Social workers shouldn’t blame hotdesking for workplace challenges

The focus on hotdesking is misguided - problems such as lack of support predate modern working practices, argues Stacey Pellow-Firth

call centre hot desking
Image: Fotolia/John Takai

By Stacey Pellow-Firth

Professor Eileen Munro is not alone in claiming that hotdesking is leaving child protection social workers unsupported and at greater risk of burnout. In recent years social work publications and academics have frequently talked of the negative impact on workers from these vast, open plan, ‘call centre’ environments.

However, I would like to offer an alternative – and possibly controversial – viewpoint.

I work in a hotdesking environment and have also worked in social work offices during my 13 years in children’s social work. I am an advanced practitioner, hold a caseload, supervise staff and deputise for my team manager. I fully understand how stressful and pressurised our work can be.

For most of my social work career I worked in a county-wide leaving care team covering a vast geographical area with satellite offices. My manager’s office was 35 miles away from mine. Social workers still had offices and desks to call their own. However, due to the nature of my job and the geographical area we covered, it was not unusual for workers based in the same office to go several days without seeing one another.

Support is cultural

Herein lies the essence of my view on hotdesking. Although I would go days without seeing my colleagues or manager, despite difficult visits, meetings and phone calls I felt more supported and empowered than I had been in a previous role with everyone surrounding me in a social work office.

The focus on hotdesking is misguided and, dare I say it, channels blame on factors out of one’s control rather than taking an introspective view on how to move forward.

Take the issue of social workers feeling isolated and lacking the support of colleagues.

You can as easily feel isolated in a room of people as you can in an empty one. For me, isolation is a social construct rather than a physical state.

When I worked in the team described above, after a difficult visit I would call my manager or a colleague. I didn’t need to physically see someone to be supported by them. Our team met regularly and I had regular supervision. The job was difficult and at times incredibly stressful, but the culture was to support one another and being based in separate offices or being away from the manager didn’t negatively affect this.

Depersonalisation

Another issue raised by critics of hotdesking is workers feeling undervalued if they are not given their own space. This depersonalisation can be viewed in both individual terms (family photos, plants, favourite mug) and team identity (having on display team posters, departmental information, relevant policies/procedures).

My previous experience tells me that some workers wholeheartedly adorned their desks with plants, photos, drawings etc, while others showed no signs of personalisation, making you wonder whose desk it was. Some arrived at the office at the crack of dawn, seemingly never left and ate all three meals of the day at their desks, while others merely used them as a perch for their bag when using the photocopier between visits.

Not all workers want or need a personalised desk and office space to do their job and feel valued. What all need are the facilities and means to do the job effectively – the rest is personal preference.

Multi-disciplinary teams

I also have a counter view to the assertion I’ve seen that multi-disciplinary hotdesking environments increase the challenges of the job, since workers are not freely able to make phone calls or have discussions with colleagues, must constantly be aware of what sensitive documents may be on their desks, and must lock computers as soon as desks are left.

Some of these so called ‘limitations’ should actually be reframed into considerations for all working environments. Furthermore, it can be difficult actually trying to work in a well-established social work office; constant conversation, not all of it work related, can be distracting for some.

Individual preferences

Social work office environments suit some workers and hotdesking others. I do not profess to state that one is better than the other as workers are as individual as the families they work with.

But hotdesking should not solely be blamed for increased isolation, lack of support, feeling devalued and increased challenges. These were as evident pre hotdesking as they are today.

While modern working exacerbates these difficulties for some, for others the focus is on embracing the change.

Hotdesking seems to be an example of the profession uniting against a common cause for which there is no easy resolution. Budgets are being drastically cut and local authorities are trying to make ends meet in an impossible climate of uncertainty. But I would like to see social work academics and publications focus on how to promote resilience in these environments, and explore what is working well in local authorities that hot desk.

Stacey Pellow-Firth is principal social worker for functional family therapy at Cornwall Council, and is also undertaking a ProfDoc, researching care leavers.

