Flexibility in social work: Is it possible, and how can we achieve it?
Flexible work conditions are increasingly demanded by the modern workforce, with 67% of employees wishing they were offered flexible working and 70% saying flexible working makes a job more attractive to them. Yet despite UK employees crying out for flexibility in their jobs, it’s something that hasn’t always been available to those in the social work profession. But with the average career of a social worker standing at just over seven years, it’s clear that the industry needs to move with the times in order to hold on to its best employees.
A 2015 Guardian Social Lives survey found that work life balance is the single most important consideration for social workers looking for a new role, and while the vast majority of those in the profession enjoy their jobs, long hours and stress are having a negative impact. Social care and social work are demanding professions, with workers expected to be patient, resilient and organised in order to provide the best support possible to those in the community. The situations social workers deal with can be emotionally draining, leading to stress and exhaustion for some in the industry – but many employers are addressing this by offering increasingly flexible work conditions.
Benefits of flexibility
The nature of social work is such that many professionals travel between an office environment, client homes and sites, courts and other premises. Because of this, there can be a lot of wasted time during transit and waiting before and after sessions. One social care employer, the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), recognised this opportunity to allow social workers to work more flexibly, offering remote, on-the-move and home options. Cafcass’ 2014 move toward smarter working resulted in a doubled productivity rate, reduced sick days and improved staff wellbeing. However, it’s important to note that improvements were only made once Cafcass implemented a more structured, well-managed flexible environment than the initial ad-hoc remote working arrangement. Now in addition to remote working opportunities, social workers still have face-to-face meetings, are encouraged to work in the office where possible and are equipped with technology that enables them to not only access documents on the go, but keep in touch with clients and colleagues.
The impact of flexible work conditions extends beyond the Cafcass case study. An APQC survey reveals 60% of employees say increased flexibility to customise their working schedules or hours would make them more productive, with a 10% improvement in staff retention reported by one company after implementing flexibility. As flexible working provides alternative ways of working for those who may have otherwise left the company, it’s natural that many companies see improvements in employee retention rates after introducing flexible conditions, suggesting it may be time for more social work employers to do the same.
Challenges of flexibility
While remote working has numerous benefits, there remains a requirement for social workers to have a ‘safe space’ in which to return, share experiences and reflect – this is typically an office environment with a community of fellow social workers. For some, this style of working is preferable, allowing workers to bounce ideas and viewpoints off each other and share experiences. A fixed work environment can provide more emotional and professional support from colleagues and supervisors than remote working, with clearer channels through which to seek feedback and guidance. As such, flexibility within the sector must be balanced with social workers’ needs to have connection with others in their industry on a regular basis. Cafcass has successfully implemented this, offering office-based environments as well as the ability to work remotely and access virtual ‘team rooms’ from specialist apps on their work devices.
The notion of flexibility means different things to different social workers, with some interested in job rotation, job share, and different work hours and patterns in addition to the ability to work from different locations. And while some measures have been trialled to mixed reviews – such as hot desking, which was suggested to be restrictive in terms of conducting confidential meetings – others are being implemented in a bid to reduce burnout and retain skilled social workers within the industry. In order for this to be successful, social workers must work with managers and administrators to establish the best work conditions from them, ensuring technologies are adopted and adapted to support new work conditions. Regular team meetings, workshops and group activities are crucial to maintain physical interaction within teams, while those who do desire the ability to work within a fixed office space should be supported to do so.
As the modern workforce continues to evolve with the requirements of individuals, social work must adapt to ensure it holds on to its best workers. With employees increasingly demanding flexible conditions, and case studies proving the success of flexibility in social work, it’s apparent that the ability to work remotely is something the sector is ready for. In order for the social work industry to take full advantage of flexible working, employers must offer staff the ability to work remotely while also being able to return to a main hub or office environment. In doing this, they will balance the social and organisational requirements of social work with the improved productivity and staff retention that flexible conditions can offer.
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