New Research Shows that Social Workers Remain Cold Towards Hot-Desking

Hot-desking began to creep in in the early 2000’s and has continued stealthily ever since. However, it is still not well-received by the profession: according to a recent survey by Community Care, 86 percent of practitioners consider it incompatible with the job. The negative impact on peer support and efficiency generally are key themes that arise again and again. For example, Munro has talked about “the expert team” and how hot-desking has the potential to disrupt and erode that valuable resource; and Biggart et al (2016) talk about the workplace as the “secure base” which enables the team to emotionally scaffold the social worker to function effectively. The team, embodied in the workplace provides the necessary immediate and informal supervision required for effective functioning. When this support is lacking, this contributes to the burnout experienced by so many social workers.

Hot-desking is incompatible simply from a practical perspective

Anecdotal reports from within the profession would suggest that aside from these organisational psychodynamics, hot-desking is incompatible simply from a practical perspective. The original notion was that the majority of the role was “out in the field” and therefore desks (and parking spaces) were not necessary on a 1-1 basis. However this money-saving idea coincided with a growing emphasis on recording, meaning workers were increasingly desk-bound but without the actual physical space to occupy.

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However, to what extent this was and is a reality has so far been unclear. A recent study (Disney et al, 2019) looked to clarify the reality of contemporary practice in terms of how sedentary the role has become and how much out of hours work takes place, by utilising GPS technology as a research tool for the first time in social work. Their goal was to be able to represent participants’ mobilities and, using mixed methods of mapping techniques from geography alongside supplemental qualitative data such as interviews and diaries, they set out to examine the daily patterns of workers in the field of child protection.

Blurring of spatial boundaries between the home and work

They argue that in social work, mobility is especially prized: being ‘on the move’ is posited as desirable because it automatically infers that more time is being spent with children and families; and suggests productivity. However, this also leads to a blurring of spatial boundaries (between the home and work) and increased permeation of the role into the home environment. Not only does this have implications for worker’s wellbeing emotionally but it also erodes employment rights when time and space within the working day to complete the tasks of the role is no longer afforded. The authors explore the ideas within social theory and political philosophy and highlight that, contrary to the notion that mobility automatically confers “progress, freedom and wellbeing”, the extent to which mobility can be “coercive and disciplined”, is often overlooked.  The complexities and nuances of mobility and stillness are often not considered, they argue, which in turn leads to a glossing over of the complexities of the social work role. In particular, mobility and stillness are inextricably linked with emotion and affect: the authors argue that whilst some aspects of mobility may produce positive affective associations (such as a sense of freedom, for example) they can also be corrosive and detrimental to wellbeing.

Hot-desking generates additional anxiety

Their study revealed a worrying (and reluctantly received) seepage of work beyond office time and space and that the mobile working practices often so prized are increasingly melding the already nebulous boundaries that social workers experience. ‘Flexible working’, often hailed as the answer to inefficiency has the undesired effect of rendering overwork as the “norm”; whilst initially the concept of not being tied to a desk may be desirable, what starts as optional can become expected practice. There is the danger it becomes imbued with ‘toxic’ elements: such as the permeating of the home with the stresses of the job; so that there is nowhere left untainted or that affords peace of mind. Ironically, one of the study’s participants from a designated hot-desking site was the only one with no access to remote technology meaning that not only did she not have the means or the space to complete her work but that she did not even have the means in her own space. Rather than liberating her from this established but unwelcome practice, it merely generated additional anxiety.

Social workers are increasingly displaced from the organisation

This study also found that rather than being stifling and imprisoning, a day in ‘the office’ was well received by many as it offered some respite from the constant movement of visits; although at the same time such days could be physically and emotionally draining. Interestingly, one participant reflected upon the physical distance of one child (which had increased as a result of the worker moving to a central hot-desking site) as affording a welcome emotional distance. One wonders if hot-desking creates a scenario where workers are increasingly displaced from the organisation, thus allowing it (the organisation) to take less and less responsibilities for the wellbeing of its members.

In summary, this paper makes three important contributions to the field and reinforces existing research into hot-desking, through its exploration of mobility in social work.

  • Firstly, in its exploration of the complexities and nuances of mobility and the findings that those workers who were mobile reported that their work was increasingly encroaching on their domestic spaces and ‘contaminating’ the home.
  • Secondly, in its assertion that the dominant discourse of mobility within social work as desirable and essential for good practice is reductionist: such discourses only perpetuate and reinforce the undesirable aspects of hot-desking; whilst also denying the importance of activities that take place when workers are ‘not moving’.  In reality ‘Sedentary’ time as is often regarded as a welcome relief and when unobtainable (as can often be the case with hot-desking environments), capable of generating anxiety.
  • It also introduces an innovative methodological approach which, if used with appropriate safeguards (and not as an efficiency measure), is argued to be a useful tool for developing understanding about other areas of practice.

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