality Manager
Circles UK
12th May 2020 


McNeil, F (2020) Penal Supervision in a Pandemic. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research