by Eileen Munro
Local authorities, dealing with large funding cuts, are having to make changes to the traditional way of operating and reducing office space can produce substantial savings. Technological developments such as laptops and remote access to databases are also creating new ways of working, making it less necessary for a social worker to be in the office to do their work.
Change is inevitable but it needs to be managed in a way that doesn’t accidentally destroy a major asset that helps to improve the service children and their families receive.
My worry is that some choices will be made because people don’t realise the damaging impact it will have on the expert team.
It is up to the profession to assert the importance of the expert team in strengthening the service that is provided to children, young people and families but also to find ways of managing the necessary operational changes to minimise the damage to team functioning. Hotdesking, for example, can be managed in ways that at least keep social workers in one part of the office rather than interspersed with other departments. Teams can have fixed times when they will be in the office.
Expert teams differ from teams of experts. Expert teams are more than the sum of their parts: the interactions between members strengthen what they can each achieve. A team of experts is just individuals who are grouped together for some administrative reason but operate independently.
Traditionally, as shown in several ethnographic studies, social work teams have operated as expert teams, using each other as a resource to help them improve their performance.
Informal exchanges in the office help workers make sense of the information they are gathering about a family, review their reasoning and draw on the expertise of others in planning how to manage the case. Colleagues also help if one worker is facing a particularly challenging time.
The team is also an important source of emotional support. Social work is emotionally demanding: a home visit can expose you to the extremes of emotions, to anger, anxiety, depression, fear. Being able to process these experiences helps workers cope and stay sensitive to families’ feelings.
Badly managed, it can lead to burnout where the worker copes by keeping a distance and depersonalising families. Biggart et al’s 2017 study found that workers value the team in providing a secure base to return to when life is stressful.
It offered availability – ‘people are there for me’, sensitivity – ‘my feelings are manageable’, acceptance – ‘I don’t always have to be strong’, cooperation – ‘I can work with others to find a solution’, and ‘team belonging – ‘I am valued, and I belong’.
I am aware that many in social work are striving to preserve their teams as they adapt to changes but we need to pool our ideas to avoid the lone social worker becoming accepted as the norm.
Eileen Munro is an emeritus professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics