Various authors have written about the challenges of remote working (particularly in children and family services) and the need for workers to have a “safe space” in which to work. In his book on child protection, Harry Ferguson discusses the essential elements for critically reflective practice in social work. One of these is the need for a safe place to return to, where practice experiences can be shared and reflected upon with others; where the impact of doing social work can be acknowledged, recognised and affirmed.
Despite this, as many social workers will know, a number of local authorities across the country have implemented a new style of remote or flexible working, including hotdesking. For our 2013-14 final year BA social work students, this has raised a number of questions and concerns.
A minority of students felt this style of working provided good opportunities to engage with and gain the views of multi-disciplinary professionals. A few said it enhanced their ability to manage their own work diary and reduced the need to travel to centralised, static places of work.
However, others highlighted problems with the practicalities of entering a new placement in which remote or flexible working arrangements were in place, such as delays in receiving equipment and difficulty finding a parking space or desk to work from, or logging into the network.
The emotional support of not having their practice educator, workplace supervisor or team onsite left some students feeling vulnerable and confused about where to go for advice and guidance, particularly in the early stages of the placement. Many felt isolated and unsupported. Most described their experience of this new way of working as anxiety provoking, with increased stress in terms of the time searching for a suitable space to plug into the network, the need to be very confident with the practical, technological aspects of mobile working, and the time wasted packing and unpacking.
Students often found it necessary to set up their own informal support systems, as supervisors were not available. They described developing climates of suspicion and negativity and the experience of being part of a team whose members remained mere names on a sheet.
For us as a higher education institution (HEI), this led to careful consideration of how to prepare students for this new style of working. We needed to recognise this style of working and work with local authority partners to debate the issues and find effective solutions. It was also essential to maintain feedback and reporting mechanisms for the ongoing support of students.
As part of the working relationship between us and the partner local authority, there was an inherent responsibility to ensure that students obtained a good understanding of the new style of working in order that they could feel supported, secure and ready to practice and not be bogged down by the above concerns. Local authority policies needed to be developed and communicated to students prior to placement, with practice educators, workplace supervisors, managers, students and HEI tutors educated about the expectations of remote and flexible working.
Many authors have identified connection with people in social work as essential for good practice and safe practice. The need to be alert to the wellbeing of others, in a role that makes exceptional emotional demands on the worker, is critical if social workers are to perform their role and engage with service users and carers in a professional and meaningful way. These are the issues that need to be urgently addressed as local authorities seek to save money and adopt new working practices.
Kay Wall is a lecturer in social work and Lesley Parish a practice learning co-ordinator for North East Worcestershire College