15 Responses to Social workers shouldn’t blame hotdesking for workplace challenges

  1. Annie August 15, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    I could not agreed more. I have been a social worker for 15 years- worked in tiny rooms in old school buildings, massive open plan offices and haven’t had my own desk for 5 years- the lack of ability to put a photo or fairy lights from my screen has not had any impact on my ability to practice as a social worker, what has impacted on my ability to work smartly and resiliently has been the outdated management responses to flexible working policies, putting in barriers to flexible and home working with flawed non evidence based business cases for having everyone’s bums on seats in the office. The quality of support from a team is about the skills and behaviour of the team and how they are led. In my current role, we are all out and about all over the county and don’t get into the office every day, but I feel more supported than I ever did in the team where I had a desk but no flexibility!

    • Mike Synan August 17, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

      A different perspective as to why I believe hot-desking is not for all. Individuals require seats to be adjusted to suite their needs. Many injuries are caused by poor posture. From my personal experience, as you get older you pay dearly for poor posture. I have been advised by a much respected therapist that the correct position for your eyes in relation to the computer screen is one third of the way up. This position is to protect your neck joints. Have a look around your office and see how many colleagues eyes are in that position, I will tell you, none.

      How does the above relate to hot-desking? My answer is a simple one; you are likely to neglect your body because you do not have the time to make the necessary adjustments to your work station to meet your needs.

  2. David Steare August 15, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    Although I’m retired I am still concerned about what is happening to social workers. This opinion piece is just that – opinion. For a more neutral approach that offers research based evidence try:
    https://www.businessfirst.co.uk/news/hot-desking-is-revolutionising-modern-business-but-is-it-worth-it/

  3. Debbie August 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    There is the crux of it ‘our team met regularly and I had supervision’.

  4. Debbie August 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm #

    There may be the crux of it – ‘team met regularly and I had regular supervision’. You only have to read comments on this website to know that one of the big issues in many authorities is the lack of supervision social workers feel they are not getting. In the authority I work for policy has been reduced to max of 8 a year, how long before 6?

    As for telephone contact– managers have taken to ‘working from home’. When you call them have to leave a message asking them to call you back. When they call back your inevitably in next meeting / home visit or driving or don’t get call due to bad signal. Like wise when calling them how do you know they are free or in a space to talk to you. When I’m in office my phone never stops ringing and it would be difficult to say to a colleague can you call back in 10 mins I’m just need to finish this piece of work.

    I to work in a very rural part of the country and often find have no mobile signal. Everything has been centralised and everyone base is in city. So travelling times have increased enormously as localised teams do not exist – there goes hot desking.

    Stacey talks of hot desking being a new different type of challenge. In adult services we seem to be having new and different challenges thrown at us on a weekly basis if not to national policy them to local policy, restructures, threat of redundancy, service and budget cut backs. Please please we do not need any more ‘challenges’ particularly one like this which brings with it new frustrations.

  5. Prof. Martinjay August 15, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    I guess many social workers involved with frontline Child protection (not leaving care) will have a very different view to the writer’s!

  6. A.M August 15, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    “While modern working exacerbates these difficulties for some, for others the focus is on embracing the change.”

    In other words, if you have a problem with it, you are the problem. Yes, that’s the local authority culture I recognise.

  7. Ali August 15, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

    Try hotdesking in child protection ‘advanced practitioner’

  8. Jane Perry August 15, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    I feel like I’m in the minority, but I quite like the flexibility of hotdesking and that I don’t have to sit next to the same person every day (though, obviously, I do have my favourite colleagues who I will often sit next to given the choice!). The technology involved in hotdesking also allows to me work in other offices, which can be more convenient to a stat. visit I’ve just done and save me driving time; but, as the author noted, different people like to work in different ways and just because I know hotdesking actually suits me, I wouldn’t pretend that it suits everyone.

  9. Donevan August 15, 2016 at 9:26 pm #

    I can only speak for myself but I use programs that do not run well on a laptop and require significant quiet to use.

