Career Clinic: Appreciating the admin teams

Q: Wherever I’ve worked there has been tension between the administrators and client-facing workers. It feels uncomfortable but is it inevitable?

Answer: Good teams understand and value the different contributions made by different specialists with different core competences. This is so for social workers, therapists and nurses who work together in teams for children, disabled people and older people. The aim is to make a salad where all the ingredients can still be identified and their contribution to the whole be seen, rather than a soup where everything is blended together but the distinct contributions are lost in the mix.

The same applies to the skilled task of administration and the core competences of administrators. Often they are the last to be given recognition, may be seen to be marginal to the team’s performance, and sometimes may even be outside the team, located and managed separately. When other staff posts are increased, allowing more work to be undertaken, little consideration is given to the need also to increase administrative capacity.

Two consequences follow. First, other workers who are not so competent in administration, running an office and working with information technology find themselves doing administrative tasks where they are not so skilled and which is a time-consuming distraction from the work they should be undertaking. They also miss out on the knowledge and wisdom often held by administrative staff about how to pull the levers which make things happen, partly based on a memory of the organisation’s history.

Second, administrators may create their own heavily protected space within the organisation, seeking the apparent safety of separate, specialist line management and organisational structures. It can then seem that they and their roles are the purpose and mission of the organisation rather than them being a key expert resource to be harnessed together with others to serve the organisation’s customers and clients.

It is better if there is a mutual respect between all the workers who should be contributing to the overall purpose of the organisation. This may require that time is given to understanding each other’s competences and roles, building shared agendas, determining together what should be expected of each other, and what it is that hinders and annoys.

For the administrative workers this might be the disruption and disregard they experience from other colleagues, who in their turn may experience their administrative colleagues as disengaged or putting up barriers when they are approached for assistance.

For those of us in social work and social care, it might be expected that we would be good at recognising and resolving the strains and stresses that can arise in the office. But while we are outward-focused on serving our clients and communities, or inward-focused on maintaining the organisation and keeping the show on the road, we may at times neglect to give attention to our immediate working relationships and our impact on colleagues.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London

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This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Appreciating the admin teams

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