Peeling wallpaper, collapsing furniture and so little sunlight that rickets is a workplace hazard – no, not a scene from Little Dorrit, but a description of some social work offices.
Just ask the unlucky staff at the east London borough of Redbridge’s children’s trust. Nick Garcia,* a social worker with the trust, is based in a portable cabin that was previously a temporary doctor’s surgery.
“There’s 50 of us all in individual, small rooms, all cut off from each other,” he says. “We could open the doors, but we’re not allowed, because that’s a fire hazard.
“Once, the heating didn’t work for five months so we had to use electric heaters everywhere, which wasn’t the safest thing to do. And the walls are made of fibreboard that is coming apart – every time you touch them you get covered in white dust.”
The centre also once had a dead fox stuck underneath it which wasn’t cleared up before it “stank the place to high heaven”. Unsurprisingly, Garcia says that it is embarrassing to have visitors come to the centre, which is owned by the local PCT, and service users avoid coming in whenever possible.
“We were supposed to have a new centre but the planning permission was denied, and since then there’s been nowhere else to put us,” he says. “This should have been dealt with a lot quicker than it has been.”
Poor quality offices aren’t only unpleasant; the effect on productivity can be serious. A report in 2005 by architecture firm Gensler estimated that working in unpleasant surroundings can cut workers’ productivity by a fifth.
For many social workers stuck in offices that were furnished before decimalisation, the idea of a welcoming workplace will seem laughable. But the past few years have seen some departments move into new premises, as councils have shrunk their sprawling property portfolios to save money.
Garcia can only look with envy at Hertfordshire Council’s headquarters. It consists of three gleaming modern buildings where clean surfaces and ergonomic furniture abound. Earl Dutton, assistant director (older people and physical disability) for Hertfordshire, says that a four-year programme to move staff from several small sites to the reconditioned buildings has been a success.
“I’ve worked in places where plaster was peeling off the wall and staff just didn’t have respect for where they worked – at some sites I was embarrassed to even call a meeting,” says Dutton. “But the new buildings have made a big difference. There’s better morale because we’re all affected by the environment we work in and it says a lot about an organisation to the rest of the world.”
Dutton’s embarrassment with his old surroundings is shared by many; according to the Gensler survey one-fifth of all managers felt the same about their workplaces.
But Kevin Kendall, chair of Serving Construction and Architecture in Local Authorities, which aims to improve design in the public sector, says social services don’t have a lower standard of workplace than other local authority departments.
“There is a mixture of quality in any council, but most authorities still have some examples of low-grade office accommodation,” he says. “While there has been a lot of investment, it’s expensive to make the change for everyone at once.
“What matters is not just creating a new shell – the three critical things are furniture, lighting and ventilation.”
But as well as improving the environment for staff, social work offices have the crucial added need to appear professional to clients, and an office that can’t be mistaken for an NCP car park doesn’t come cheap.
Hertfordshire was able to make changes on a cost-neutral basis by selling off old property, and merging staff from 53 sites into three main centres. The new offices also make use of hotdesking to save more cash. But even projects that save money will require an injection of cash to start them off (£40m for the full council reorganisation at Hertfordshire), and with tightening capital budgets for councils, the prospects of more change elsewhere are currently weak.
Kendall, who is also head of property services at Walsall Council, says the government focus on finding efficiencies in the public sector has encouraged councils to assess their property portfolio and shift funds into frontline services. But the weakening economic picture means that it isn’t a good time to be doing this. “We’re in the middle of a property review at Walsall Council and the economic situation has hindered our progress,” he says. “We can’t sell the land to invest in new property; some larger, land-rich authorities may not have such a restriction.
“It is property values that are important, and what we need now are developers to come back to the market and be interested in working with authorities.”
So how can the case still be made to invest in decent buildings in difficult times? Cary Cooper, professor in organisational psychology and health at the Lancashire University Management School, says that quantifying the benefits of good premises means a solid case can be put forward for getting suitable offices for social work, and points to improvements in the NHS as a template for change.
“Look at the massive changes made in hospitals in the past 10 years. That came from research that showed a faster throughput of patients in well-designed hospitals, so the evidence of the positive impact on care drove the change,” he says.
“We should look at what the issues are for different client groups and then just make it work – do it once, and then just propagate the model. This is not necessarily expensive, and it makes a real difference.”
* Not his real name
Good practice in Southwark
User-specific redesigns may be rare in social work departments, but other sites that social workers use show what a difference it can make. One place with a user-led design is 1st Place children and parents’ centre in Southwark, south London.
Camilla Ford, director at the service, says that its location – replacing a previous Sure Start scheme in a local health centre – has helped entice more people to use the centre. “The thing that’s worked is having the full involvement of parents, and to an extent the children, to make sure it was their vision and meets their needs,” she says. “So there’s lots of light and space, it’s located in the park and is all one level. It is a very welcoming space.
“That creates a sense of community – children can reach all corners of it, so whatever the purpose is that people come in for, they know the focus is on the children and parents. That’s a big plus. Take the enormous sandpit in the middle – for professionals such as the social worker who sometimes works from here, they can meet parents in a non-stigmatising area, rather than in a small meeting room.”
However, 1st Place was funded by New Deal for Communities and Sure Start money. It remains the case that the bottom line for councils will typically determine when and how more traditional social work offices are changed.
Why offices matter
Cary Cooper, professor in organisational psychology and health at the Lancashire University Management School, gives three examples of what messages your working environment communicates.
● It tells you whether society values you if it doesn’t then it keeps you in poor premises.
● It tells you something about your relationships at work. If it is designed properly, it will create a more co-operative, interactive work environment where morale is higher.
● It can affect your relationship with your clients. Interviewing a client in a shabby office tells them that society doesn’t value them, and makes them feel like they are going cap-in-hand.
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This article is published in the 22 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Buildings fit for social workers?