Should social workers be able to work fully remotely?

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Remote working, a makeshift solution during the pandemic, has evolved into a preferred working model for many practitioners.

The latest survey on the pandemic’s impact on health and social care staff, carried out from November 2022 to January 2023, found that 8.6% of social workers were working entirely from home, with a further 70.9% doing so some of the time.

But in two reports last year, Ofsted raised three significant concerns about the impact of remote working on practice.

Ofsted’s remote working concerns

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman

Remote practice risked robbing social workers of the peer support needed for “good social work practice to thrive”, which was built by face-to-face contact, the inspectorate said in a report last summer on the sector’s recovery from Covid.

Ofsted added that remote working had enabled practitioners living in rural areas to take up posts with higher salaries in London boroughs. This could “erode the quality of social work” due to these practitioners lacking knowledge and understanding of the communities they served, it warned.

Its annual report, published in December 2022, also cautioned that, though face-to-face visits had returned to pre-pandemic levels, social workers may be spending less time with children due to remote working, undermining relationships with them.

Echoing this, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) suggested last month that some frontline agency staff working remotely were not doing sufficient face-to-face work.

In its response to the Department for Education’s consultation on setting national rules on agency work, it urged the DfE to affirm that case-holding locums should always deliver face-to-face work with children and families.

What do social workers think?

To capture practitioners’ perspectives, we conducted a poll on whether social workers should be able to work fully remotely. The responses were mixed.


Over a third of the 676 respondents (36%) said this would never be appropriate, as social work was built on relationships – with your team and the people you support. A comparable proportion (34%) thought that remote work was not suitable for frontline staff, but could work for other roles.

However, the remainder (28%) said that all practitioners could work fully remotely.

This split in opinion is also evident in the comments readers have posted on relevant articles.

Working from home positives

Woman working from home, taking notes on an article displayed on her computer

Photo by Pexels

Beth wrote that she felt “more productive” at home due to the lack of distractions, such as “people coming in and out of the office”.

“I don’t feel isolated with the improvements in technology and am more connected than ever. I totally get that this way of working does not suit everyone, but it works for me,” she added.

EC said remote working enabled practitioners to take back “some control of their lives”, while Tom Hughes pointed to the time it saved.

“Just yesterday I had two children looked-after reviews held in person. In the pure remote era that was three hours,” he said. “Now, adding in the commute to the location and back that’s eight hours in total! One whole working day is worth two meetings.”

Claire, meanwhile, rejected the idea that social workers needed local knowledge, calling it “nonsense”.

“Anybody who works in a large city or rural area is very likely to live a long way from the office to be able to afford accommodation and for personal safety reasons,” she said. “Also, we live in a modern world and flexible working is with us to stay.”

Negative impacts of remote practice

Man at his desk at home, working remotely.

Image by elenabsl/AdobeStock

However, echoing Ofsted, Lindsey pointed to the loss of peer support from remote working, sharing her experience of comforting a distressed colleague in the office with a cup of tea and some company.

“What we do is called social work for a reason,” she added.

“Talking, sharing, laughing, crying, risk managing and the occasional gossip about the head of service may not make me a better person, let alone a better social worker, but it certainly keeps the creeping alienation slightly at bay.”

Another reader, Mark, warned that remote working with families undermined quality of practice.

“I struggle to understand how anyone that works with vulnerable people honestly believes that remote working is in their best interests,” he said.

“So much of what we do in social work is observational – what is the situation like, surroundings, family dynamics, interactions between clients and their significant others and so on. This is lost when you’re talking to someone via Teams or the telephone.”

Remote working and face-to-face visits

Social worker talking to a young girl

Photo by Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

Several readers questioned the idea that remote working post pandemic had reduced face-to-face visiting, which is in line with Ofsted’s position in its annual report.

“Many of us work remotely on certain days but that doesn’t mean that we don’t visit or meet with the people we are supporting,” Angela pointed out “You can work from home and still go out on visits.” .

Lily said working from home did not affect her work with vulnerable children “as the home visits are mandatory”, while Chris B added: “I think this is very presumptuous in that remote working means less face-to-face contact.

“I do all my visits and meetings in person, but I mostly complete my records and reports at home. If I need to be at the office for a child, family or otherwise, I am there.”

Agency staff ‘being vilified’

The ADCS’s concerns about agency staff working remotely prompted some to accuse the association of attacking locum staff.

“Here they go again, creating a false narrative about agency social workers,” wrote Elaine in the related article.

“They haven’t provided any statistical data to support these claims. From my observation, local authorities require agency social workers to do face-to-face work like permanent staff. If there are agency social workers who only want to do remote working, then they don’t employ them.”

“Once again agency staff are being vilified and seen as second-class social workers, Yet local authorities would appoint them permanently in a heartbeat,” added Katie.

What are your thoughts on fully remote working? Tell us in the comments below!

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