Rise in hotdesking in child protection as experts warn of risks

Research by Community Care suggests most child protection social workers now have to hotdesk

Photo: dragonstock/fotolia

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.

Designated areas

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

More from Community Care

15 Responses to Rise in hotdesking in child protection as experts warn of risks

  1. Patrick Crawford August 31, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    Despite efforts to use clever language (isn’t agile working what gymnasts do?) hotdesking is not designed to facilitate more efficient working or develop a positive work environment. It is fundamentally a means of squeezing more people into less space to save money. If it does anything, it removes sources of support, devalues staff and possibly increases stress levels. Without a ‘focus’, staff will be left in a state of chaos similar to the families with whom they work. Hot desking (or warm seating if you prefer) will not improve service delivery in the vast majority of cases and may indeed impact on the continuing issue of recruitment difficulties

  2. Steve August 31, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    Hot desking is just a euphemism for not enough desks. It shows clearly how little value is placed on the worker or the clients they support.

    • Julie September 6, 2016 at 8:27 am #

      Local authority central budgets are being slashed to the bone – understand the need for tough financial decisions to save costs. Take some personal responsibility for managing hot desking well or face front line services being slashed too.

  3. Steve Woolger August 31, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    I am not a qualified worker, I have been amongst other things a residential social worker and a social work assistant since 1988. I am currently in a frontline children’s support team after nearly 10 years service.
    I find it ironic that I can no longer use the term “social work” in any job title due to the findings in the Munroe Report and how quickly that came into service. Munroe now says that hotdesking is not good for morale or could harm practise; however plans to ditch this practise seem exceedingly slow so it would appear that Munroe can be ignored when it comes to saving money.

  4. Paul Owen August 31, 2016 at 4:48 pm #


    Come in, nowhere to sit, try to find an empty desk, oh well, everyone’s in because we’re not allowed to work at home unless we get permission first, and give a full account of why we want to work at home and what we’ll be doing. My area holds two teams totalling 21 people and 12 desks.
    There are four other teams in the same room with around 40 people + admin of three people and around 22 desks. So around 63 people and 34 desks. Often worker sit at the end of the desks on boxes so that they can meet team members.

    If there is a desk available it’s usually in a different team area so bad feeling is generated.

    You can use the alternate hot desks in the canteen so that we’re ‘in the office’. Avoid people getting coffee, try to work over the noise of people chatting and the hum of the coffee machine.

    Go out and do an assessment of a Child Protection case, come back, no space in the main office and the alternate desks are busy so no space there either. Go home to write up the assessment, get questioned over why you went home.

    Why is it like this? Well some bright spark thought it would be good to have ‘hubs’ and sell off all the local area offices and get the money.

    • Lisa September 1, 2016 at 11:56 am #

      I could not agree more with Pauls observations. I work in an Adults integrated care team (which means let’s all pretend we are fully integrated with health colleagues) and it is a nightmare and extremely stressful….and that is just turning up in the morning (having spent time trying to find somewhere to park within a 20 min walking distance)…. As above working from home is frowned upon and yet trying to actually get somewhere to sit is sometimes impossible. In Adults as well as children’s we are dealing with some very complex and challenging cases and not having a desk or the support of colleagues on a daily basis to discuss cases with and ask for advice only adds to the stress of the job….hotdesking just reinforces just how little social workers are valued

  5. jeff August 31, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

    If social workers treated services users they way the councils treat their staff there would be a whole lot of uproar.

  6. Tim Barker August 31, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    If senior managers and elected members think that hot desking is such a good idea, how many of them have given up their offices in order to work more flexibly and efficiently?

  7. Peter Reid August 31, 2016 at 10:44 pm #

    I agree with some of the comments above, hot desking is about effiency savings in other words the local authority trying to keep things running, in light of the budget cuts. I have a desk and a room with colleagues, which provides much needed privacy and emotional support and a sounding board to reflect on the challenging and at times emotionally fraught visits and meetings that come with the job. The counter argument is use the phone or get over it, however as a social worker we often have to ‘contain’ chaotic situations, behaviours and emotionally charged situations. The emotional toll on the social worker shouldn’t be underestimated, hence the value of peer support in the work place. I’m of the view that, if this support isn’t there, it can get to a point where a social worker is faced with self preservation, and as a consequence there is little or no emotional energy to keep focused on the clients needs. I have worked in teams, when this has been the case and it was almost very man for himself, a dangerous place to be, thankfully the ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating may motivate the senior managers (who often have their own office at HQ), to resolve the issue.

