Tucked away in a Hampshire County Council library is Jo Kent, team manager of the East Hampshire disability children’s team. Jo is one of a number of social workers taking advantage of the flexible working arrangements the council offers and instead of having to rush back to the office, she is completing notes on her hybrid device. The device is light, functional and fully security protected, while still giving her access to centralised information and documents as well as the ability to connect with her colleagues.
Jo is just one member of the council’s agile workforce, which is embracing the benefits that come through combining flexible working conditions with mobile IT technologies.
Entering the digital age
Hampshire is one of the front-runners in encouraging its workforce to embrace an agile working culture – this was just one of the things Ofsted credited the authority for when finding it to be ‘outstanding’ across all areas in June 2019. Mobile phones and hybrid devices were rolled out to the social care teams in 2018, and senior leaders encourage flexible working patterns for staff. Similarly, the introduction of social work personal assistants in 2017 has helped to cut down admin for frontline social workers, allowing them to dedicate more time to the children and families they support. These social work personal assistants carry out a range of tasks including booking and scheduling appointments with families, taking minutes and filing reports as required.
“I can send a text or email from my mobile phone for a meeting to tell a family that I am on my way,” says Definite Mutendi, child assessment and safeguarding team (CAST) social worker. “And I don’t need to worry about filing minutes afterwards, because my PA will be able to process that information for me.”
According to Jo, the presence of PAs has helped to free up about 70% of her time from admin tasks, which she is now able to dedicate to the children and families she works with.
The power of technology
All social workers are equipped with portable hybrid devices which can be used remotely, but connect to desk-based workstations as well, should they choose to work in one of the county council’s nine district offices. The technology allows staff to work away from the office, minimising travel and maximising the time they have available to spend with vulnerable children and families. It also helps in reducing the overall carbon footprint on the plentiful green Hampshire countryside.
“Staff do not have to come back to their respective offices if it makes better sense to complete the work where they are”, says Jo.
This supports the high-quality service that all of Hampshire’s children’s social workers offer as this flexible working and freedom of practice promotes a healthy work/life balance for all.
Another visible advantage of agile working comes when using the hybrid devices directly with families, as they are becoming important tools that social workers can use to enhance their practice, Definite believes.
“When there are children that are too young to explain their circumstances, sometimes it helps that they can use drawing to express themselves,” says Definite. “We have something called the three houses exercise that allows children and young people to explain their worries, fears, and happiness to us, through drawing.
“On one particular visit, I met a seven-year-old for the first time and the child was reluctant to engage and answer questions,” says Definite. “But having the hybrid device helped to break the ice. I was able to draw pictures electronically on the device and encourage the child to do the same. This was an unobtrusive way to gather information about the child’s emotional state and yielded better results than asking direct questions, which the child was reluctant to answer.”
For those staff for whom a daily commute to the office is not an efficient use of their time, there is a range of other options to make working life easier and more productive – including Hampshire’s offer of a nine-day fortnight with staff working their 74 hours over nine days allowing them to take the 10th day off.
Jo, who manages eight social workers within her team, believes this flexible approach to working delivers the best results, because staff are empowered to manage their own time and balance their work and personal needs.
“For some staff, the nine-day fortnight works for them, while others prefer to work annualised hours. There are others that want to work a three or four-day week or prefer to work from home, and those who feel they work best in council buildings.
“I even have one member of staff who prefers to work in a coffee shop sometimes! I am encouraged as a manager to allow my team to work in these ways, if that is what works for them and are the best conditions for them to provide an outstanding service to our children and families.”
These differing work patterns are achievable because managers are trusted to make these decisions at a district level, giving Jo the opportunity to build her own flexible workforce. “When you have happy staff that feel valued, they are more likely to put the effort in – and listening to your workers’ needs is key to that.” she says. However, this way of working is never at the detriment of the ever-important face-to-face supervision and regularly meeting in person for team meetings. These are planned on a team-by-team basis, to take place regularly, at times and in locations which complement the individual working patterns of teams.
“I don’t think I could have done that without the flexibility I get from Hampshire…”
Jo benefits from this flexi-time policy too. Although her main base is Alton, she works and lives in Basingstoke.
“I returned from maternity leave in 2018 and now work a four-day week, which gives me the flexibility to work around my children’s needs,” she says.
Working flexibly has not negatively impacted on Jo’s career progression. In the space of nine and a half years, Jo has progressed from being a newly qualified social worker to team manager – making her another of Hampshire’s ‘grow-your-own’ success stories. The five continuous professional development that Hampshire provides all its social workers has also supported Jo on her journey through the ranks – as staff are entrusted to take ownership of their own learning.
“I don’t think I could have done that without the flexibility I get from Hampshire,” she says. “The senior management team has supported me to achieve my career goals of being a good social worker, while I am afforded the healthy work-life balance I need to fulfill my family goals.”
She is not alone in that. Working flexibly means that Definite has the space to work from home and complete critical reports when required, instead of negotiating a daily commute. He is also pursuing a practice supervision qualification and is mentoring a second-year social work student – and Hampshire’s policies allowed him to relocate halfway across the world to do so.
“Social work can be quite stressful, but this is well managed in my office, due to the resources that Hampshire provides,” he says. “I joined in May 2018 from South Africa, where I was a trained social worker, but I have been growing in leaps and bounds as Hampshire has provided me with the platform to succeed. I think flexibility has been key and is one of the best tools that Hampshire has put in place for its employees. It has taken the pressure off social workers and allowed them to focus more time on frontline work.”
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