The COVID-19 pandemic required many people to work at home for an extended period. While some found this a positive experience, others struggled to adjust to their new working conditions.
Despite these initial difficulties, however, people generally adapted quickly. The Office for National Statistics has recently reported that more than 8 in 10 workers who worked from home during lockdown wish to continue as they believe it benefits their wellbeing and has no adverse effects on their productivity.
A hybrid pattern has become particularly popular, where working time is split between the home and the office. Spending three days per week in the office and two working remotely is thought to provide the best of both worlds, as the benefits of homeworking, such as flexibility and fewer distractions, are balanced with the structure and sociability of being on-site. There is also evidence that hybrid working can improve physical health as people often find it easier to have a more active lifestyle.
During lockdown, many social workers became home-based and interactions with people who access services, as well as colleagues, became remote unless circumstances were exceptional. Our conversations with social workers in online training sessions conducted over the last couple of years have suggested that many enjoy homeworking and would welcome the opportunity to do so in the future - at least for part of the working week.
In partnership with Research in Practice, we have developed the Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD), a survey and accompanying workbook to improve organisational resilience in social care. This framework, co-produced with practitioners, aims to support social care leaders and managers to create a workplace climate that builds the capacity for resilience and promotes optimum social care practice. Using a ‘traffic light’ system, the diagnostic survey provides organisations with bespoke feedback in five key areas (known as Key Foundational Principles):
In the most recent survey (conducted earlier this year), we gained some insight into social workers’ working arrangements and their feelings about different working patterns. A snapshot of the findings are:
Just over one-fifth of the social care workers who responded (21%) are working at home every day. Only 2% work in the office on a full-time basis.
Hybrid working is common among social workers, with 92% of respondents working at home for at least one day a week and, of this number, almost half (43%) are homeworking for more than three days weekly.
Very few social workers who responded (3%) work in the field on a full-time basis. Almost a quarter (23%) do no fieldwork, 31% do so for at least one day per week and 18% for three or four days.
Social workers were asked about their preferences for different hybrid working patterns. The most popular option was hybrid working with face-to-face interactions with people who use services (99% of respondents endorsed this pattern). Full-time homeworking with face-to-face meetings was also popular (89% endorsed this pattern). Working full-time at home or in the office with online meetings were the least preferred choices (19% and 4% respectively).
Social workers were asked whether they had a choice over their working patterns. 88% of respondents reported having at least ‘a little’ amount of choice over whether they worked at home, in the office or a blend of the two locations, with 25% having a ‘moderate’, 26% ‘quite a lot’ and 11% ‘very much’ choice.
Research findings show that flexible working is most beneficial for work-life balance, wellbeing and productivity. We found that social care workers who felt they had more choice over whether they worked at home, in the office or in a hybrid pattern reported being more satisfied and less stressed.
Social workers who reported having more choice over their working patterns tended to rate their employer more highly on each of the key foundational principles underpinning organisational resilience.
Our findings show some variation in social workers’ preferences for working patterns. However, when planning new ways of working, it is crucial for social work leaders to consult practitioners and strive to accommodate their preferences wherever possible. Of particular importance to social workers is the need to ensure that their sense of psychological safety and belonging to their team and organisation is not undermined and their ability to work collaboratively and productively not impaired.
A Research in Practice Leaders’ Briefing on remote working and wellbeing aims to help with this key issue. For employers who are planning new ways of working, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) provides guidance and case studies on flexible and hybrid working practices. Mind Wellness action plan for homeworkers and hybrid workers are also helpful in introducing a personalised approach to managing mental health and wellbeing among the workforce.
The SWORD workbook provides leaders and managers with guidance on supporting work-life balance. Organisations need to provide carefully targeted support for practitioners working at home to maintain a secure base and sense of belonging.