by Luke Stevenson and Andy McNicoll
Most councils are requiring child protection social workers to hotdesk, as policy experts warn it can harm practice and increase the risk of burnout, research suggests.
A Community Care survey of 93 local authorities in England, revealed more than half (56%) had hotdesking in place for child protection teams. In a sign the practice is growing, responses from 40 councils that provided dates showed half had introduced hotdesking since 2014.
Community Care carried out the research to establish how widespread hotdesking is after child protection expert Professor Eileen Munro issued a call for the practice to be stopped.
While some social workers have said they value the flexibility offered by hotdesking, a series of opinion polls suggest it is unpopular among practitioners. Delivering a seminar in April, Munro argued the policy also increased the risk of burnout and left social workers without vital emotional and intellectual support from colleagues when they returned from difficult meetings.
A study published since Munro’s intervention found hotdesking could add to social worker stress.
Several councils with hotdesking said they’d taken steps to ensure social workers were supported to sit with their teams, most commonly by giving them allocated ‘zones’ in which all of their colleagues are based even though they aren’t guaranteed specific desks.
Asked about this, Munro told Community Care she still had concerns: “If these designated areas are in open plan offices, it still prevents conversation about confidential case information. It would also depend on how big they were. Would you be reliably able to sit near your closest colleagues or are you mixing with many outside your team?”
Pressure on councils
Children’s services leaders said the rise in hotdesking partly reflected the impact of budget cuts and increasing demand, with councils forced to use office space creatively and efficiently.
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Workforce Development Policy Committee, said many social workers appreciated flexible working but she acknowledged there were “definite challenges” in not having a fixed work space.
“Arrangements in each council will differ and for some, hotdesking can work well but it’s crucial that office arrangements are regularly reviewed and managers are able to address any issues professionals may have so that it does not adversely impact on their mental health and wellbeing or their work with children and families,” she said.
“Important factors include the need for adequate confidential space in which to make phone calls; scope for team members to work near each other to assist information sharing; and sufficient private space for informal 1:1 or group supervision – some things can’t wait until a booked room becomes available.
“No one should arrive at work to find they have nowhere to sit, or feel forced to work in coffee shops or cars to secure space or privacy.”
What research says
A 2012 Community Care survey of 474 social workers found nine out of 10 believed hotdesking sapped morale.
A 2015 Guardian survey of 1,420 social work professionals found how two-thirds of social workers were required to hot desk but most did not think it was beneficial for work with colleagues.
A 2016 BASW survey of 600 social workers found nearly two-thirds felt their office space was unfit for purpose, with hotdesking the second most reported issue of most concern behind noise.
An academic research study published earlier this year found hotdesking can add to social work stress, with the lack of a fixed desk for social workers after difficult visits helping create a sense of “emotional disorientation”.
Wider office environment
This need for wider office environments to support good practice was echoed by Harry Ferguson, Professor of Social Work at Nottingham University.
Ferguson, who is undertaking a two-year study into the impact of office spaces on social work, said his previous research found that as well as a desk and support from colleagues, practititioners also needed surrounding spaces “to keep toys, car seats, and offices to see service users in”.
“These are typically stripped out of call centre type environments…I know of some places where there isn’t even an office to conduct supervision in. Some social work departments have managed to resist general council hotdesking policies and are hanging onto desks and smaller team rooms, many it seems by their finger nails,” he said.
“Some, a minority, of social workers have told me that they like the flexible (home) working and slick office culture. But on the basis of what we currently know, hotdesking makes an already complex and difficult job even harder and that is just not good enough.”
A few councils gave details of staff views on hotdesking. Shropshire said its annual social work health check showed staff valued the arrangement. However, other councils said it was unpopular. Southwark said it briefly tested hotdesking in 2005 before abandoning it. Cheshire East said it had included a guarantee of no hotdesking for social workers as part of a recruitment offer to attract staff.
What social workers think of hotdesking
- “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.”
- “Employers sell it as enabling social workers to work more flexibly, but it destroys team and professional identity, and undervalues staff (how much do you really value a social worker if you can’t/ won’t provide a fixed workspace for them?)”
- “I have been a social worker for 15 years- worked in tiny rooms in old school buildings, massive open plan offices and haven’t had my own desk for 5 years- the lack of ability to put a photo or fairy lights from my screen has not had any impact on my ability to practice as a social worker, what has impacted on my ability to work smartly and resiliently has been the outdated management responses to flexible working policies, putting in barriers to flexible and home working with flawed non evidence based business cases for having everyone’s bums on seats in the office.”
- “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.”*
Hotdesking isn’t only an issue affecting social workers in England. Sean Holland, chief social worker in Northern Ireland, told Community Care he also had concerns over the practice.
“Feeling in control of your work, having a sense of belonging and being valued are all really important to job satisfaction and in turn to good performance,” he said.
“Turning up every morning and having to scrabble for a desk wherever you can get one just doesn’t say to me ‘you are a valued employee that we as an organisation are lucky to have’.
Holland said the benefits of hotdesking were mainly in cutting office costs for councils, who can save an estimated 30% on their running costs. He recognised the need to make the best use of resources but argued hotdesking could alienate and demoralise staff.
“For social workers in particular being able to discuss and review cases in teams is vital and a lot of that happens sitting at your desk with your team member at an adjacent desk.
“I think the key is what do staff want? They are the people who actually go out and work with people doing what the team is ‘for’. The job of the rest of the organisation is to help them do that as well as possible, that’s the context in which any move to hotdesking should be evaluated.”
Hotdesking – an adult social work team’s experience
While much focus has been placed on the impact of hotdesking on child protection, the policy is also used in adults services.
Focus, an independent adult social work practice in North East Lincolnshire, runs an agile working and hotdesking policy.
Kirsty Sharlotte, Focus’s business services officer, said feedback from staff was generally positive on agile working, which allows staff to work from home with laptops and other technology, but responses were more negative on hotdesking.
One social worker reported preferring hotdesking because it wasn’t personalised, she told Community Care.
“It’s less problematic when you’re looking for a desk to sit at. You can come in and it’s not cluttered, you’ve not got people or things all around you. She says it’s a lot more relaxed and being agile stops you from having so much time off for an appointment.”
Another practitioner felt flexible working policies risked losing the team dynamic. While others working in the practice said hotdesking was tricky because you become conscious of other people’s preferences of where to sit, and then can struggle to find a place yourself.
Another person said “hotdesking isn’t fair on the office-based staff”. Sharlotte explained how, for workers who are always in the building, they found not having a fixed spot unfair because they tend to sit in the same area. Another employee said they didn’t like coming into an office and not knowing where they were going to sit.
“One lady said she wants to be sat with her team and in the same area, but you’re not always able to do that.”
*Comments from recent Community Care articles on hotdesking