The social work home office: Behind the screens

A social work colleague posted on social media a photo of her new home office.  Her table and chair, laptop, a cat, some flowers and picture on the wall. I loved seeing this – especially in contrast to what I imagined to be her usual office – a vast grey room full of computers, generic desks and big unopenable windows. This portrait of her new space reflected who I know her to be, a woman committed to respectful, creative work with whānau.

It’s probably unfair to paint such a sunny picture of a reality that for most of is far from purring cat and steaming tea. Virginia Woolf, who famously wrote A Room of One’s Own nearly 100 years ago, described her room: “like many thousands, with a window looking across people’s hats and vans and motor cars to other windows.”  Nevertheless, she was in her space, a paper and pen on her table, with the task of gathering a sense of who she was as a woman writer. Now with laptops on ours, I reckon we social workers are doing the same – gathering ourselves, trying to make meaning of who we are as professionals in this unfamiliar (and all too familiar) time and space.

My first guess is that for most of us, finding this “room of one’s own,” regardless of what it looks like or what we can see from the window, is the biggest challenge of all. When we do find it, we face the impact of bringing our work into that room, what it means for our well-being, personal boundaries and to the people we share it with. These are all crucial challenges to actively reflect on in our various professional conversations because although there will be common experiences of this pandemic, there are as many unique practice challenges as there are agency settings, fields of practice, practitioners and homes.

My second guess is that most of us have been suddenly confronted by our relationship with technology. Nevertheless, we should take comfort in the fact that although mass remote working is a new challenge for our profession, use of technology is not. For more than 30 years social workers and our human service colleagues, have been writing about and researching the place of technology in practice, its potential benefits, limitations and ethical challenges. In 2017, the Australian Social Work journal published a special issue on e-professionalism in which the editors note, “we are immersed in a space and time where almost every major international social work journal has dedicated significant publication focus to how social work is engaging with technology, social media, digital communications, and virtual practice” (McAuliffe & Nipperess, 2017, p. 131). As busy practitioners we won’t all have had time to engage with this writing, but we should feel confident that our profession is collectively exploring some important questions.

As an example, social workers in Aotearoa participated in a research project I conducted only recently about their professional use of social media. The wisdom offered by those who participated is still very much with me; their wisdom even more relevant now that we have been so properly propelled into a practice world almost exclusively reliant on technology and social media.

For instance, when given the opportunity to reflect collaboratively about the place of social media and technology in their professional worlds, most social workers who participated in the study first focused on their (very real) fears about the ‘how to’ of technology. After a quick collective sharing of tips and technical advice, they moved quite quickly into a deeper reflection on their identities as professionals. Social media unrelentingly prompts us to consider this – who we want to be portrayed as and how we exist in the boundaries between our cultural, personal, professional, private, public and organisational identities. What is the tika of social media, the ethics of technology? What strikes me in this new space, are the strong parallels between the challenges we manage with professional boundaries on social media, and the challenges we face with these boundaries and roles when working from home.

Our employers give us an email address and a pre-designed signature, some of us drive around in cars that aren’t our own and are advised what best to wear. We are given a desk and chair, a business card and phone number, and a set of health and safety guidelines. The purpose of highlighting this is not to minimise the importance of our organisational accountabilities, but to illustrate the contrast between this space, and the opportunity we now have to create our own space away from the “office.” What does this look like? How do we decide this? Who (actually) are we? How do we re-define (or retain) our professional identities in the midst of such a profound change to where we practice? My first hope from all of this is that by answering these questions, we strengthen our personal and collective social work identities within the organisations we work for, rather than having them defined for us.

I also learned from the research participants about the danger of binary thinking. Technology isn’t either good or bad – it lies somewhere in between. They advised we think critically about aspects of that technology benefit our practice and use them in nuanced ways alongside our favoured kanohi ki te kanohi endeavours. What has emerged now is the appearance of no choice – we have returned to that all or nothing binary in the face of a crisis. Technology is physically the most effective gear we have in the face of a virus, it is our armour, it has become our everything.  When we’ve all taken a breath, we will sit back and ask ourselves some critical questions: Where is the power located in all of this? Who will benefit? What assumptions are we making? My second hope from this is that by doing so we will understand more actively our role with technology, and be sure that it never becomes the boss of us.

