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.

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June 2, 2014. New media & new technology.

One Comment

  1. Shelley replied:

    I absolutely agree , I remember starting in a busy community care team this would have been over 10 years ago to be told with some alarm ” to watch those home care organizers, trying to get a service out them them is like trying to get blood out of a stone.” Being a relatively new worker this was not a good start as i was fully aware of my reliance on having positive relationships with the home care team as they would have input into the vast majority of my cases. Very quickly I realized that communication was getting lost in translation through the over use of email. After being devoured one afternoon by a very irate home care organizer, (having been told to send a referral by email to her), I thought, enough is enough, I needed to understand why this team are so angry. So I arranged to go and have a cuppa to talk over some cases. When I arrived (i must say with some trepidation)my once fierce adversary seemed quite nervous and almost shy on first meeting, after some small talk and cake or two it soon became apparent that the team where carrying ludicrously high case loads, and believed the social workers had no understanding of the pressure they were under whilst continually firing off demands of services “to be action-ed urgently- see attached assessment!!!” The constant barrage of emails and the reduced involvement in face to face contact with staff, had been made worse over the years as the home care team and come isolated from the community team. They became located in an office at the other side of town, this combined with staff turn over, rising workloads and increasing emphasis on paperwork, meant “a working relationship” had been reduced to words on a screen. I’m not saying that first cuppa caused a revolution as it did not, on the most part folk continued to use cyber space as the most convenient method of communication. I on the other hand never had a cross word again with my colleagues in home care, as I tried to make the effort to visit at least a couple of times a month to touch base with any organizers I happened to be co working with. In my opinion not only did this harmony make my life easier but it certainly paid off dividends for the service users I worked with. The latin meaning of the word conversation is “wandering together with” we have to journey with people in order to understand what is happening otherwise how can we have empathy and congruence with the people we work with. Technology is important and it does give us the convenience and the ability to work with speed and efficiency,and it also can provide opportunities for creativity and innovation, but it is only another tool in our box, which if over used or not used in the correct context can have damaging consequences. Afterall a builder wouldn’t used a hammer to screw in a nail.

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