“Social workers need spaces to come back to that feel separate from practice – where you’ve got space to think about work you’ve done and analyse, make sense of it,” says Dharman Jeyasingham. “The offices we had before weren’t necessarily the best for that, but the change has been towards places [even] less good for those purposes.”
It’s a refrain many will have heard before. Back in 2012, Community Care reported that nine in 10 social workers believe modern hotdesking-style arrangements are detrimental to morale. Recently published PhD research based on fieldwork carried out by Jeyasingham during 2010 and 2011 documents familiar dissatisfaction from staff operating flexible working practices – around space restrictions, dislocation from teams and reduced opportunities for reflection.
But Jeyasingham, a former social worker in a local authority children and families team and subsequently in the voluntary sector, wasn’t only looking at the shortcomings of hotdesking. His study examines how children’s social workers in two offices – an old-fashioned 1970s building and, primarily, Forest House*, a modern office block designed for ‘agile’ working – experience and understand their working environments. The findings show how engrained organisational culture can stand in the way of well-intentioned efforts to change things for the better.
Theory vs practice
‘True’ agile working – in theory, anyway – would find the people in direct contact with service users making the decisions about how those services function day-to-day.
“That would be wonderful to have in social work,” says Jeyasingham. “Whatever methods you use need to be the right ones for the purpose of your mission – quite often that means working in innovative ways, maybe being based out with clients or from your own home, using new communication technologies if they mean you can work more flexibly.”
Unfortunately, Jeyasingham found, theories about how social workers would ideally spend their days – which had been enthusiastically embraced by Forest House’s planning team – don’t tend to stack up with the reality of their working lives.
“The biggest part of day is recording information, communicating with other professionals and colleagues, writing assessments and coming to conclusions,” he continues. “You need a different kind of space for that, and offices are really important.”
At Forest House, the ratio of council staff to desks was particularly high. This was exacerbated by another contradiction – between the idea that frontline staff would be able to work more from home, and management expectations around people showing up in order to demonstrate fulfilment of their duties.
Unfit for purpose
At times of day this meant Forest House – on the face of it, well designed – became a noisy, uncomfortable place, ill-suited to analytical work. Often surrounded by people from other teams, social workers would spend their office time on the phone or doing simple recording tasks – with other important work being carried out at home in team members’ ‘own’ time. Opportunities for peer support and informal supervision were lost, and people’s routines became anything but flexible.
“These findings mirror what we hear from members – that corporate hotdesking and agile working systems have often not taken the particular needs of social workers into account,” observes Unison’s Helga Pile.
“Where employers are completing workplace health checks with their social workers these issues are coming out high on the list,” she adds. “In line with the standards for employers of social workers this is an area that needs to be looked at and reconsidered so that practice conditions support and don’t obstruct social workers.”
The estates team at Forest House had thought they were doing just that by equipping the building with quiet ‘chill out’ areas, complete with beanbags. But social workers, accustomed to using desks (even ones they don’t like), rarely visited them.
Planners flagged up, reasonably, the absence of alternative suggestions in the report. Jeyasingham states that social workers “couldn’t tell me – they were able to say they preferred [their] old spaces but not what the ideal space would be”.
No time for nostalgia
Jeyasingham counsels against nostalgia for old-style offices, such as the one that formed the other portion of his study. Aside from often poor physical working conditions, he points to the prevalence of silo mentalities and difficulties of challenging colleagues’ practices in such places.
Instead, he says improving things in the future will depend on a couple of key factors. The first of these is social workers being more involved – and maybe more proactive – in thinking about what spaces they need to work in. The second, echoing Pile’s use of the term “practice conditions”, is there being more joined up thinking about how, not just where and when, social workers will be expected to carry out their jobs.
“It’s easy to think the solution’s [just] in the spaces – it’s not,” Jeyasingham says. “They’re important, but there’s lots of other things about organisational culture that lead to these problems. If things were different, those open offices might be great… but we’ve got the culture we’ve got.
“We don’t have the answers yet,” he concludes.
*not its real name