Celebrating unexpected benefits of moving group support online

By Siobhan Mercer on 11th Sep 2020

“Online groups have been so successful. There’s so many unexpected benefits, we wish we’d done it before.”

Vicki, Group Facilitator and Training Coordinator, Saje

Saje Scotland is a small charity, working to reduce and prevent domestic abuse in Scotland. Their key aim is to give women the tools to form healthy relationships and live a life free from abuse.

Saje run face-to-face group support programmes for women who have experienced domestic abuse. These are delivered as face-to-face groups for 10-12 women, supported by two facilitators, meeting for two hours per week for 10-12 weeks.

Many participants describe Saje programmes as lifelines and life-changing.

Crisis time

When lockdown hit in late March, several groups were in the middle of their programme. Safeguarding of vulnerable women is at the heart of Saje’s work but stopping abruptly would be brutal and damaging. Saje also knew domestic abuse would escalate during lockdown. Their support would be more essential than ever for many more women.

Saje had to find a way to continue their vital service. They started to explore how to run online groups. They have recently completed their first 12-week programme delivered completely online. Many participants said they loved the experience which was beyond their expectations. We caught up with Saje’s Group Facilitator and Training Coordinator, Vicki, to find out what they had learnt.

Tribulations and unexpected benefits

Vicki told us that the biggest hurdle was clients’ lack of digital skills. The extra support required meant much initial hand-holding at the start of new groups.

“It was painful but very rewarding work to get the tech beginners up and running, especially seeing the ripple effects of digital inclusion. They have joined other online groups, like yoga and quizzes”

Vicki, Group Facilitator and Training Coordinator, Saje

Saje added a 15-minute pre-start to sessions to troubleshoot tech problems. Over the weeks, this has gradually morphed into a social chat and catch up. The unexpected benefits are that this has

  • eliminated latecomer interruptions
  • the group is more engaged with each other, so the difficult conversations are easier
  • there is less chit chat in group time, so it is easier to stay focussed on that week’s topic

Some vulnerable women who have been on Saje’s waiting lists for years have felt more able to access sessions online. They hadn’t felt able to come to in-person groups for various reasons around practicalities (e.g. caring responsibilities, cost of travel, work schedules), anxieties, agoraphobia, discomfort of walking into a new room with new people, mental health, physical health, and personal safety. These women have thrived in the new online sessions.

Saje’s usual icebreaker works fantastically well online – much better than in f2f group settings. Each person comes up with a positive describing word to match the first letter of their name. In f2f sessions they write these on their name tags, which the person doesn’t really see much. Online this becomes part of their screen name, visible right there beside their own face for the whole session. So there is a screen full of names like Victorious and Storm and Marvellous!
Vicki told us that this has been very empowering for each woman and the group as a whole.

We also spoke to Saje’s chief exec Janet who has said she doesn’t know where their organisation would be without their move to digital. Probably all the staff would still be furloughed. She admits that she didn’t embrace digital quickly or easily. It was her staff who drove them forward. However now she would advise you, and her previous self, to

“Just do it!
Bite the bullet. It’s been brilliant for the clients we have helped.”

Janet, Chief exec, Saje Scotland