What have been your experiences since the start of the coronavirus pandemic?
Katharina Loose: Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve come to realise just how important a counselling centre’s technical equipment is in terms of providing effective guidance despite the complex circumstances. And this applies not only in the provider’s offices, but where possible also in the home office. Luckily this was possible for us at BUS GmbH. Complete workstations were set up really quickly. This included redirection of phone calls and email, but also scanners, printers etc. This meant we were also able to work from home to support those seeking advice.
Also notable was the way in which our target audience very clearly understood the situation, as well as their willingness to work with us under slightly more difficult conditions. This includes, for example, to posting necessary documents and the declarations of consent relating to data privacy — both of which took place with barely any problems — but also to the willingness shown to try out different methods of counselling with us.
How did you carry out your counselling, and did you experience any difficulties or anything else of note?
Katharina Loose: Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic we have been largely providing counselling by phone or digitally via email. At the end of May 2020, we also returned to face-to-face counselling. Due to the new “lockdown light” in November, we had to once again limit our counselling sessions to digital channels.
As much as possible, we try to gauge in advance which cases urgently need to be discussed face-to-face and which matters we can perhaps resolve in a different way. And, of course, we are fastidious in ensuring that all hygiene regulations are adhered to if we meet face to face.
In the case of digital counselling, however, one thing we noticed was that the frequency of contacts and the time taken up by individuals seeking advice was significantly higher than for a face-to-face discussion on site.
Why is more time required for digital counselling than for counselling in person?
Katharina Loose: If you are not sitting opposite each other or at least seeing one another on a screen, it's not so easy to explain a form to somebody or to show it to them. Also, answering emails takes much more time than you first expect. This is because it's not just about writing everything down, but also about presenting subject matter in a way which is understandable, complete and, where possible, without using too many specialist terms. Despite this, there are always questions which then need to be answered in another email — in some cases a few days later. This means you're constantly having to reacquaint yourself with the case.
Which digital media and formats have you used during the coronavirus pandemic?
Katharina Loose: In addition to counselling by phone and email, we have also provided online counselling. For this we have used the “Jitsi Meet” video conferencing program. However, in practice, there was barely any call for this type of counselling. The reason for this was that often those seeking advice didn't have access to the necessary technology.
How might digital media add to or replace face-to-face discussion?
Katharina Loose: One clear benefit of digital counselling is the flexibility in terms of timing both for counsellors as well as for those seeking our advice. This applies, in particular, to counselling via email. However, in my experience, for those seeking advice from a migration background, a complete move away from face-to-face counselling to technical and digital methods would not be effective. There are lots of reasons for this besides the technical challenges. These include, for example, insufficient knowledge of German and a lack of previous experience with the authorities on the part of those seeking advice; the positive effect of making eye contact when counselling on specific issues, the fact that gestures and facial expressions can help in a supportive way, and that it's generally easier to build up trust in a face-to-face discussion. For me, therefore, a combination of digital and face-to-face counselling works best.
The interview with Katharina Loose took place in November 2020. The 56-year-old has worked since 2011 as a recognition and job training counsellor at the Network IQ Lower Saxony. However, her own experiences meant she had been dealing with issues relating to the recognition of foreign professional qualifications and degrees from a much earlier stage. She was born in Kazakhstan as a German national and first worked there as a teacher before she moved to Germany with her family. Together with her colleagues at BUS GmbH, she now advises those seeking recognition in Osnabrück and Vechta on all issues surrounding the vocational recognition procedure. The counselling centre is part of the national network “Integration through Qualification (IQ)”.