  8. Jim Greer September 1, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    I think the observations in the article and in reader’s comments suggest that this is a debate which has become very polarised. The unpleasant environments experienced by many are NOT an inevitable consequence of hotdesking. Rather, they are a consequence of poor planning, lack of consultation with workers and a lack of consideration about the workplace needs of social workers.
    Modern IT means that most jobs do not require a permanent fixed desk space. Information no longer exists in paper form in a fixed location. It is wasteful from an environmental point of view to give workers a desk which they might occupy for a limited part of the day.
    However, social workers do need quiet space to make confidential calls and they do need places to meet with colleagues, share information, meet with service users etc etc. There other ways to meet these needs- and meet them more effectively- other than a traditional office.There is plenty of literature on how offices can be designed to enhance the experience of workers and facilitate their work.
    The current problems with hotdesking are a result of cash strapped local authorities seeing hotdesking merely as a means of saving money. If social workers are to do their job effectively and maximise the benefits of modern technology, then managers will have to design office environments that realistically meet the needs of the workforce. I believe this can be done by reinvesting some of the money saved from hotdesking and doing proper consultation with social workers.

  9. Paul Owen September 1, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    Jim, I assume that you have ‘modern IT’? In my office we work on laptops which work when they feel like it and computer systems which take 5 minutes to change from one page to the other. On top of this is the managerial insistence that all workers are in the office unless they obtain permission to work at home giving a clear understanding of why this is needed and what they will be doing. I recently came in to find no desks available and ended up in the canteen as I was not allowed to work at home.
    I’ve worked in the department for 16+ years and am a couple of years from retirement so I think I’ve proved that I’m responsible and trustworthy. However the managers currently in post like to ‘be in charge’.
    Munroe is ignored by the department in nearly every aspect.

  10. Anju Sabin September 1, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    Totally agree with Paul. The stated scenario is not lone to one council but all. I have had to reach office atleast 30 minutes early to secure a place. Sometimes I end up in the other side of the building and to seek support or management advice I have had to walk everywhere searching for the person. The article is highly appreciated; can we see any changes to this stress causing practice?

  11. Ian Kemp September 2, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    I totally agree hot desking is part of the DE professionalism of social work In local authority you are not treated with any respect or indeed understanding. It is total nonsenses. But there are no social work departments any more. social are simply employees in the local Gov system. A mere cog within the bureaucracy, which essentially is about social control of staff and clients.People who enjoy control rise up in the hierarchy of local Gov bureaucracy . The system encourages this.
    I fear that it will only get worse. The prevailing political culture is about conformity and control and no politician will want to touch social work, except to blame and criticize many very good hard working social workers.. The unions are weak or non extant, so there is very little that the individual social worker can do within the system.
    Ultimately In some distant future Social work will need to revitalize itself and get back to what it is supposed to do work with clients to help and care for. Rather then manage the bureaucracy that is local authority. The only way that can happen is if Social work is reprofessionalised and a independent department is set up to include all care workers and care homes care homes and so on, funded separately .It could happen but it needs a lot more help from social work academics and the leaders and politicians with understanding and vision. Not much of that around in our neoliberal world ,. But have faith the ideology that is neoliberalism is breaking down .With that there will come a new way of looking at the world.. However ,the immediate future and beyond does not look very good and hot desking will continue and get worse as the system staggers from crises to crises . It is difficult to be optimistic re the future of social work as it becomes a control system within the local gov hierarchy.

  12. Imelda September 4, 2016 at 6:19 pm #

    Hot-desking is unfortunately here to stay but would work better if managers stopped the practice of preventing and/or limiting opportunities to work at home or be able to compress hours. Why the obstacles and weak arguments? The fact is that we have fewer offices due to Tory cutbacks and hence fewer desks. The micro management practice of forcing people to ‘have an office pressence’ in a world of hot-desking is patronising, demoralising, stressful, time-wasting and just doesn’t get the best out of people. Try allowing us the freedom to actually do our job in the most productive way we assess to be the best way we can work, rather than telling us how to do it! I wouldn’t mind if it was proved that we stole time off employers but we don’t. We actually work far more hours than what we are paid for.

  13. Ian Kemp September 6, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    I wonder Imelda, how you can say that Hot/ desking is acceptable. ? In my experience of over 44 years in all forms of social work and all positions from Team manager to senior social worker to social worker, and since my retirement some years ago to a locum in over 22 local authorities, I can tell you it is not .
    While I may accept your argument re the Tory cut backs and so on and the fact that the bureaucracy that is called local Gov social work has to try to manage the cut backs and so on and the control freaks that dominate a lot of local Gov bureaucracy will not allow people to work from home … This is the ultimate de professionalization of social work, that I have argued above.
    You are probably right when you say that hot -desking is here to stay. It will probably get a lot worse I fear.