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Research: Social workers’ experience of working remotely in response to COVID

Remote working constituted a shift in routine practices and required radical changes to service delivery, increased reliance on digital technology and greater extent of lone working, according to a report published by The British Journal of Social Work.

Independent Social Worker

The BJSW research based on interviews with 13 social workers highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic signalled a radical shift in health and social care services globally. Social workers were challenged to ‘dig deep’ to continue to provide services as usual. However, problems implementing new ways of working were reported but not examined in-depth through research.

In fact, research examining challenges and transitions faced by social workers has largely been overshadowed by those faced by healthcare professionals, the research warned.

“Remote working constituted a shift in routine practices and required radical changes to service delivery, increased reliance on digital technology and greater extent of lone working,” said the report.

The respondents in the research outlined that while they were determined to maintain ‘business as usual’ in line with core social work principles and values, COVID-19 restrictions impacted standard practice and the overall quality of service provision.

Inequalities

An increased reliance on telephone communication with service users was identified as a barrier to fundamental practices, including relationship building. One social worker reported that not being able to conduct face to face interviews ‘did not sit comfortably’ with her.

Concerns were raised that changes in practice and the format of contact meant the needs of some service users were being overlooked.

“Some of the people aren’t getting the service that they necessarily need because some of those children and young people need that face-to-face support and they aren’t getting that. And that could be for lots of different reasons like family dynamics. I think that’s the biggest one. Family dynamics are a barrier towards accessing the child at home. And school was the safe place where we could access them,” said one social worker.

Another cited the difficulties trying to balance the safety of the staff as well, alongside the needs of the service users, saying it did not feel ‘natural’ as a social worker to not be out visiting clients.

Remote working also inadvertently reinforced inequalities amongst service users, particularly in relation to material resources. There was the expectation that children and young people had devices and printers to print off resources when often that wasn’t the case.

Respondents also revealed how they found working remotely to overcoming the physical barriers to seeing families “challenging”. The adoption of digital technology by social workers in the study required a period of rapid learning and often they had the kit but no training in how to use it. Social workers also feared missing important factors or cues due to their partial view of a service user’s reality by utilising technology.

Isolation

One social worker gave the example of dealing with victims of domestic abuse and said they were never sure if the perpetrator was present during the remote call meaning the victim may not have been able to speak honestly about the situation. Furthermore, body language couldn’t be read as easily in online sessions.

It was felt that digital technology had a place in social care but as an addition to routine practice and not as a replacement.

Feelings of isolation were raised by social workers with this impacting on practitioners and managers. Working at a physical distance from colleagues interfered with communication and support networks. Social workers discussed not being able to ‘bounce off each other’ or have a quick chat about a case following a phone call.

Operations became more siloed: “We’re all in a silo working on our own, no one knows what cases each other are working and so we haven’t called on each other to help out for risky visits and things like that. So, that hasn’t felt great and at times you’ve felt quite alone in your decision making in that it can be hard to speak to managers and we don’t have a good system,” said one respondent.

The majority of participants had been exclusively working from home since the beginning of lockdown, but a limited minority continued to conduct face-to-face visits with service users or working in their usual office environments, observing strict physical distancing guidelines.

While working from home provided a number of benefits, relationships between participants and their home-space required renegotiation; which was problematic in a social work context.

On the plus side:

  • Social workers appreciated not commuting to and from work on a daily basis.
  • Time spent travelling to and from appointments with service users and external partners was also reduced.
  • Social workers enjoyed being able to work more flexibly.
  • The ability to capitalise on flexible working had positive implications for work/life balance.

However, social workers also felt a level of pressure and expectation to be visible at their desks throughout the day and maintain an online presence.

Compromised

Responsibilities at home complicated matters. Some had young children who required home-schooling; others were sharing their home with partners who were shielding due to health conditions. These additional responsibilities added further expectations and demands.

One social worker said: “Trying to educate four kids and do social work just … It got on top of me at one point, but now I think I’m just trying to think, as long as they’re safe, they’re just going to have to catch up if they do get a bit behind.”

The use of digital technology to support home working permitted service user entry, albeit virtually, to social worker’s home space and for some, this level of access was undesirable. Others felt compromised that colleagues could ‘see into their house’ in Teams meetings which they wouldn’t allow in a physical sense.

However, some social workers described the ability to share more of their personal lives with service users useful for rapport. For instance, two-way video calls afforded service users the opportunity to enter into the worlds of social workers, which helped breakdown hierarchies between social workers and clients.

Risk

Risk management and assessment are commonplace in standard social work practice but COVID-19 generated a new set of risks and procedures to be implemented, and information around this seemed vague at the outset.

Social workers were faced with a challenge around to risks associated with COVID-19 infection in that the minority conducting face-to-face contact with service users had to gauge whether they posed a risk to vulnerable clients.

One participant described a situation involving a mother seeking refuge for herself and five children. The social worker broke physical distancing restrictions in order to provide support. “I was very aware of the risk. Equally, what do you do? Do you leave the children and the mum in a very risky situation, or, do you kit yourself up [with PPE] and you just do it. I will always kit myself and do it, I’m afraid. I can’t leave children in that situation if I can be part of the solution to it.”

“Social workers in this study reflected on the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19. Participants shared concerns about hidden needs of vulnerable members of society, increased demand, financial cuts but also opportunities to take forward new ways of working. All participants described experiencing an initial reduction in the demand for social work services at the start of lockdown,” said the report.

Frustration

Respondents also raised concerns that referrals were quiet, which could potentially result in a ‘calm before the storm’ scenario. While it was ‘business as usual’ and social workers were responding to urgent situations there was no surge of work that was anticipated.

Respondents shared concerns about potential financial impacts of COVID-19, these concerns were often based on past experience in times of austerity.

Concerns were raised about the extent to which social work should operate remotely in the future and what consequences this held for service users: “I think in relation to longer-term impact, I think it’s perhaps anxieties that this virtual working is going to be perhaps taken forward in the future. I certainly think we will be changing the way we work, absolutely. If it will save time to be able to focus on work more, that’s great, but not at the expense of vulnerable people in the community,” said one participant in the study.

“Short-term compromises on services are accepted by service providers and users. However, should the pandemic continue and should compromises turn into the ‘new norm’ for social work then acceptance may turn into frustration,” said the report.

Utilising digital technology has been positive for some but not all and, as a result, further training is required to optimise engagement and use with service users.

“Social workers are predicting an upsurge in demand in the aftermath of the pandemic; population trends in terms of increased unemployment rates, incidents of domestic violence, number of children living now living in poverty in the UK and emerging evidence on the impact of ‘long-COVID’ increase the likelihood of a surge,” said the report.

“Social work leaders need to balance efficiency facilitated by new technology against the needs of social workers to sustain core values and principles, otherwise vulnerable people risk being left behind,” the report concluded.

Exploring the Impact of the First Wave of COVID-19 on Social Work Practice: A Qualitative Study in England, UK

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