The best and worst places for social work meetings

In the first of an occasional series, Graham Hopkins looks at practice from the other side of the fence. Here, readers tell us about some of the best and worst places where they have had meetings or supervision.

Managers love meetings. The attitude seems to be that you can’t be that good if you have space in your diary this side of the London Olympics. In the late 1990s, when I worked in a social services management team, I decided only to attend meetings where I felt I could contribute something concrete. With my diary emptied, I could get on with my job.

What I had not considered by focusing on the quality of the agenda was the quality of the environment: where is a good place to meet? Our manager,the inspirational Edward Kenny, hit on the idea of holding the occasional team meeting in a greasy spoon in Chadwell Heath, near our offices in east London.

I was reminded of this when a reader, accommodation social worker Mike Lane, contacted me to say that he had been hosting a South-West Supported Lodgings Forum in Bournemouth: “In homage to the sun, the meeting took place on the beach. I was responsible enough to recommend people bring hats and sunblock along”.

The beach certainly beats a bacon butty in Chadwell Heath, but how would others fare? The café theme is also served up by
this reader: “I was heavily pregnant and a colleague from another agency thought it would be an idea to combine lunch at a
café in Camden Town, north London, with our meeting. A greasy door handle should have told me all I needed to know. My colleague tucked into the full English and I endured a plain jacket potato on the grounds that the microwave should have at least made a  good fist of killing all the germs. A short time later my colleague told me that the café had been shut down by environmental health. I still have no idea what we discussed.”

The holy grail of team-building often involves some “fun” venue choices. “I remember one summer some enlightened soul decided we should bond with the new team members but at the coast,” recalls Chris Durkin, now a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Northampton.

“Following a light trot round some of the issues we had lunch – and suitably refreshed hit the beach with the sun at its
hottest. The beach ball was pumped up and the bonding commenced, culminating in a paddle and, for two of us, a swim in nearfreezing temperatures. Ice cream followed, with a pint and a kip in the back of the car on the way home. Great fun but I’m not sure what the long-term benefits were.”

Rather than seeking the sand, some prefer to keep things close to home. “One of the best supervisors I ever had often supervised staff in their gardens or homes,” says Heather Chaplin, now an inspector with the Commission for Social Care
Inspection. “It was borne out of necessity as there wasn’t enough private space in the office. Although I can see how the system
might be open to allegations of all sorts, it worked brilliantly for us. There was plenty of space, on-tap tea and coffee, no one could nick the chocolate biscuits and, above all, it was your house so you could switch off the phone.”

Some venues can constitute something of a trap. One reader tells me: “While on a student placement at a mental health centre, my supervisor said there was something important concerning my placement she needed to discuss with me and asked me
to go to her flat that Sunday afternoon.

“I’d been quite flexible with my timekeeping on the placement so I didn’t mind giving up a bit of my weekend to catch up. However, I wasn’t prepared for her opening gambit of ‘well I suppose you’re already aware that I’ve fallen in love with you’. I’m usually not averse to a bit of flattery, but she was old enough to be my mother!”

If not the beach, garden or house, then something more mobile has its uses, as community worker Mark Drinkwater recounts: “I’d been at a supported housing charity for about three months without a supervision or appraisal session. I ended up having the session in my director’s car during a downpour. Sitting side by side, with little eye contact, we had a 20-minute supervision where he vacantly stared out of the windscreen as I wittered on about complex cases.

At the end of the session he said something along the lines of ‘well, keep up the good work’ in the way that Prince Philip might
when visiting some obscure army regiment.”

Sometimes cars are useful for hastily arranged meetings with clients, as this “nobriefs encounter” proves: “In the 1980s, a
man known to social services was reported to be naked and loose on our patch. A colleague (let’s call her Mary) and I were sent to get him. We set off in Mary’s 2CV (really) and, after a short chase up one street, found him trying to get into a dustbin.

“He got in the back of the car and we gave him a cigarette. It was pre-mobile phones, so we drove down the road to a phone box and rang the admissions ward of the psychiatric hospital. I was in the back of the 2CV with our naked client – the cigarette masking some of his body odour. Mary was leaning out of the phone box asking questions of him. Eventually we drove off to the hospital and admitted our client. For months afterwards Mary kept a pair of underpants in her glove compartment.”

* Readers not named above have all asked to remain anonymous

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