A week before we went into full Covid-19 lockdown, all my professional conversations were of course obsessed with what we imagined to be its implications. Everyone I met that week, across agency settings and fields of practice, was genuinely dumbfounded by the dystopian landscape stretching ahead of us. We predicted, hypothesized, questioned, and I think were surprised by our capacity to create meaning using our current social work kete which contained some knowledge about technology but mostly everything else to do with social work. Just like the research participants, our focus quickly shifted from the “how to” of Zoom (for example), to thoughts about what it actually means to be a social worker. Once we get over the shock of seeing our naked imperfect faces on big and little screens, we can celebrate our unique Code of Ethics, our relationship skills, our focus on human rights, justice, self-determination, cultural humility. My sense is that now we are a week into this new world, we are no longer imagining the challenges, we are, in our various rooms and bubbles, managing them. Kia kaha!

Image credit: Fouquier

9 thoughts on “The social work home office: Behind the screens

  1. Kia ora Deb,
    Thanks for putting these thoughts together during a difficult time.
    I really like the idea of using this opportunity to reposition ourselves as a profession. Pared back from the trappings of the workplace, our values, skills and knowledge base come into the foreground to inform our next steps. The mode of practice is just that, a mode. Our collective vision as a profession should and can be underpinned by the imperatives of social justice and human rights. The conversation has to be, as you say, about what it means to be a social worker.

    1. Kia ora Jude, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. You express so well the opportunity we have to ‘foreground’ our identity as social workers and I think the comments you make on Ian’s post about the role we have in responding to inequality generally, and as heightened by the pandemic, is an example of this. Social workers have long been challenged with how to be political (ie how to be social workers) in their organizational spaces, and I wonder how time away from these physical spaces will help soften this boundary? Help us be more authentic? More focused on what’s important? Hmmm…. I know there are individual social workers/agencies doing this already but I agree with you that we need to establish this identity, this way of being social workers, as a profession – and to support those whose workplaces make it particularly difficult! Nice to hear from you. Ngā mihi, Deb

  2. I love this article, loved reading it and its prompt, permission and encouragement to explore emotions and regain strength as a practitioner- thank you

    1. Kia ora Sana – thank you for reading and offering your thoughts. I wish you all the best through this tricky time – hope you find plenty of quiet moments in the days ahead to explore and strengthen!

    2. So refreshing your article and inviting people to allow the thought of technology being explored further as a useful tool in our social work space. To examine what it might look like in terms of how it could benefit our clients we are working with. It definitely encourages me to be curious, to step back and celebrate openness to new ways.
      Greatly appreciated!

  3. Kia ora Deb!
    Thank you for this. So helpful to remember our social work kete – knowledge, skills, expertise we have to do this work of connecting well with people – colleagues, supervisees, service users, students, whanau, etc.
    In my experience (and I know in many others’) there can be numerous challenges for social workers communicating and connecting well and professionally on a daily basis. Whether its because we’re meeting on line, or with someone angry, frightened and feeling unheard or meeting someone in person but we’re clothed in face masks and goggles or talking with someone who’s immobile in bed in a busy ward room…. hmmm… reminds me of a catch phrase I heard somewhere – we got this!
    We are going to focus on a paragraph from your article with our BSW students in a Roopu Awhi session – our integrative tutorials . Thank you and Kia kaha my friend!

    1. Kia ora Rebecca – great to hear from you and agree re the complexity of our practice world, multiple unforeseen challenges we manage on the fly. I also trust that we ‘have this,’ and will probably get it best by sharing our stories with each other. And a big hello to all BSW students around Aotearoa – a big clap to you all! What an amazing, challenging time to be studying – take advantage of the unique opportunity you have to reflect with each other on what is happening in our world – in the inspiring “rooms” of your social work classes.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write and share it with us Deb. Timely valuable reflections on our use of technology and social media. Kia Kaha.

    1. Kia ora Vicki, thanks for taking the time to read and reply! This is such an overwhelming time on so many levels – each day brings something new to navigate. All the better when we all put our heads together eh?

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