The working environment has changed drastically over the past few decades. For some, it’s about a psychological and cultural shift due to a rise in gender equality or more awareness of workplace harassment, but for others it’s more of a physical change. Social work has experienced this quite literal shuffle of the working model with the wave of hot desking that has swept across teams in the past few years.
For those practitioners blessed to not experience hot desking and unaware of what exactly it is, allow us to explain. An office is allocated a certain number of desks to suit the team, however it’s a free-for-all as to who sits where. There are no allocated places for staff and most of the time, there are fewer desks than there are employees. It’s seen as the “modern” way of working, to improve flexibility in the office and embody a more relaxed atmosphere. In many corporate settings, this concept of “agile” working is a real benefit. It recognises the impact that modern technologies have had on our way of work and empowered us to no longer feel chained to our desks. Employees have the freedom to work from home, work on the go and have flexible hours. Overall, you can see the appeal, however when you look at hot desking with a social worker’s eye, the view changes a bit and we start to see areas of failure.
Hot desking may improve the style of work for sectors where there is a lot of emphasis on the individual, however in social work, we have always known the value in our team. Practitioners need an easy way to share ideas and support each other, something which hot desking complicates by underproviding workspaces or causing daily moves. It’s no longer easy to work sat next to your team, which naturally makes it harder to bounce ideas off your colleagues when looking for the best solution. Good practice is not developed in isolation, and hot desking makes it nearly impossible for the peer support system to be utilised across teams. Teams have reported feeling “disjointed” and that the system adds to their anxiety levels, which is the direct opposite of what agile working is meant to achieve.
Social work is not as far back in the stone ages that all work is paper based, so being mobile with your workload on your laptop isn’t the end of the world; but that’s not the end of the story. Practitioners operate differently to other sectors where the hot desking model has thrived and need access to resources, printed forms and more – all of which needs storing somewhere. In the past, when social workers had their own allocated desks, drawers were filled useful information relevant to the individual practitioner’s work. Now, that’s impossible and so it complicates the research process, thereby increasing the risk of mistakes or inefficiency. You end up wasting time not only searching for a desk to work at, but then looking for materials that will guide your practice.
Every case we work on in social work needs an innate level of privacy, given the nature of the situations we encounter. While in principle, hot desking does not eliminate the option of private rooms or areas where practitioners can have confidential conversations with service users or other professionals; it’s been proven to have that effect anyway. This “flexible” approach to an office layout leaves social workers without a structure to their workplace, when our sector actually requires it.
Embracing the idea of hot desking also brings in a larger proportion of people working from home. If staff are able to set their own hours or work from more convenient locations, then there is less of a need for a permanent desk for them in the office, ergo ipso facto: hot desking. While this can be a cost-effective move for employers and managers, because they can operate out of smaller offices, practitioners face an unexpected financial burden from this model. Encouraging social workers to base themselves at home mean that the energy, internet and gas they’d usually use during working hours in an office are now a personal cost. Expenses they had previously saved by being out of the house for a large proportion of the day are suddenly thrust upon staff in the name of a new trendy workplace dynamic.
The Future of Work?
It’s clear that implementing hot desking in a social work environment brings up some clear issues, however, that hasn’t stopped its growth. Admittedly, allowing for more flexibility with working hours and locations does have its benefits. It helps staff maintain a work-life balance, meet personal commitments (like childcare) and can even increase productivity. Working from home shows a high level of trust between employer and employee, which makes staff feel valued and respected in their place of work; which will naturally encourage a better work ethic.
Nevertheless, social workers have commented that the lack of a reliable place to come back to work to enhances “their sense of emotional disorientation, left them without a physical secure base to work from, and could reduce chances to interact with colleagues” which all combine to decrease employee engagement and enjoyment of their work. Social work has never really been like any other profession, so why would the same working environment that suits media agencies or tech developers suit practitioners?
Therefore, while we don’t disagree with the concept of hot desking as a whole, it’s become evident to our community that it is just unsuited to the sector of social work. We are built of the notion of collaboration, team support and stability – all of which are necessary factors to protect the mental health and effectiveness of practitioners given the highly emotional encounters we have every day.
Contributed by Elena Jones, One Stop Social Team.
While you're here...
Has your practice suffered due to hot desking and want to do something about it? Or perhaps you’ve noticed a need for restructuring the way certain teams operate? No matter what you’re passionate about within social work, we’re here to listen to you. One Stop Social are a community of practitioners who work together to develop the future of social work, and your voice matters to us in this mission. We want to champion the causes that matter to you and will have a direct positive impact on your working life.