What happens when you take ‘social’ out of social work? Does digital technology mean we can re-think relationships for good?

Does digital technology mean we can re-think relationships for good?

Social work has faced massive disruption during the coronavirus emergency. So much of its work is based on the assumption that practitioners can share space with others – colleagues, partner agencies, and of course, those to whom they provide support.

Being prevented from getting together has certainly been a cause of frustration and loss, but more than that, many social workers know that these restrictions can be dangerous for the people they work with.

Many of the social workers we know have responded to this new challenge with flexibility and creativity. Where necessary, they have found ways to carry on providing support at arm’s length. They have been thinking cleverly about digital technology, considering personal privacy and rebalancing the mix of face-to-face and remote communication methods in their daily practice.

Better use of time?

Of course resources were already stretched, and the additional pressure of a public health crisis has not helped, but we’re hearing that technology is helping with workload, too. While workers have been based at home, levels of sickness and absenteeism have dropped. Making use of video calls and conferencing has cut down on travel time and as a result, some workers have been able to start clearing their backlogs and reducing caseloads.

Digital technology also allows social workers to keep in touch with less visible groups of vulnerable young people. These children may not be included in the ‘priority cohorts’ for face-to-face support during lockdown, but are known to be at risk from domestic abuse, family conflict or substance misuse.

Virtual reality

And there is definitely a need for this ongoing support – even from a distance. The Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise focused on improving the lives of children and families is adapting its use of virtual reality during the Covid-19 period. The technology has been in place for some time, and allows users to meet privately with families, teams of people or individuals. Services can include remote supervision, virtual respite, therapeutic sessions, direct work with young people and supervised contact. Helen Costa, co-founder of the Cornerstone Partnership believes virtual reality has been a lifeline for many people during lockdown: “Based on the pilot findings, we believe the tool will be particularly useful for maintaining contact and direct work with adolescents and for carers/residential workers to receive supervision and support in an environment that allows them “virtual respite” particularly where there may be placement stability concerns,” she said. “It may also be particularly useful as a means of managing birth family contact where there are ongoing familial or extra-familial safeguarding risks,” she added.

Trust and accessibility

Social workers may be knocking at an open door when it comes to technology and the young people they work with. Many will already have well-trodden routes to online communication, but that doesn’t mean their social workers will be welcomed onto those contact lists automatically. Online relationships are at least as reliant on trust, accessibility and rapport as face-to-face interactions. Successful online relationships consist of regular contact – having provided digital devices and internet access if required – and extra social media accessibility through Facebook pages or Whatsapp groups as appropriate. Some teams have also encouraged online activities during lockdown. As well as health and wellbeing resources, these have included meditation apps, virtual museum tours and interactive quizzes. 

Different level of engagement

Social workers are used to working in less-than-ideal situations. Years of austerity have ensured that their resilience and creativity has been tested. Nevertheless, working on the front line, juggling the needs of their own families and managing the intensely pressurised atmosphere of at-risk families in lockdown can take its toll. Plus, while technology has its benefits, it’s not all plain sailing. Taking part in digital meetings requires a different level of engagement than when we’re in close physical proximity to others. In the real world we automatically process body language and other subconscious data. In a virtual meeting it can be more difficult to overcome nerves, awkwardness or power dynamics. There may be delays or interference to contend with – not to mention pets or children – and what happens if you’re working with people who are non-verbal and using signing to communicate? The worry is that a lot of crucial information could be missed, and it can be exhausting.

The use of technology in many walks of life has been transformed during the pandemic, and social work is no exception. We’ve had no choice but to consider our interactions, and how we build relationships and create support networks. Whilst technology is unlikely ever to replace face-to-face contact or a really successful home visit, technology is definitely does have its place.



Mary Meredith

Mary Meredith

Marketing Executive