Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Creating A Virtual Counseling Office

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Since I have transitioned from a regular office based school counselor to a virtual learning support/counselor, I find it necessary to be more accessible to my parents, teachers, and students because I am not always in my office or accessible by telephone.  Although being available after office hours is important, I quickly discovered there must be a balance between accessibility and the permission for others to takeover my life!!  So to maintain my life-work balance, I decided I need to set up my own virtual counseling office.  The purpose of setting up this online office is to meet the demands of our 24/7 society, to provide easy access to important information, and provide flexibility for families who cannot meet within the parameters of the brick and mortar school building. As I am in the planning stages of working on my own office, I wanted to share how you can set up virtual hours whether you are in an office for eight hours a day or online.

You can make this possible without killing yourself!

Why Set Up a Virtual Counseling Office?

Having your own extended office hours can be beneficial for several reasons:

1.  It accommodates parents/families who are not able to reach you during the day.
2.  It allows you to answer "urgent" questions after school that cannot wait until the next day (college application, financial aid, or personal issues).
3.  It eliminates the need for appointments and waiting lines.
4.  It allows students and parents to spend quality time with you without being rushed out the door.

So, how do you establish your own virtual office?
Create an office in the clouds

Step 1

Consider Adding a Virtual Assistant

Some of you may have an real office assistant, but that person may be split among many counselors, shared by other departments, or may be non-existent. Of course, that person is not going to be available after school so you may want to look into adding a virtual assistant to help you expand your hours. Disclaimer:  I can't afford this and this is not going to happen, but I thought I would mention it as it is a viable option.  Having a "virtual assistant" can assist you with after hour parent/student calls or requests and can give your families an immediate response (whether a prerecorded message or email).

So, exactly what is a virtual assistant?  According to She Knows, a virtual assistant is typically a person who works remotely with clients and performs the following tasks: creating and uploading newsletters, responding to emails, running the office calendar, compiling data, preparing presentations, and much more.  The downside of having a person as a virtual assistant is that it is going to cost you!  So, for the purpose of this blog, I will focus on low cost or no cost virtual assistant a little later (so keep reading).

How Can School Counselors Use a Virtual Assistant?

If you decide to use a shared (with another school) or low cost virtual assistant for your department, consider the services or benefits gained.  Some of these services include:

1.  Preparing and emailing electronic newsletters, automatic responses to emails, and managing subscriptions.
2.  Preparing, promoting,  and managing webinars.
3.  Maintaining and updating social media.
4.  Dictating letters and memos.
5.  Maintaining and updating your webpage.

Hi! I am Connie your Virtual Assistant!!
If you are like me and cannot afford a "real" virtual assistant, you may be interested in the no cost option, like a Robotic Personal Assistant. One free to low cost option is the High Rise virtual assistant which allows you to collaborate, swap files, and share contacts with colleagues. Of course, Microsoft and Google have some tools that allow you to create automatic responses to emails that can be quite effective. Check out Jeff Ream's (aka the Counseling Geek) video on how to set up canned responses for Google Mail.


Step 2 

Find Your Tools 


Again, some free/low cost options include:

1.  Google Voice
Google Voice allows you to route or record incoming calls to your cell phone so you never miss a call (this is important to me, but may be not be something you want to do after working eight hours a day).
2.  Cloud based storage (Google Docs, Drop Box, or Zoho Office)
These cloud based storage sites allow you to access and share documents whether at school, home, or out of town.
3.  Mail Chimp
Mail Chimp allows you to send automated messages, events, and newsletters to parents and students.  If you want a great tutorial on how to use Mail Chimp, check out Jeff Ream's article called, Building a Better Series: Setting Up an RSS Driven Email List with Mail Chimp.

Step 3 

Set up your Office Hours

One way to set up your office hours is to use a public calendar which is posted on your webpage and can be made public to your families and students.  One such calendar is Google Calendar.
Add caption
Google Calendar easily allows you to share your calendar with students and families with the times that you have open for appointments. Google will send an alert to your phone when an appointment or event is pending so
you don't miss it.

Another digital calendar you can use is called Schedule Once. Schedule Once has a free and a low cost version available for users.  The great thing about Schedule Once is that it allows you to set up the times that you are available and parents/students can pick several times they would like to see you.  Once the appointment is approved, the parent/student will receive a confirmation email.  Again, check out Jeff Ream's video blog about Schedule Once.


A third scheduling tool is called Doodle.  Doodle allows you to connect your calendar so parents/students can make appointments based on your schedule.  Here is a quick overview of the Doodle calendar.  Also, check out my blog post about Doodle.





Step 4

 Find your Virtual Space

To provide a virtual office, you will need a virtual space and there are some free spaces you can  utilize to conduct a weekly virtual meet and greet with parents and/or students.  You can conduct one on one meetings or include up to 50 people on a virtual meet and greet on a specific topic.  If participants are not able to make it to your meeting, then you can send them a link to the recording.  Some free tools you can use include:

Zoom (my personal new favorite)-will allow you to hold a 45 minute meeting with up to 50 participants.
Appear.in-allows you to invite up to eight people on a video chat for free without logging in or downloading an app.
Free Conference Call.com allows you to hold up to a four hour long conversation .

Although not an exhaustive list, these virtual tools can be useful in setting up your initial virtual office.  After deciding how you will set up your office, you have to establish your hours and just do it!  The idea of virtual office hours is very popular in the post secondary world, but yet has to catch on in the majority of high schools (unless your work online).  If you have virtual hours or thinking about virtual hours, please share as I would love to hear how you set up your own virtual office!

Additional Reference
5 Ways to Build Your Virtual Office