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Virtual relations

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Coronavirus, Innovation

Social distancing during the current pandemic is pushing social work practice online, but is it possible to maintain relational approaches through smartphones, tablets and laptops? Tanya Moore, Principal Social Worker at Hertfordshire Adult Care Services, believes 'hi tech' shouldn’t mean 'low connection' and asks us to consider how we can maintain sensitive and purposeful relationships in these unusual times.

Video conference call. A screen with four participants observed by another.First time FaceTime

This is new and we’re all learning from experience.

Online work is likely to be easier where there’s already an established relationship. But starting from scratch, it’s good to think creatively about how trust can be built.

A series of shorter calls might be better than one longer session as these allow familiarity to build, will offer a chance to demonstrate reliability - and therefore trustworthiness - and give all participants time to think about what was learned and worked well.

We need to find new ways to build rapport. The usual process of being brought into someone’s home, perhaps being offered a cup of tea, is an important part of establishing a relationship. On a video call, we need to find other points of contact.

It may be that talking about the experience of meeting online is an icebreaker. We might set ground rules that recognise and forgive the likelihood of speaking at the same time. Our experience will help us determine what might be right in each circumstance, but we need to be aware this is an important part of the conversation.

Emojis showing range of emotions: happy, sad, angry etc.
We should be prepared for conversations to become difficult and think about how to respond if someone on the call becomes upset or angry.

Call weighting

Subtle social clues are an important part of any communication, so we need to think about what can be seen on screen. If possible, we should avoid using small screens for a call as it’s hard to make out facial expressions and other important directions and responses. Where one or multiple participants are using small screens, such as their phones, we might think about how we use our gestures to be sure we can be seen.

It may be even harder to sense what’s going on in the way we usually might. We can’t rely on physical senses like hearing or smell that usually help us build up a fuller picture. This makes it more challenging to tune in to our feelings and responses about person’s situation. We may find ourselves asking more questions as a result and need to be aware that our conversation mustn't become an interrogation.

We should be prepared for conversations to become difficult and think about how to respond if someone on the call becomes upset or angry, or ends the call abruptly. Where we know a conversation is likely to stir difficult feelings (and please note this can’t always be anticipated), we should consider what support is available to the person once the call has ended. We might want to make sure there’s someone nearby. We might make sure we’re contactable for a period after the call has ended.

two hands reaching out of smartphones towards each otherHung up on hanging up?

We also need to think about how to end a call. Getting up from the sofa and being shown out of a person’s home is usually an important part of closing the conversation. It’s a chance for people to remember the thing they didn’t say or to re-cap or confirm any agreements that have been made.

Closing a video call is more abrupt without the physical steps towards an ending. It might help to signal when the end of a call is coming ‘We’ve five minutes left. Is there anything we’ve missed?’. We might signal to what the person will be doing once the call has ended:  ‘Do you have any plans?’ ‘What’s next in your day?’

Even where the tech is available and works well, online conversations aren’t for everyone. Whilst for some, the barrier of the screen is an enabler, for others, the sheer focus of a video call is too intense. This applies to us as social workers too.

Although online practice is likely to become more commonplace, we need to be aware of the impact of its intensity and should avoid back to back on-line calls. Just as we might have taken an important opportunity for thinking time while travelling back from a visit, we should build breaks into our online working day. Attention should be paid to the way we feel following an online conversation so we can think about what this tells us about the encounter.

Virtual conversations need real thinking. Time to reflect and recover is essential for good, professional practice.

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