Does e-mail help or hinder social care offices?

The party started ages ago, the entertainment’s great and
the atmosphere is electric. Everyone who’s anyone is here.
But social care is rather unfashionably late. About 10 years late,

The e-revolution has changed the world. New figures from the
telecommunications regulator Oftel show that 12.5 million homes now
have access to the internet. Many organisations and government
bodies have regarded e-mail and internet access as wholly
indispensable for 10 years or more, and even the new leader of the
Conservatives – that bastion of, er… conservatism
– has his own website

Social care was certainly late for the party, but at least it
has finally rung the doorbell. Research by Community Care in May
found that 94 per cent of people working in social care had
internet access either at work or at home, with more than half
logging on at least once a week.

Those who expected e-mail and internet access to revolutionise
the way people work have not been disappointed. The internet is a
superb source of information, allowing users to find jobs, read the
latest research, download policies and contact distant
organisations at the click of a mouse. E-mail is a convenient,
quick and easy form of communication, particularly within teams or
for disseminating data. Many users now say they could not live
without it.


But there have been some marked downsides to this revolution.
People now talk about the “tyranny” of a seemingly
endless stream of e-mails, all demanding instant responses. They
complain about emptying their inbox at the end of the day, only to
find the following morning that a further 10 “urgent”
requests have been sent by managers who log on – rather
unsportingly – in the middle of the night. They have blazing
rows about messages when their tone has been misinterpreted and get
cross with each other for sending “Mary had a 9lb baby”
e-mails to an entire department, most of whom don’t want to

E-mail’s ability to sidestep the normal negotiation and
discussion that goes on between colleagues is one area that causes
problems. Peter Inglis, a freelance management consultant working
in a local authority social services department, says:
“It’s all too easy to say to someone in an e-mail, can
you do A, B and C, and let me have it by X. In a conversation there
would have been a discussion about timescales and workloads,
deadlines would have been renegotiated. But because e-mails are
clinically quick, these don’t take place. Everyone suffers as
a result.”

Annie Wells used to work for a London borough’s social
services department. She says she often felt “managers used
e-mail as a way of offloading their responsibility to have
considered discussions with their workforce. Some agencies use
e-mail and consider that effective communication has taken


The absence of context and conversational cues in e-mail is
another major problem. James Monger, who manages an outreach team
for a carers’ charity, recalls having a row with a colleague
who had misinterpreted what he intended as a supportive, friendly
message. He says: “I learned a valuable lesson, and now I
always re-read what I’ve written for possible nuances I did
not intend, and try to make allowances when something comes to me
that I find a bit ‘off’.”

He adds: “I also have an agreement with one particular
member of staff that if we have anything difficult to say to each
other we’ll say it face to face, not in an e-mail. I had
several bruisers from her, so I had to find a much better way to
deal with our differences.”
But there can be more serious issues away from the workplace, as
Moraene Roberts, a volunteer for anti-poverty organisation ATD
Fourth World, and a long-term user of services recalls. She cites
incidents where sensitive confidential information about a family
was e-mailed to the organisation by a social worker without any
idea of who they were sending it to. And she argues that e-mail and
internet can also work against inclusion.

“Most of the families known to ATD have never had access
to a computer, and do not have the money, skills or confidence to
use an internet café,” she says. “This can
seriously disadvantage them. I know a mother who did not attend a
recent case conference about her son because the letter about
changes to date and time was delayed by postal strikes. All the
professionals attended because they were e-mailed. How can there be
partnership between families and social workers unless there is
good communication between them at a person to person level, not
just a technological one?”
Good question. Answers on a postcard, please.

Good things

1. You can communicate across continents, do research, or find
people involved in the same work as you – all without leaving
your desk.
2. E-mailing is arguably faster and more efficient than having a
conversation – and more so the more people you need to
contact. Responses can be written and sent with a mouse-click,
without having to draft a letter and organise stationery and
3. Saves postage and paper costs.
4. Highly convenient. No need to keep trying to catch people or
remembering to call them back.
5. Easier to prioritise e-mail-based work than it is to ask someone
to come back to you with their question.
6. People not working in an office can be kept informed.
7. Large quantities of data can be sent to wide groups of
8. An e-mail record is a way to “cover your back” if
things go wrong.
9. Can have private or confidential “conversations”
without being seen to be doing so.
10. Sharing of jokes, pictures and funny stories can be good
“team bonding” material.

Bad things

1. Misunderstandings – e-mails do not convey tone well,
and are often misinterpreted.
2. E-mails can be exclusive if clients or team members don’t
have access.
3. The stream of incoming messages can imply that everything is
urgent. The sense that “nothing is ever finished” can
lead to stress and lack of job satisfaction.
4. E-mails can be used to avoid essential negotiation and
5. Staff who share computers waste a lot of time waiting to use
6. E-mail makes it easy to share sensitive information
inappropriately or without careful consideration. Information more
at risk of falling into the wrong hands.
7. Lack of social contact or conversation makes it difficult to
assess what people think or feel.
8. Easy to send information to far too many people who don’t
need it.
9. Duplication of work with paper-based records and electronic
10. Lack of clear working day hours. Some people routinely access
work e-mail out of work hours, so tasks might be passed on to
colleagues while they’re asleep!

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