By Stacey Pellow-Firth
Professor Eileen Munro is not alone in claiming that hotdesking is leaving child protection social workers unsupported and at greater risk of burnout. In recent years social work publications and academics have frequently talked of the negative impact on workers from these vast, open plan, ‘call centre’ environments.
However, I would like to offer an alternative – and possibly controversial – viewpoint.
I work in a hotdesking environment and have also worked in social work offices during my 13 years in children’s social work. I am an advanced practitioner, hold a caseload, supervise staff and deputise for my team manager. I fully understand how stressful and pressurised our work can be.
For most of my social work career I worked in a county-wide leaving care team covering a vast geographical area with satellite offices. My manager’s office was 35 miles away from mine. Social workers still had offices and desks to call their own. However, due to the nature of my job and the geographical area we covered, it was not unusual for workers based in the same office to go several days without seeing one another.
Support is cultural
Herein lies the essence of my view on hotdesking. Although I would go days without seeing my colleagues or manager, despite difficult visits, meetings and phone calls I felt more supported and empowered than I had been in a previous role with everyone surrounding me in a social work office.
The focus on hotdesking is misguided and, dare I say it, channels blame on factors out of one’s control rather than taking an introspective view on how to move forward.
Take the issue of social workers feeling isolated and lacking the support of colleagues.
You can as easily feel isolated in a room of people as you can in an empty one. For me, isolation is a social construct rather than a physical state.
When I worked in the team described above, after a difficult visit I would call my manager or a colleague. I didn’t need to physically see someone to be supported by them. Our team met regularly and I had regular supervision. The job was difficult and at times incredibly stressful, but the culture was to support one another and being based in separate offices or being away from the manager didn’t negatively affect this.
Another issue raised by critics of hotdesking is workers feeling undervalued if they are not given their own space. This depersonalisation can be viewed in both individual terms (family photos, plants, favourite mug) and team identity (having on display team posters, departmental information, relevant policies/procedures).
My previous experience tells me that some workers wholeheartedly adorned their desks with plants, photos, drawings etc, while others showed no signs of personalisation, making you wonder whose desk it was. Some arrived at the office at the crack of dawn, seemingly never left and ate all three meals of the day at their desks, while others merely used them as a perch for their bag when using the photocopier between visits.
Not all workers want or need a personalised desk and office space to do their job and feel valued. What all need are the facilities and means to do the job effectively – the rest is personal preference.
I also have a counter view to the assertion I’ve seen that multi-disciplinary hotdesking environments increase the challenges of the job, since workers are not freely able to make phone calls or have discussions with colleagues, must constantly be aware of what sensitive documents may be on their desks, and must lock computers as soon as desks are left.
Some of these so called ‘limitations’ should actually be reframed into considerations for all working environments. Furthermore, it can be difficult actually trying to work in a well-established social work office; constant conversation, not all of it work related, can be distracting for some.
Social work office environments suit some workers and hotdesking others. I do not profess to state that one is better than the other as workers are as individual as the families they work with.
But hotdesking should not solely be blamed for increased isolation, lack of support, feeling devalued and increased challenges. These were as evident pre hotdesking as they are today.
While modern working exacerbates these difficulties for some, for others the focus is on embracing the change.
Hotdesking seems to be an example of the profession uniting against a common cause for which there is no easy resolution. Budgets are being drastically cut and local authorities are trying to make ends meet in an impossible climate of uncertainty. But I would like to see social work academics and publications focus on how to promote resilience in these environments, and explore what is working well in local authorities that hot desk.
Stacey Pellow-Firth is principal social worker for functional family therapy at Cornwall Council, and is also undertaking a ProfDoc, researching care leavers.