Munro: ‘Hotdesking is harming social work’

Author of landmark child protection review says challenging poor working conditions for social workers is one of the ‘most important tasks ahead’

Photo: Ewan Shears

Hotdesking is leaving child protection social workers unsupported and at greater risk of burnout, Professor Eileen Munro has said.

Munro, whose landmark independent review of child protection was published in 2011, said hotdesking demoralised practitioners and saw them miss out on vital “emotional and intellectual support” from colleagues.

Delivering a seminar for social work training scheme Frontline, she said: “You should be able to come back from a difficult interview and know where your colleagues are and who you can go and talk to.

“You need to go back and debrief about how difficult it was, or how scared you were or how angry you felt. By bringing that out into the open it becomes useful to help you understand the family but also for your mental health and survival.

“If you just have to come back to a room full of people [you don’t know] sitting typing on a computer then you have to hold all that emotion inside you, you start taking it home at night, you start getting burnout.”

Challenging the cuts argument

Munro said moves by councils to introduce hotdesking for social workers betrayed a lack of understanding of the role. Claims hotdesking is a necessary cost saving measure at a time of local authority cuts should also be challenged, she added.

“I can’t imagine that a hospital facing funding cuts would decide to save money by no longer sterilising equipment for the operating theatre.

“And I think the need [for social workers] to have colleagues to help you with the intellectual and emotional dimensions of the work is really of that level. I can see why the efficiency saving is desirable but I really do think as a profession we should shout against it.”

‘Stronger narrative’ needed

The need to challenge the poor working conditions many social workers face “is one of the most important tasks ahead”, said Munro.

She said the profession needed to develop a “very strong narrative” on the importance of good quality working environments. Addressing the problem could help tackle the “frightening” levels of turnover among child protection social workers and lead to more staying in post for years, she added.

“[Good working environments] matter partly for your mental health but also for the quality of the help you give a family. By getting a better understanding of how you’re reacting to them, you get a better understanding of what might be going on and how you can work with them. So the impact for children will be greater if we’re providing this sort of help to staff.”

‘An exciting time to be in social work’

In a wide-ranging talk, Munro set out two further priority issues. Social work needs to develop a “shared professional confidence” around what constitutes “good enough” practice in different situations, she said. This would help free practitioners from working under the constant fear of blame.

The third priority concerned research. Practitioners should recognise that research, while valuable, is not the only source of evidence to draw on in cases, Munro said. Intuitions and feelings were also an important part of  how social workers processed information and developed an understanding of situations, she added.

Munro urged practitioners to seize the opportunity to shape the profession, adding: “This is a really exciting time to be in social work despite the funding cuts. We have this chance that we must try and use.

“We mustn’t just end up bickering amongst ourselves because, as my final point, the aim of all of this is not to improve the status of social work – it is to improve the quality of help we can give to children. My hope is we’ll get to the point where children [we’ve worked with] are just very glad a social worker came into their lives.”

A full report on Professor Munro’s Frontline seminar, including video, will be available on Community Care next week. 

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19 Responses to Munro: ‘Hotdesking is harming social work’

  1. Rosemary Brierley April 29, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Well said!

  2. Peter Endersby April 29, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Social Workers are not the only professionals working in challenging circumstances and the facts are stark. There is not enough space in council buildings. This is directly due to cuts and avoiding this issue fails to challenge this paradigm that has become the norm. If hotdesking was the only challenge facing social workers as a result of cuts then perhaps this would be worthy cause but it trivial under present circumstances. It has become an annoying habit for councils and academics to avoid telling the truth. If you have less you have to make sacrifices we tell children and families this yet fail to acknowledge this as professionals using management doublespeak to explain unprecedented cuts and finger pointing. There should only one direction o point the blame and it’s at central government

    • jayne May 22, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

      Absolutely agree. I work as a Community Care Officer and carry a high case load. All are Child protection/CIN. I am expected to do weekly visits and carry out direct work with my families, whilst monitoring, challenging and expected to maintain relationships to bring about change. I am not liked at times and have the door closed in my face but still work hard

      It would be a blessing to be able to bounce off my ideas and de-brief with a colleague after a difficult visit. When I am sat next to a Business Support Officer, whom I don’t know, this is not possible

      I did work in a council building and two years ago was told to hot desk, which I did but quickly got the message that it’s not ok to sit in this work station as Business Support Offficers have a right to their space. I ‘hot desked’ at different Council venues and more or less was told that there just isn’t the space
      Where are we expected to go??

  3. Julia April 29, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    It didn’t need professor Munro to tell us the obvious. Practitioners were expressing these concerns from the moment it was proposed. However as she says, those responsible for implementing the cuts have no idea of the task.

