How Social Work is Changing in the Covid Era

Traditional in-person social work has moved virtual in the wake of the pandemic.

Traditional in-person social work has moved virtual in the wake of the pandemic. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | The pandemic has forced the entire social work industry to rapidly evolve and adapt to a virtual environment.

Traditional approaches to social work have been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many state governments rapidly halted in-person child welfare visits and then ramped up capacity for virtual visits. Caseworkers are now seeking to discern and manage child well-being through the new norm of videoconferencing, which requires new skills.

In the fast move to remote case-work interactions, state agencies have primarily focused on the most obvious immediate need—the technology. Many have chosen IT videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, or a mix of platforms. It’s been a huge learning curve for the entire community, but videoconferencing technology overall has proven crucial for enabling some social work continuity during the ongoing social distancing precautions of the pandemic.

This new environment includes everything from learning how to run remote meetings to how to interact and build bonds with children and families over video. As a result, social workers have had to develop higher level skills for gauging what is going on in the camera’s view, and off-screen.

As a social worker, you can’t take what you would have done in person and think it will produce the same level of meaning online. It just won’t. This has been one of the lessons learned for child welfare workers—to figure out how to translate and manage behaviors in a virtual setting. The new required skillset for social workers needs to encompass how to interpret non-verbal signals, have difficult conversations over video, and discerning and supporting in virtual settings a person who might feel, or actually be, isolated, threatened or confused. 

For example, prior to the pandemic, caseworkers conducted in-person visits where they would sit with children and their parents or caregivers, ask questions and observe their interactions. They could see first-hand if body language changed or breathing grew more rapid. Now government agencies must continue to adjust and improve how social work is conducted via teleconference and other remote tactics.

This new remote paradigm appears highly likely to become the standard practice for the foreseeable future. As the dire economic impact of the pandemic may force some social service agencies to reduce their work forces, caseloads won’t ease (and could even increase) and videoconferencing, adeptly used, can be a tool for boosting productivity if accompanied by practical workforce reskilling.

The child welfare community needs only look to the success of telemedicine to realize the possibilities and benefits of developing a similar system for case work. Telemedicine use, for doctor-patient meetings, has skyrocketed during the pandemic, and many patients and doctors are highly satisfied with the outcomes, according to a variety of research sources. Doctors have successfully been able to get their patients to relay, for example, how much pain they are in without the ability to touch them.

Social service agencies and caseworkers can similarly build and refine their acumen for conducting child welfare visits over video- and teleconference and utilizing best practices to ensure the same high-level services as in-person visits.

Some key techniques for improving on-screen videoconference visits include:

  • Co-creating an agenda before a session so that everyone knows what to expect. Caseworkers need to ensure the agenda is understood by all meeting participants, which requires an extra level of diligence and sensitivity.
  • Placing the camera so that your face is in full and direct view of the camera. In lieu of in-person visits, the camera becomes much more important to conduct business. Caseworkers need to ensure they can see the key meeting participants on video and are closely attuned to what they are seeing. For example, if I’m not in the foster home and I see a child on camera who appears to keep looking off to the right, I need the ability to ascertain if someone else is in the room whom I cannot see, or whether the child is simply distracted by the TV. On video, we have to ask these questions and get children and their families to name things more.
  • Taking breaks to check in with key participants and inquire how they are feeling. Caseworker meetings with families are often emotionally intense, requiring careful attention to encourage engagement. It’s important for social workers to take regular breaks during their sessions to gauge the feelings of family members.
  • Allowing time and space for silence. Virtual meetings may be a new experience for families, Participants may need time to collect their thoughts and shouldn’t be rushed or conducted in an agitated setting.
  • Enabling and encouraging each person to contribute. It’s the caseworker’s responsibility to conduct productive meetings. This requires that they ensure their participants understand discussions and are comfortable participating. It’s important that social workers pay attention and observe.

Caseworker success will improve through practice.  Agencies should lay a foundation for organizational and service delivery resilience to address the new mode of working. Similarly, agencies should consider offering role-playing scenario training over videoconference and provide standards and best practices for virtual observations. This new foundation will help child welfare caseworkers improve how they do their jobs.

Some things haven’t changed. Social work has always been important and tough. Child welfare workers still must have difficult conversations with children to try to determine if they are being mistreated. At times, they must tell parents their kids aren’t going home. They negotiate plans in an attempt to keep children safe. In such situations, they often must manage very strong reactions from the people with whom they are speaking.

The pandemic hasn’t changed this. In fact, it has made it harder to continue to do their jobs well without the requisite skills to leverage the new technology that many are now more heavily dependent on. Many caseworkers have gotten accustomed to the mechanics of videoconferencing technology. Now their organizations need to focus on helping them develop skills to move the profession more effectively into the new era of remote interactions and services.

 Molly Tierney leads Accenture’s child welfare practice.

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