Working from home: social workers using the home as an office

If you’re working in adult social care in Hertfordshire, you’ll more than likely be working out of your back bedroom, or on the kitchen table, or in the cubby hole under the stairs. The council recently moved its adult social care operations from 53 smaller offices to three big new ones. But because of the distances that social workers would have to travel to reach them, the council decided that they should all become home-based employees.

Hertfordshire Council is not alone. Flexible working is the new mantra in human resources: staff like it, and it can be used as a tool for recruitment and retention.

Sarah Pickup (pictured right), director of adult social care for Hertfordshire, says social work and occupational therapy are ideal roles for flexible working given that these roles involve being out and about much of the time.

The council has recently made a massive investment in setting up social workers in their own homes – organising electronic case files, digital pens, broadband and links into the county’s central database system. It is this preparation, Pickup says, that is crucial to allaying people’s misgivings about the changes in working practices.

Drop-in points

She says: “It’s a county-wide initiative, but because it impacted so heavily on social services we needed someone dedicated to facilitating it for our department, making sure that everyone had what they needed in terms of equipment and training.”

Pickup also insisted on drop-in points being set up at local libraries and at partners’ offices so that workers didn’t have to sit typing away in their cars after visits. She says that without those she would not have been so happy about the prospect of her team being “officeless” – although the new central offices are used for all team and office meetings as well as supervisions.

“Some people take to it like ducks to water others hanker after the old days. But if you’re doing it in the context of excellent new office buildings then, when people do come in, the environment is nicer,” she says.

Feature p16 14 feb 08People seem to like the prospect of being able to work in their pyjamas. Recruitment agency BBT says that they often suggest that local authorities with recruitment problems or little leeway to provide higher salaries offer an element of flexibility instead in their job advertisements for social work staff.

“In any one week, we see about a quarter of our qualified social worker ads including some kind of working-from-home component, and in London and the home counties that can rise to as high as 60%,” says BBT director Samantha Griggs. However, more traditional authorities seem to be resisting the idea, especially in northern England.

Bucking the trend is Stockport Council, where about 50 social workers are taking up the option of flexible working. Terry Dafter, service director for adult social care, is convinced that the system helps to retain social workers who know that congested road systems in the area can disrupt their work and personal schedules. He also admits that staff working from home offers some savings to the council, but emphasises that the system can only work if it is optional and if the employee agrees to it.

“Our biggest challenge is that first-line managers haven’t been universally keen,” he says. “But I say to them that some people can sit in an office and not do much, and many people will work hard at home.”

Stockport too is building a number of drop-in offices. As a local authority covering a relatively small area, Dafter sees no problem in social workers being easily able to return to the central offices if they feel a need for peer support. The council also pays a small taxed allowance towards home broadband costs, and an untaxed sum towards utility bills.

But pubic sector trade union Unison is concerned that home-based working isn’t always implemented with the interests of workers in mind, and this can have implications for its chances of success.

Concerns expressed

National officer for social care Helga Pile (pictured right) says: “We’ve started to identify a trend from councils about what they think is good for their financial efficiency levels – reducing office space and costs, for instance – rather than seeing home-based working being driven by people’s needs and preferences.”

She says there is a raft of practical issues to do with working away from an office – such as the quality of the IT system installed at home and the level of IT support – that need to be addressed. There is some resentment too about workers being expected to dedicate part of their home to work.

Worries have also been expressed by social workers regarding data confidentiality, with files stored in their homes – whether in locked cabinets or not – clearly not as secure as if they were locked in alarmed local authority buildings. Carrying laptops around in cars clearly also increases the risk of accidental loss of confidential client data.

The main concern about home-working, though, is one of social and professional isolation. Pickup disagrees: “Social workers are out and about all the time, visiting clients and consulting other professionals. This offers them flexibility. If they want to talk face to face, they can go back to base.”

However, Pile notes that, since the children’s services inspection body Ofsted enforced home-based working for all its inspection staff five years ago, there have been a series of reports from members expressing disquiet and distress at the compounded effects of working alone.

“We are getting concerned about levels of isolation,” she says. “This is particularly relevant in social work, where there are already problems about getting proper supervision and ongoing support.

“Going on visits alone – which Ofsted inspectors and social workers do – and then doing all the follow-up alone and making serious judgements that affect other people without even informal peer support can add to these problems.”

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This article appeared in the 14 February issue under the headline “The home office”




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