  4. Jim Greer April 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    Many social workers have had an unsatisfactory experience of hot desking because it has been seen by employers as simply a way of saving money without any thought about how the social functions of an office environment can be provided.
    I don’t believe the answer, however, is to preserve the traditional office environment in perpetuity. Mobile devices like tablets allow agile working and reduce the need to work at any kind of desk less necessary. There is no point in coming back to an office if it is empty much of time.
    A better answer is for hot desking to be properly managed. By providing areas within a hot desking environment which promote socialising and allow privacy it can actually offer people the opportunity to share experiences and support with a greater number of colleagues. Furthermore, every social worker should have a mobile phone so that they can get advice and support from a colleague wherever they are.
    Technology is changing the work environment radically and if we think creatively about the opportunities it offers then change can be for the better.

  5. Pearlene Webb April 29, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    I agree with professor Munro about the negative aspects of hot desking however I feel that this is only part of the problem with social work today. I feel that more need to be said about bullying and intimidation of social workers who dare to disagree with or challenge their managers. Untill this issue is properly addressed retention of experienced social workers will continue to be an issuse for local authorities.

    • Bonnie May 4, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

      Yes absolutely true – it’s not hot-desking that’s the real issue its the attitude and working environment from top downwards that impacts on the SW environment more than seating arrangements – I think it’s a distraction to the bigger issue of bullying within the work place … That’s sad !

  6. Amo Virdi April 30, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    And yet nothing will be done about it like the other issues that have been raised!!!!

  7. BENZdog April 30, 2016 at 12:22 pm #

    Thanks Pearlene I wholeheartedly agree with you . . . there is something very wrong when the values of our employers go completely against the Social Work values we have been trained to uphold. What has happened to compassion, dignity and respect in the workplace. It is not acceptable to simply say that we should “embrace technology” as Jim Greer argues above – yes of course we should embrace it but that does not mean we should stop questioning how scarce resources are managed in our areas of work? Why is there no space to talk to colleagues in the workplace? why are there no rooms available for supervision? why do I have to use my own mobile phone to make calls from home and what contribution is the council going to make for my heating and electricity bills? There are very good reasons for Social Workers (and others) to have a functioning office environment with all the advantages of modern technology included. So many experienced social workers have left the profession yet we are doing so little to hang on to those who are left . . .

  8. Monia April 30, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

    Hotdesking is a major issue where I work. The Managers have their own desks. Some of the work stations do not work and you could find yourself wasting a good amount of time looking for a desk on another floor in the building. We hate it. A warm, friendly and comfortable working environment matters a great deal when your work involves constantly having to manage challenging and stressful situations. Bully managers exploit isolation caused by hotdesking.
    I completely agree that more should be done to prevent a rise in bullying of social workers by managers. I feel that poor working environment, bullying and high workloads are the main reason behind poor retention of social workers. How could this be efficient?

  9. Catherine May 2, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    Hot-desking not just splits teams apart but other forms of flexible working are also setting up future health problems. Many social workers working from home have not had their working area risk assessed and they are sitting stooped over a lap tap for several hours a day. This will ultimately create a range of muscular skeletal problems over time. Back, neck and shoulder pain already costs local authorities considerable money in sickness pay and if we add repetitive strain and carpal tunnel to this, local authorities could find that the savings they have made in flexible working arrangements will be overshadowed by high levels of sickness.

    • YvonneB May 4, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Surely it is up to the commonsense of the worker to look out for their posture while at home. Really, how much spoonfeeding does a professional adult want? The last thing I would want is some H&S person coming to inspect my house and deeming my workstation not good enough.

      As to the main point I agree hotdesking, if done badly an be awful, timewasting and isolating, but done well ist can be ok. There have to be sufficient workstations, the technology must work well, there needs to be a clear protocol so” locals” dont take over certain favoured desks, proper clear desk policy, lockers to store personal stuff, etc.

  10. Sheila Lewis May 3, 2016 at 12:51 am #

    I totally agree with professor Munro’s comments on hot desking. As a masters student completing my final placement, I find it very discombobulating when I return from a visit to find another colleague sitting on the seat I left just a hour ago! It really feels to me like The Three Bears story when baby bear says: “Who’s been sitting on my chair and is still there!”. Being a student social worker and a mother is difficult enough…Having my own chair and desk would give me a sense of belonging, help me to establish links with my colleagues. Instead I’m left wondering around looking for a desk! We should stand up (only for a brief moment mind you…might loose your seat otherwise!) and speak out about this, Professor Munro is right, it is an exciting time to be in social work. We can bring about a lot of change in practice…Let’s start with the saying a BIG NO to hot desking!

