Technology: friend or foe?

In the run up to our Connected or Protected event here at Social Work @ Sussex on June 5 (see previous post), our postgrad public engagement ambassador Rachel Larkin takes a longitudinal view of technological changes in social work practice.

I’ve been a Social Worker long enough to remember the days when the “secretaries” typed our reports in rooms filled with plants and flowery tea cups. You often had to wait three days for a letter to go out but you could charm them to do your typing first, with promises of chocolate biscuits when you got back from your visit.

Now we all have e-mail and laptops and I can’t imagine doing my work without them.

E-mails are so convenient. Yet there are times I feel they can be a deceptive shortcut. We think we are saving time, and communicating effectively, but we are in danger of missing something essential about the nature of our work. Our work is about relationships – many and varied – but I’ve yet to be convinced that good working relationships can be formed through technology. (Although I’m aware that my son would accuse me of being a dinosaur at this point)

Today I found myself explaining, to two separate people, why talking to someone would be better than more streams of e-mails. The angry parent, unhappy with a decision, is unlikely to feel heard and understood by yet another e-mail response. A group of professionals, anxious about a transition plan, needs more than an electronically-sent timetable if they are going to work together effectively.

Social Workers are skilled communicators, and part of that skill is knowing what form of communication is needed in each situation. I don’t doubt the Social Workers I spoke with had the right skills, but the lure of the quick e-mail had seduced them into thinking that they had done enough. When they stopped for a moment, and thought it over, they realised that a discussion at the start may have saved them time repairing situations later.

Of course we avoided difficult conversations, back in the days of typewriters and tea cups. They take resources that sometimes you’re just not sure you have (you do, just take a breath, talk to your manager or a colleague and trust yourself). We just didn’t used to have the technology to hide behind in quite the same way.

Not that technology isn’t a fantastic thing. My iPad is a thing of wonder. I used to drive to visits with a crumpled map, and an address scribbled on the back of an envelope, with the awful feeling I’d been round this roundabout before. I love my sat-nav and I wouldn’t part with it now. Not even for a whole packet of chocolate biscuits.


June 2, 2014. New media & new technology. 1 comment.