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The problems with WFH when starting a new social work job

Social worker Rita Long* on the difficulties surrounding an online induction to a new role

There is a real danger that the new working from home practice in social work can lead to feelings of isolation among newly recruited members of the team, a social worker has warned.

Rita Long was previously based in an assessment and referrals team in the East of England and joined a fostering recruitment team just one month ago. While enjoying the new role, getting to grips with a new area of social work, new way of working, different pace and a fresh team has been made much more difficult as a result of the working from home culture.

“It is definitely much more difficult going through the induction process remotely. I am having individual meetings with members of the team using Microsoft Teams and so it is one meeting about one person’s role, following by another meeting discussing someone else’s job. I much prefer to see how roles operate and interact in person,” said Rita.

“There have been a couple of shadowing opportunities, but I’ve definitely missed out by not being in a physical team. It’s been very odd and can feel quite isolating,” she added.

WFH was unheard of pre COVID

Rita is no stranger to working from home having done so in her previous role. However, the changes in working practices which have largely been in response to the pandemic are in complete contrast to how things were prior to COVID.

“Prior to COVID, it was unheard of for people to work from home. Occasionally, if someone had a child protection conference report they needed to focus on for a deadline, they might do it from home, but it was very rare,” said Rita.

However social work teams across England and Wales found their working practices were completely changed in response to coronavirus. In Rita’s team, several members of the team were shielding while others were self-isolating if they had come into contact with anyone showing symptoms. So long as they weren’t feeling unwell with any symptoms, social workers working from home would triage cases, or follow up cases with GPs, teachers and other professionals.

“Things didn’t change for me initially, I was still going into the office while other members of the team were shielding or self-isolating. Those of us who were in would carry out risk assessments on cases and if there were safeguarding issues we would carry out the visits face to face. It is not the same meeting families online, you pick up so much more sitting in someone’s house, talking to them – often that gets lost in virtual meetings and assessments.”

“Safeguarding issues frequently arose for example, when a female victim of domestic abuse told me her sister was in the shower for a very long time, it emerged it was in fact her abuser and so I remained at the property until he left,” added Rita.

Families were ahead of the game with technology

“In terms of utilising technology, families were very clued up and ahead of the game,” explained Rita. “They would recommend a WhatsApp call until we got Microsoft Teams in place which was a bit slow in being implemented. Social workers had to get used to working in this way and often prefer working online now.”

“Teams meetings are fine and good in terms of sharing information with your team. But in terms of delivering social work, it has often become the first option as it is quicker, easier and there is no travel involved. I’d be worried if it became routine though, particularly in terms of safeguarding. Things need to be taken on a case-by-case basis,” added Rita.

Yet it wasn’t until after the first lockdown when health and safety risk assessments were carried out in the social work offices looking into issues such as ventilation that it emerged that only two-three staff should be in the office at any one time. A rota was introduced and the rest of the team worked from home.

“This kicked off the ‘working from home’ phenomenon in our team although following the second lockdown people started to choose to work from home. COVID rates were rising and the team started to question the benefit of being in the office when only two-three people were allowed in at any one time and then some people were out on visits or off on annual leave,” explained Rita.

“At that stage, people only came into the office if they were on duty for emergencies. With some of the team living an hour from the office, this was essential to ensure we could respond quickly and effectively. This slowly became the norm or people would use the office for convenience, for example, if they had an hour gap between two visits or if they needed some documents photocopying,” she said.

Logging in earlier

Rita outlined how the success of working from home largely depends on the make up of the team. Her team had regular touch down meetings three times a week for everyone to come together and share information on cases and to ensure that they were all aware of what everyone was doing. It meant there was a focused need to concentrate on communication more effectively rather than relying on seeing someone in the office to speak to them.

Rita changed to her new job in the fostering recruitment team a month ago. This new team have been working from home since the first lockdown. The service manager is in on two specific days a week to maintain a presence but, as in her last job, there can only be a couple of people in the office and time slot have to be booked in advance. Rita is finding that working from home there is no natural opportunity to discuss cases with someone as she found in the office.

“There are clear benefits, I would be commuting for an hour minimum each way and that is time that can now be spent working. The work/life balance I have yet to realise whether this has improved or not. I’m logging on earlier before my children are even up and whereas before I knew I had to leave the office at a certain time to be home for when they got in, as I am at home, there is no natural cue for me to stop and therefore I’m working later too. However, it is handy being able to put a load of washing in while I’m at home and I don’t need to organise someone to come and let the dog out,” explained Rita.

Work is literally spreading around Rita’s house as while she largely works in the kitchen, if her children are home from school she will move to another room to focus and especially for confidential calls. "It just means I have various work stations around the house which means there is a constant reminder of work,” she adds.

WFH could hinder learning for ASYE

Rita is an experienced social worker but has found the virtual induction tough. However, she fears for newly qualified social workers in their ASYE. “There is the need for those in the ASYE to have high volumes of supervision and shadowing opportunities as well as the chance to discuss cases with colleagues. This is really difficult to do if you are not part of a physical team and there needs to be much thought given as to who takes responsibility in these cases,” explained Rita.

She warns that the virtual teams could hinder learning for those in ASYE as she agrees that most learning is done ‘on the job’ by overhearing acronyms, difficult conversations with families from experienced social workers, the language used and cases discussed and therefore it is a learning by osmosis which is not tangible to be taught through a text book.

“I think the working from home trend will continue but I don’t think it will be all or nothing, I think we will see more hybrid methods of carrying out assessments with a mix of face to face and online observations and meetings. There are clear benefits such as less traffic on the roads and a smaller carbon footprint as well as the opportunity for a better work/life balance. However, I don’t think working from home can be sustained in the long term if social workers don’t have teams and a proper office-based interaction,” concludes Rita.

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