  11. Josephine May 3, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    I do appreciate the recognition this issue has been given by Munro. However it’s a very narrow perspective!
    it’s not only child protection social workers who suffer ! All social workers have to manage complex, difficult and stress provoking cases. Our cases are harrowing, exhausting and challenging too! And let’s not forget our support workers and professional assistants ! The idea of providing areas for teams is better but what happens if you’re all in the office together …. Because the number of seats won’t be equal to the number of team members.
    Recognition is one thing but what will that amount to? Hot desking wasn’t introduced for any beneficial purpose other than the council saving money! And funding is an ever declining problem!

  12. A Man Called Horse May 3, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    Not only is hot desking dehumanising it is also designed to isolate Social workers. In my LA not only that but Managers sit on a different floor above us again symbolic of them and us. We are stripped of any feelings of being part of a Team. We are often sitting with people who we don’t know and don’t speak to you for an entire day. I really hate being part of nothing and choose now because of the terrible conditions to only attend the office for meetings and just to let my Team know I am still alive. Cuts are having a devastating impact on how we operate services. I cannot see any prospect of improvement when we have a Government almost openly hostile to Social Workers.

  13. John Ramsey May 4, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    It isn’t just Social workers. Human beings are territorial animals; they pesonalise their workspaces and this presumably acts to reduce stress. Since stress is a cause of workplace sickness, hotdesking is in fact an H&S issue.
    At one time I worked in an envronment where eight desks were provided for every ten workers. The shortfall was supposed to be met through working from home, annual leave etc. as well as I suppose the newly-elevated sickness levels engenderedd by hot desking.
    I devised, but never put in practice, a form of industrial action that involved everyone coming in to work. You wouldn’t even need to ballot for it!

  14. Ellie May 4, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    Yes, yes, and yes! This is something that I attempted to point out YEARS ago – as did many other frontline Social Workers. Why is it that we were not listened to sooner? Why has it taken so long for issues like this to even begin to be addressed?

    Hot-desking is symptomatic of far deeper problems which stem from budgetary cuts that the Government has thoughtlessly imposed. Local authorities are finding it harder and harder to budget for necessary services, and often funding for such services is not ring-fenced in the same way that it would be were it NHS money. Instead, things like Social Services, Youth Services, Libraries, Home Care, Education, Policing… are all facing cuts; cuts which impact on resourcing, and staff recruitment and retention. As a result, staff turnover may be rapid, morale low, resources to do the job limited, training and promotion opportunities non-existent… This makes for services which simply cannot deliver effectively, and can no longer meet the needs of the communities they are meant to serve.

    Now, you may call me ignorant or naïve… but please hear me out! Yes, I do understand that our country hit a recession – BUT it was NOT Social Workers (or indeed any other Public Sector profession) that caused the recession. THAT was in the hands of greedy bankers who encouraged irresponsible lending; greedy estate-agents who artificially inflated house prices; large and greedy corporations and multinationals after a quick profit at any expense. So, WHY is the Public Sector paying the price?

    Is this not an issue of priorities, and ought our country not to be looking at what its priorities should be? IS it true that we need to impose cuts on Public Services? IS the recession solely the cause of this? Or is it that we have our priorities wrong? I ask this because I believe it truly to be important…

    If we ARE still a country in recession, then which is more important… Trying to find “weapons of mass destruction” in some far-flung country halfway across the world? Or making sure that we prevent deaths of elderly, homeless or infirm people in winter? Fighting somebody else’s war on somebody else’s territory? Or making sure that disabled people still have library access, or disadvantaged children still get a decent education? Lining bankers’ and estate agents’ pockets? Or providing ongoing funding for services to the elderly, people with dementia, people with terminal illnesses, people who are disabled…? Paying “expenses” for local dignitaries such as mayors, or MPs? Or paying for improvements to children and families services, or domestic violence services, or mental health services? Trying to replace a suspected “dictator” in some foreign country with somebody who is a puppet of our own Government? Or trying to stop child abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia… in this country?

    If our country DOES truly only have limited money, then isn’t it important to consider where it gets spent? NO organization can continue to provide the same services, and the same quality of services, on LESS money. We, as a country, are seeing the results of that.

    Hot-desking is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Yet it highlights oh, so well, all that is now problematic. It highlights the impact of budgetary cuts.

