Three-quarters of social workers do not have their own space in the office, despite widespread resistance to hotdesking and fears about its effect on morale, stress levels and subsequently on outcomes for service users.
While a quarter of the respondents to Community Care’s joint survey with Unison said they did not mind the concept “if done properly”, many added that hotdesking was failing in their local authority because space was too tightly restricted or there was not enough IT support. Three-quarters of all respondents simply said they “hated the idea”.
“The policy of hotdesking needs to be urgently reviewed.”
Helga Pile, Unison
Nine out of 10 social workers currently hotdesking said it has a detrimental effect on morale, the same again said it has increased their stress levels and eight out of 10 complained they do not have the same access to peer support.
One social worker spoke of rarely seeing colleagues and managers and sometimes having to take confidential files home at the end of the day. Another said they often have to wait until after work to have private conversations with their manager.
For many, lack of peer support was the biggest problem. “Little thought seems to be given to the importance of sharing knowledge and skills within the office environment,” said one respondent to the survey. Others bemoaned the psychological impact of not having their own space at work. “Employees feel devalued when their employer won't even provide them with a desk and the space to put one. I don't think it's much to ask in the larger scheme of things.”
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, pointed out that serious concerns about hotdesking were identified by the Social Work Task Force. Unison has also seen this issue cropping up in workplace health checks. “The survey results show that the policy of hotdesking needs to be urgently reviewed,” she said.
“Social work is an incredibly difficult job as it is without working conditions which add to stress and waste precious time. Time wasted looking for a desk to work at or private space for meetings can be measured. The impact of lost peer support is less easy to quantify but it is very damaging to learning and resilience in the service. Employers need to consider the true cost of hotdesking and make changes to improve the situation for their social workers and for service users.”
Many of the respondents to our survey said they believed hotdesking could have been more successful, had flexible working policies been introduced. Only15% agreed that hotdesking actually allows them to work more flexibly and efficiently, whereas 71% disagreed and the rest were neutral. One social worker said: “We were told that hotdesking was part of flexible working, but staff are never allowed to work at home, so it's clearly just a matter of saving money.”
For those who reported having a positive experience with hotdesking, it was mainly where proper flexible working arrangements were in place, including IT support. “We have laptops which dock and telephones which you log into, so calls are automatically rerouted to your desk wherever you may be,” said one respondent. “This enables me to work from various sites with no fuss.”
“Hotdesking is pretty good, forcing me to stop hoarding and hanging on to lots of paper, be more organised, and forced me to keep electronic records up to date,” said another social worker, who added: “It’s also great having different colleagues around all the time. I’ve probably met more people and been able to ask advice from a range of people with different knowledge and experience.”
John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Services' workforce development network, said that, in his experience, social work teams still tend to congregate together “and retain their identity and proximity”, even if hotdesking arrangements are in place. “There is no evidence I’ve seen which suggests hotdesking is in any way detrimental to efficient, effective and safe social work,” he added. “I think it’s mainly the age-old fear of changes in routines, settings and ways of working.”
We received 474 responses to our hotdesking survey, 77% of which were qualified social workers, 11% assistant team managers or team managers, 10% social work assistants and 2% care workers.
Tips for social workers on coping with hotdesking
If you are a hotdesking social worker and feel it is having a negative impact on your work, Pile has these tips:
- Talk to your union rep and ask them to raise the issue via the local negotiating and consultative structures.
- Keep a diary logging the problems caused, the amount of time wasted, examples of the effect on the service, stress symptoms and loss of peer support and expertise. Ask colleagues to do the same.
- Talk to your team manager. Put your concerns to them in writing.
- Find out who in your organisation is the lead social worker responsible for ensuring that the Social Work Reform Board standards for employers are applied (is there a principal social worker you can write to – perhaps they could shadow you for a day to see the effect?)
- In a time of massive budget cuts, hotdesking will seem an obvious way for councils to try and maximise space, expensive equipment and productivity.
If you have any ideas for other space that could be freed up to fit more desks, or for sharing office space with other local agencies – include this.
Community Care Inform's Guide to implementing hot-desking in the workplace and how to make it work