Editor’s note: We originally published this post in March 2020—just days after the start of the pandemic as many caseworkers and agency leaders were still navigating the transition to remote work. Nearly two years later, we’ve learned that remote and hybrid work models are now here to stay.
Social services agencies have found benefits in hybrid and remote options for their workforce and clients alike and have begun to implement permanent flexible work polices to stay competitive to applicants. Despite the benefits, the task of fundamentally shifting work models is still a challenge. The same tips are still applicable, but the impact has changed, especially now that the social services workforce is in crisis.
Human services agencies are always adapting to meet the needs of the children, families, and a seemingly constant change in the landscape.
Today, that means embracing hybrid work not only as a short-term solution, but as the new normal. Recruiting and retaining workers in the current job market requires human services (which has traditionally been highly brick-and-mortar) to embrace the way workers want to work and know is possible with current technology. While remote workstations were initially scraped together due to necessity, now it’s time to look at investing in the tools to fully equip your workforce to be successful in a hybrid model.
Keep in mind that when we say “tools,” the right technology is just one piece of the puzzle. What’s more important are the strategies you put in place to create an environment that truly supports and empowers workers to stay connected and focus on the mission, no matter where work gets done.
The following ideas will help you create a long-term program for supporting hybrid or remote teams in human services. (You can also find more ways to support your workforce at our page, "A Deep Dive Into Social Work Burnout (And What Your Human Services Agency Can Do About It)."
Communicate what’s expected.
Accountability looks different for a remote workforce. Set expectations for when work will be done, how often you’ll communicate, and how you’ll measure performance. Make sure to focus on goals and outcomes, not just daily activities.
We trust caseworkers with some of the most confidential information that exists. We trust them to go out into the field, have sensitive conversations, and make critical decisions. We trust them to go to court, talk to judges, and provide testimony. Let’s make sure we also trust them with their time.
Let go of the idea that you constantly have to look over someone’s shoulder. Don’t fall into the trap of micromanagement just because a staff member is no longer working down the hall. Trust the same high-quality work is being done, no matter where from.
Sure, this sounds simple, but is too often forgotten. New caseworkers can really struggle with not having direct contact with supervisors to provide coaching or validation. Ask people how they are doing and what you can do to help. What’s working? What’s not? Where are they getting stuck?
Research has shown that supervisor and peer support, along with organizational climate, are predictors of retention.
In the office, someone can easily see if you’re free and pop in to ask questions. With a hybrid or remote team, you’ll have to be more intentional. Quality, supportive supervision can still exist in a hybrid workplace—it may just take some extra thought and attention.
Set virtual office hours and stick to them so your staff knows when you’re available. Schedule regular supervision and stick to that too. Limit potential distractions during this time so you can be fully present. This goes a long way in making workers feel more supported, especially during turbulent times.
Schedule “check in” times too.
Don’t limit communication to when something is needed or wrong. Create virtual ways to “bump into each other” like you normally would in the office (e.g., passing someone in the hallway, break room, or parking lot).
For example, set a time each week to check in with workers and ask how things are going—separate from supervision, coaching, or case reviews. You could also use the first 10 minutes of existing meetings to catch up on non-work topics.
Find times to encourage positive workplace climate (another predictor of retention in social services). For example, if workers can’t get together in the lunchroom like they used to, host a virtual meeting during work hours that’s dedicated to de-stressing and bonding instead.
Even when you’re busy, it’s essential to prioritize this time to connect and re-charge.
Keep workers engaged.
Try to avoid solely relying on email to communicate. You lose the human connection when you can’t see facial expressions or hear the inflection in someone’s voice.
Instead, use video conferencing as often as possible for remote meetings or check ins. More importantly, make sure everyone who’s part of the conversation is present. No multitasking. Your staff can tell when someone is answering chats or getting distracted by emails just as easily over video chat as they could in person.
Trying to force caseworkers into only being problem solvers on a set schedule, Monday through Friday, is counterproductive (even with a physical office space!). Workers shouldn’t be confined, but they also shouldn’t have to be available and connected all day, every day, or else they’ll burn out.
The focus should be cultivating an environment where caseworkers feel they can be at their most creative. Do that, and quality outcomes are sure to follow.
Move beyond self-care.
The literature is rich with tips and techniques to help workers care for their own well-being, but sometimes self-care is just another thing on an already overwhelming to-do list. (“My safety plan is due tomorrow; I don’t have time to listen to this Zen playlist on Spotify!”)
Invest in workers’ well-being care, in big and small ways. Mandate worker mental health and well-being PTO, bring in professionals that workers can process with in a safe space, practice breathing techniques at the start of the unit meeting, or carve out time in the work week for emotional care on an organizational level.
This will help your staff prioritize their self-care without feeling like they have to sacrifice other responsibilities. Workplaces that don’t prioritize worker well-being will soon find themselves struggling with even more vacancies.
Think strategically about how you can use existing communication channels to share remote workers’ accomplishments, achievements, results, and outcomes. This will help keep everyone connected to the mission and value the agency provides.
Keep learning.We’re all in this together. While some sectors were already comfortable with remote and hybrid work, many have had to adjust. Some great resources are available with strategies and best practices that can benefit human services:
- How Do You Keep Remote Employees Engaged? [Remote.co]
- Great Resignation and Human Services: Combating Workforce Shortages in Public and Nonprofit Agencies [Social Current and the American Public Human Services Association]
- The Do’s and Don’ts of Hybrid Work [GovLoop]
- Making Hybrid Work More Permanent? Set Some Ground Rules [Gartner]
Provide the right technology.
Technology that’s purpose-built for human services and evolves with your team’s needs can help caseworkers and supervisors stay connected, share work, access case information and forms, and keep confidential information secure, whether they are accessing files in the office, at home, or in their car in the McDonald’s parking lot.
This will go a long way in minimizing burnout by removing unnecessary work and administrative obstacles that stand in the way of workers doing the job they signed up to do—assisting clients in being healthy, safe, and successful. (Technology can also help support supervision and free up some time to implement some of the ideas above around de-stressing, bonding, and prioritizing well-being.)
With all these tips, the most important thing to remember is that remote workers and supervisors can often feel disconnected, so bringing them back together should be the foundation of your plan.
Focus on demonstrating the following qualities:
Hybrid work is here to stay. We hope these tips will help you embrace this new mindset and support your workers, no matter where their work gets done. If you’re interested in discussing this concept in more detail, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Director of Market Advocacy Laura Haffield and former Child Welfare Evangelist Rich Bowlen contributed to this post.