    MANY years ago, I complained about hot-desking. Fat lot of good it did me! I just got bullied by management at work, as a result! Nobody listened, or tried to make improvements. Instead, I was branded “the problem” for daring to speak out about bad working conditions. Hot-desking is inappropriate, at best, within Social Work workspaces. It means that offices become sprawling and impersonal, and that nobody has their own dedicated workspace. This creates all sorts of problems, including:

    1. Lack of privacy – staff find it hard to make private phone calls or talk about sensitive, personal issues with service-users. Because offices are often open-plan there is no private space for lengthy or sensitive, difficult calls – they are often overheard. This makes it harder to talk with service-users about their personal issues. I would also argue that it breaches client confidentiality. Furthermore, because staff are obliged to keep moving desks, it also makes it harder for anyone to dedicate the time they need to handling lengthy phone calls with service-users.

    2. Offices become impersonal, making it harder for staff to get to know each other and to work effectively as teams. Impersonal offices discourage staff “brainstorming” and staff are less likely to go to each-other to discuss workplace matters or matters to do with the job. This makes it harder for workers to “debrief” or to seek advice regarding case work.

    3. Big, impersonal offices increase risk to staff and service-users. They are an unhealthy environment that encourages “burnout” because people do not talk to each other, or feel that teamwork is encouraged. Also, large open plan offices where people hot-desk may encourage thieves who find it easier to operate in environments that are large, bustling, noisy and where people do not seem to know each-other very well. When staff are having to frequently move desks, it makes it hard for them to keep track of their belongings. This, as I stated before, makes it easier for thieves to operate, as it may be a while before a stolen item is noted as missing. Also, it may give rise to staff making more accidental errors that breach service-user confidentiality because with no desk to call their own, where exactly do staff put things like case notes that they have just taken, or personal items like diaries and mobile phones? Where do they store their service-users’ contact details?

    4. Hot-desking can cause all sorts of health-and safety problems. Such as… how do you provide a workspace for a disabled person, or for somebody who has been assessed by Occupational Health as requiring a special seating arrangement, chair, or computer terminal? Is constantly rotating desks meeting anyone’s needs, or is it overlooking an organization’s duty of care to staff? If staff hot-desk, how does this impact upon LONE WORKING policies? Should all staff then have to have a mobile phone given to them by their employer, to ensure that they remain “connected”?

    5. Much as I recognize the validity of Jim Greer’s comment above, in which he points out that it is prudent to embrace new forms of technology that can enhance working, or introduce new ways of working… I have to add that hot-desking is particularly damaging in environments where employers DO NOT supplement it with alternatives. I recall working in a hot-desking environment, and also having NO work mobile phone and NO laptop facility. Hot-desking could have been a little easier if these had been provided. Employers MUST be made to think through the implications of what they intend to impose!

    Still… I would agree that there are MANY hugely valid, and insightful, comments above. It seems to me that many Social Workers DO know what they need and want in order to do the job well. They seem highly aware of what is damaging the profession, too. Bullying being a MAJOR issue – and yet another issue that years ago, I spoke out about, to no avail. It is important also to note what Josephine says – that children’s Social Workers are NOT the only ones struggling – ALL services have problems. Issues such as hot-desking, bullying, spiralling case loads, lack of funding and resources… affect ALL areas of Social Work. From children’s to mental health, to learning disability, to adult… ALL areas.

    It seems to me that I was right about what I said, all those years ago. I wouldn’t have said it, were it not true. Sadly, it seems to me, now, that Ms. Munroe has her work cut out! Perhaps somebody should have listened to people like me sooner!

  15. Anon May 4, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

    I agree just recently we have moved to a building with no parking facilities which starts your day being stressful aswell as hot desking. Confidentiality goes out the window! As many people have a through fare into different offices. The noise levels are very high which makes communication difficult whilst talking to clients and professionals. Lone working and working in silos is becoming more evident . It is having a detrimental impact on social workers morsal which will impact on retention of staff. No emotional intelligence and no thought processes ‘put up as and shut up’ appears to be the response!

  16. Susan Applegate May 5, 2016 at 6:21 am #

    I have never worked at any authority where hot desking is a positive experience, and at one authority you had a lap top a smart phone and a list of plug in points throughout the authority where it was not unusual to spend and hour or so driving around looking for a desk that was free, unfortunately it was then not unusual for staff to end up at cafés or similar to gain access via the internet to their work which for many reasons is poor practise.
    Needles to say constant informal supervision occurred at these hot desk areas, frequent emotional support was given as staff felt isolated and there was never anyone to assist when you had to move children in an emergency where you required more than one car, needles to say it wasn’t a great experience especially for the less experienced social workers.
    As always there needs to be a balance between flexibility, hot desking and team support.