    Further having a chance to carefully consider the factors that need to be considered and their opposite so a professional opinion can be rendered in the best interests of the client which must be supported by facts and arguments pro and con is at the heart of being professional. We rarely take the time to ponder all the facts, obligations, procedures, personalities and other factors that may drive us to make an assessment that may not be in the short and long term interests of the client.

    Rarely do we consider the harm that is done by the systems we work in that in many case are worse then the home setting.

    I believe having a chance to be set up with all equipment ready for you and resources available and the time to make professional decisions benefits all. There are subtle influences to not having stability that often go unnoticed till they boil over. One of the things I have noticed there is an expectation that all Social Workers are class A personalities with a go, go, go ability willing to spend day and night involved with work. That is a set up for failure and burn out and I would believe and certain research backs up as fact.

    We do need to do what is good for the social worker, the systems and the client in the short and long term anything less is a form of systemic failure.

    Donevan, RSW (Canada)
    Donevan@mnsi.net

  10. Jim Greer August 15, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

    The pressure to adopt hotdesking is partly financial but also practical and environmental. It is not economically feasible to maintain offices which at any given time of the day may only have 30% occupancy at any given time. Air conditioning, heating, lighting and cubic metres of office space are all real costs and they all have an environmental footprint. In a paper free environment there is also no need for files, cabinets, shelves etc.
    However, offices also fulfill other functions such as providing space to meet and discuss cases, privacy to make sensitive phone calls, quiet zones for writing reports etc. It is simply not good enough to replace offices with call centre type environments which are noisy and unpleasant to work in. Neither is it acceptable to introduce agile working without good quality mobile phones and lap tops or other suitable mobile devices.
    Some of the money saved from closing offices needs to be set aside to providing replacement work areas which meet the needs of the social work profession. There is plenty of literature from the private sector about how moving out of permanent offices into better designed spaces can actually improve collaboration and mutual support between workers. Social work is not the only job which requires these things and many other industries have embraced new working methods successfully.
    Another important factor is the need for providing workers with high quality IT which allows them to do the job from a wider range of locations. This can improve productivity and make work more flexible for people with caring or parenting roles.
    Expecting our jobs to stay the same in an environment of rapid technological and economic change is not feasible. Rather, social workers should be trying to find ways to contribute to discussions within their organizations and more widely as a profession about how agile working and new technology can enhance their work and their enjoyment of it. Successful change requires thought and planning by management and genuine consultation with workers.

  11. Social worker August 16, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Hot desking may help prevent cliques and unhealthily close relationships developing in the workplace – it is obvious that friendships and loyalty to these friends / colleagues can cloud professional decision-making and lead to bullying. I wish that we could have had hot desking, so I could have avoided some bullies at work.

    Loyalty to colleagues is supposed to give way to loyalty to the service users, unless that colleague is a manager – then God help You!

  12. Sabine August 16, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

    I think what is the preferred option for some people (hot desking), may not work for others. Personally, I would not cope with hot-desking for two reasons: due to chronic back injury I would need to bring my special chair, monitor raisers, foot support to anywhere I would be expected to hotdesk. That to me is not practical in any way as it also involves workstation assessments! And I am not aware that budgets would extend to hiring a porter for me!
    The second reason – a valid one for me and maybe others – is that the office is also a place where I feel able to sit down and reflect/think things through, communicate directly with colleagues. Having my own desk also means I do not have to worry about vacating the space.

  13. Pearlene August 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

    I have been a child protection social worker for over 25 years and remember the days when we had our own desks and could have personal items displayed on our desks that serve to remind us of why we do the job. I have also experienced hot desking and as some one with a hidden disability i.e. dyslexia I have struggled with hot desking, not knowing where I can put my bag or sit stresses me out and makes me feel disorientated. I think it’s about where you are coming from, some may welcome it while others fear it, I include myself in this group. I also think there is too much reliance on technology.

  14. Stephanie August 17, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I don’t mind hot desking but I do like to sit in the same vicinity as my team which I think is a key concern in our LD adult services team. I have a specialist keyboard and mouse which is a pain to move each day, but I do like to sit near different people depending on the day, mood or need. We have also been encouraged to sit near our health colleagues, as supposedly we are an integrated team 😉