Social workers may not have realised how attached they were to their office desks, until hotdesking was introduced more than 10 years ago. These days, three quarters of social workers and care staff hotdesk, yet it still remains a controversial and widely unpopular concept. Sue White, head of social work at the University of Birmingham, says this is because it is used as a cost-cutting measure, with no thought as to the impact on social work practice.
Hotdesking special report
She points out that it removes much of the safety net that currently surrounds social workers, where judgements emerge through interactions and continual discussion with colleagues and managers. White’s stance is echoed by interim children’s social care manager and consultant, Nick Berbiers: “I have friends and colleagues in other professions who don’t seem to mind it at all, usually because they do a mixture of home-based and multiple-office based work and are entirely comfortable with it.
“But social work is not like that. Social workers need their own space, so they have somewhere fixed and constant to focus and reflect. Personalising a desk with all those family photos and Coldplay posters fits with the psychological theories about the importance of identity, which help with self-reflection. Unhappy, dislocated, and ‘homeless’ social workers are, in my book, the least likely to be operating at their best.”
How flexible working can help
Southwark Council in London has had hotdesking in place for at least five years and introduced it for social work staff a few months ago, after the department moved into a new building. Ray Boyce, head of older people services, says that, although staff were anxious about the hotdesking, the improvement in facilities helped.
“They had been in one of those grotty social work buildings we all know: grotty carpets, cramped rooms, boiling in summer and freezing in winter,” he explains. “But everyone loves the new building and they seem to have accepted that hotdesking is part of the deal. […] Obviously I come at it from the adult social care side and we don’t need clients to visit us so I’m not sure how that is handled, but for us we have not had any negative feedback on hotdesking so far.”
Flexible working arrangements are available at the council, which Boyce believes has so far avoided the common problem of too many staff coming into work on one day and not being able to find a desk.
Rod Spence, office accommodation programme manager for Southwark, says the office accommodation programme in Southwark has seen the selling off of many old offices that were not fit for purpose and funds reinvested in modern offices equipped with the IT and phone technology to assist hotdesking, as well as working from home. The IT system is set up so that staff can log onto their electronic records and email from any Southwark Council building. “As a whole we’ve freed up 27 properties and managed to save about £55m. Everyone is working in fewer buildings which increases face-to-face conversations.”
Spence concludes that hotdesking, if done properly, increases flexibility and communication between different teams. “We’ve certainly found that it reduces the silo mentality that we had existing between many of our teams – and it increases efficiency.”