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Why social work can’t become too remote

Chief Executive of WillisPalmer Mark Willis on remote working within social work

‘Remote working’ has become the go-to phrase in many industries throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Whole office blocks in London and other major cities remain deserted since March. The three big London investment banks HSBC, Citi and Goldman, having previously instructed staff to get back to their desks, have done what in city parlance is called a ‘reverse-ferret’ and told staff to stay away. Spare rooms, kitchens and even hallways are the new corporate habitat, while team meetings have been usurped by Zoom or Microsoft Teams virtual gatherings.

But what of social work? And how does a profession that has hitherto considered the quality of the relationship between client and professional so sacrosanct whole books have been written on it. I would wager that pre 23rd March the suggestion that it was possible to develop a meaningful professional relationship with someone without being in the same room would have been considered at best radical and at worst unethical.

But the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have changed everything. Over the past eight months, social workers working with children and vulnerable families have been conducting a whole range of functions using remote technology. ‘Home’ visits, child protection conferences and looked after children reviews have mostly all ‘gone digital’. Only the most vulnerable children have seen social workers face-to-face.

However, research recently published by Dr. Laura Cook at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has highlighted a number of risks associated with remote working including what is being termed ‘digital exclusion’. In her study of nine local authorities she found not all families had access to the Internet at home or could afford data costs associated with lengthy video calls. Moreover the study found there were distinct disadvantages for social workers undertaking assessments in terms of picking up ‘sensory clues’ as to what might be going on for the child at home. As a result many social workers commented that their assessments were less robust as it was more difficult to detect ‘hidden risks’.

Furthermore, attempts to conduct statutory meetings such as child protection conferences online were sometimes hampered by the local authority insistence on using Microsoft Teams or Zoom – platforms not widely known or understood by many vulnerable families who may be more adept at using the better known, more socially understood and used FaceTime, Skype or WhatsApp video calling. A lack of emotional support for parents when major decisions were being taken about their children left some people feeling unsupported. At times such as these ‘remoteness’ would not have felt beneficial to anybody.

Conversely the UEA study also identified a number of benefits to virtual engagement with children and families. Use of FaceTime and WhatsApp was welcomed by the majority of families and an increased use of text messaging was found to be surprisingly effective. Interestingly, a pattern of ‘little and often’ replaced less frequent but longer interactions with families and was largely welcomed. Older children engaged more meaningfully in looked after reviews and other meetings which previously they would have failed even to attend.

So, what will the post-Covid world of children and family social work look like? One thing that does appear certain is the end of traditional social work offices; the image of hard working, stressed professionals lumped together in teams on the fourth floor of a 1970’s office block is likely, soon enough, to be a scene from history. Many would say, no bad thing.

Indeed, when questioned in the UEA study social workers described feeling ‘very well supported’ or ‘more supported’ than usual while working from home as a result of keeping in close contact with colleagues virtually. (An added, although uncommented upon benefit of no longer sitting with team members is surely when making a cup of coffee only one is needed rather than nine).

At a recent conference I attended run by the Westminster Education Forum, Chief Executive of Birmingham Children’s Services Andy Couldrick said that the days of ‘desk-based’ working for social workers in large offices were over. Spaces previously full of desks were now being transformed to create safe areas for social workers to mix, reflect and learn. Tellingly, Couldrick commented that in Birmingham – the largest local authority in Europe – sickness rates among social work staff had actually fallen during the pandemic; a cruel irony during a period where over fifty thousand people in the United Kingdom have so far died.

It seems therefore that the move towards remote working for social workers working with children and families is likely to become increasingly prevalent in the post-Covid era. In this context it is vitally important that more research is undertaken about the impact of such an approach and this should focus upon the efficacy of remote interventions and ensuring that the safety and welfare of children is not compromised in any way.

Moreover, research needs to focus upon the impact upon families, many of whom will need financial assistance to access both data and hardware such as good quality smartphones or computers. Has there ever been a more opportune time for the government to actively demonstrate it’s desire to ‘build back better’ by introducing a scheme to ensure all children, regardless of socio-economic resources, have access to a computer and the Internet at home?

Whilst remote working is no doubt here to stay in some form, social work must never lose sight of the value of relationship-based interventions. The power of a gentle touch on the arm when a mum is upset or the ability to pass over a tissue to a young person whose life has been disrupted by abuse must not be lost in the race towards a digital utopia. Sometimes being in the same room as a vulnerable person has an efficacy that can never be replicated through Zoom or WhatsApp.

As 2021 approaches and we all hopefully look forward to better times ahead the social work profession must come to a consensus about how it is going to integrate some of the clear benefits of home working, remote technology and digital advancement whilst not losing sight of it’s most powerful tool – human connection - and its innate humanity to make a difference to people’s lives.





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