Social Work On The Move

Social work from home: Creating thinking spaces

Author Harry Ferguson

All over the world there is a vast workforce of people in caring professions whose work involves seeing people in their homes – social workers, family support workers, community nurses, GPs – but who because of social distancing are now doing much of this work remotely within their own homes.

When so much work is being done remotely, one of the many absences that the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and new home-working conditions is bringing to light for social workers is the impact of the lack of movement and transitions between places and in particular car journeys. Not travelling to and from work, or journeying between the office and people’s homes, and instead making contact through video or phone calls can remove thinking space and transitional experiences that were previously helpful in processing visits and were perhaps taken for granted.

Having researched and written about the key role the car plays in social work, I want to suggest some ways that care professionals can create spaces for thinking in and around their homes. To do this it is firstly necessary to become clear about what has changed.

Social work on the move

In social work the car not only takes the driver from A to B, such journeys open up another world of possibilities that I generally refer to as car therapy. The physical structure of the car as an object is important because of the privacy and speed it affords to reach vulnerable people and how it acts as a container for emotion and thinking.

Before and after home visits or other meetings workers can talk out loud to themselves, shout, scream, laugh, cry – all safely in the knowledge they won’t be heard, and it can feel cathartic and therapeutic to do this. This form of car therapy is also evident in how emotionally the vehicle acts as a secure base that workers can retreat to when the office feels hurried or stressful, and after difficult home visits.

The car is also a mobile office where care professionals make phone calls and write-up notes, and when they do joint visits with managers, a place for informal supervision and mutual reflection on cases. And the car can be a vital site of practice with people accessing services. The seating arrangements of a car imposes not sitting face-to-face, helping people to talk freely and often disclose things they may not of in their homes or within offices.

In-between visits and reflection can also include a vital ingredient of being able to listen to music. Some of the most enjoyable and moving (in every sense) interviews I have done with social workers have been in their cars on the way to and from home visits, discussing their choice of music or radio station. Is it a ‘Rocky’ soundtrack visit, or something mellower? 

Perhaps the key thing that transitions between spaces provides is thinking time. A great deal of ‘prep time’ is spent on journeys. There is space to think away from the demands and interruptions of an office and to get into a state of mind that is focused on what people accessing services need, as well as devising strategies to deal with anticipated challenges. As a social worker expressed when anticipating a complex encounter with a family: ‘I’ve forgotten about the office now, I’m not thinking about any of that. And I’m just thinking about going there really, going on the visit...I guess psychologically I’m thinking I’ve got to be ready for possibly being challenged now’.

Social work from home

A key challenge in the new conditions of home working, where a great deal of practice is being done virtually through telephone and video calls, is how to create ‘prep time’ and transitional spaces for thinking. Ways need to be found to re-create rituals and actions that involve moving from one place to the next and one state of mind to another. The most obvious thing when preparing for a practice encounter through video is to move between the room/s you are working in at home to another room or space. For example, the garden or kitchen.

Having had phone conversations with managers or others you need to help you think about a practice encounter, take a journey in which you commit to prepping for the ‘visit’. Try to let go of all distractions within a home space (and indeed anxiety and preoccupations caused by COVID-19 itself) and open space in your mind for the ensuing encounter. Listen to the music that feels right for the occasion, while going for a walk around the block to create a mind-set that is focused on practice and what the people accessing services are likely to need. Doing something similar can help after the virtual social work encounter has taken place, especially if it may have been a difficult conversation. I’m hearing that practitioners are finding it particularly hard at the end of the working day not to have the journey home to process all the experiences and feelings that have come up, a transitional experience that leaves the mind freer to relate to partners, family, friends.

Creating transitions may seem a poor substitute for car journeys, but while the physical structure of the car is important, what is vital is the movement and change of environment. This is about using domestic space in ways that creates movement that fit with our moods and aligning that with what we need at particular times; be it productive or relaxing atmospheres and so on.

Creating productive atmospheres and such rituals of movement in your home may feel odd and indeed difficult, especially if like so many home-workers during lockdown you are sharing the space with partners and children, or with housemates in a house-share. You may struggle to have the privacy you may normally have, but it may still be possible to self-consciously recreate at least some of the effects of transitional spaces, in which you can do some of the reflection in action that you need to.

And, of course, you may still have your car, sitting there idle, complete with sound system and door locks to keep distractors out, waiting to be used, even while stationary, as part of these re-enactments.  

Harry Ferguson Crop

Harry Ferguson

Harry Ferguson is a Professor of Social Work for the Department of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Birmingham.