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Why mobile working is the future of frontline social care (Guest Post)

The deployment of mobile technology will overcome some sector resistance to become the default method of working in social care believes Bill Kinnear, Service Manager, Criminal Justice Social Work Service at Fife Council

People are generally reluctant to embrace change of any sort. Irrespective of industry, line of business or any individual’s specific role, people are mostly content to maintain the status quo. If something is working well or reasonably well, what’s the point in ripping up the rule book and starting again?

There is an element of this type of caution when it comes to the use of mobile working within frontline social care. A recentTotalMobile focus group into how mobile working can support social care workers showed that the two greatest challenges facing those in the sector are too little face-to-face time with service users (70%) and diminishing budgets (65%). Yet 30% of focus group participants admitted that mobile working was not yet on their agenda in helping to address these concerns. This is despite respondents acknowledging the benefits of mobile working, such as more efficient use of staff time and more time spent with service users.

Social care = mobile working

The focus group also discussed the main potential challenges in implementing a mobile working strategy. Inadequate budgets constraints was predictably the top answer – this informs virtually everything in the public sector currently – followed by connectivity issues such as there not being a mobile signal at the service user’s home. That’s a hard one to address as mobile coverage in the UK is certainly not what it could and should be. But that said, there are relatively few total blind spots now, although I appreciate the frustration if you happen to live or work in one of those blind spots.

But the next biggest challenge cited by the focus group was staff acceptance to mobile working, which struck me as an odd response. Because I think that social care has ALWAYS involved mobile working. After all, it’s never really been overly office-based, with care workers always out and about visiting service users. A good frontline social care worker should want to be out and visiting those in need of their help as much as they can, a fact acknowledged by a majority of those at the focus group. That’s why frontline social care is in fact one of the industries and sectors that is arguably most likely to benefit from mobile technology.

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Why mobile works in social care

In Fife’s case, I believe mobile technology has made us more flexible and productive – plus helped reduce costs. We are Scotland’s third largest local authority and are three years into a five year programme intended to increase efficiency and improve service delivery. We were set a target of realising efficiencies of £20M over this period and are well on track to achieve this, helped in no small part by the TotalMobile platform.

On the social care side specifically, I manage seven operational team managers as part of my role, all of whom have social workers at their heart and without a doubt, mobile working is a major part of what we all do. My remit is across the whole Fife area, which includes both rural and urban areas.

Teams are helping people right across Fife. To do that, they need immediate access to email, to view patient notes, to access and fill in forms and much more. And being able to access these things remotely has a major impact on productivity. Mobile working means social workers get more face-to-face time with the people they are trying to help, for example; previously, people would have to drive to appointments, come back to the office to update systems and get the details of their next visit. Plainly, this is not the best use of their time.

The potential benefits of mobile working are many, a fact highlighted at the focus group.

  • Much less time spent on admin – 41%
  • Greater amount of time spent with service users – 71%
  • Improved sharing of information between organisation, staff and service user – 47%
  • Improved experience for service user – 53%
  • Less risk of out of date or incorrect paperwork – 76%
  • More manageable case loads – 24%
  • Better work / life balance for staff – 41%
  • Greater productivity for the department – 41%
  • More attractive for recruitment – 29%
  • More efficient use of staff time – 82%
  • Money saved in areas such as printing and fuel consumption – 59%

The most commonly cited benefit to mobile working given was more efficient use of staff time, followed by less risk of out of date paperwork and then greater amounts of time spent with service users. This is the crux of what mobile working can deliver – more time with those that need it.

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Getting organisational buy-in

I’m not saying that a mobile implementation is ever going to be painless and as on the whole, many people are still wary of mobile working. But there are always advocates, perhaps younger team members that have known and used mobile devices all their life. My strategy is always to get those staff that have bought into it ‘on side’ and use them to help persuade the sceptical – making them agents of change, convincing others. People are invariably interested in what their peers and colleagues are using and if there is enough of a push from those that are comfortable with mobile technology, then others will follow.

Also, effective mobile working is based on trust. I trust my team implicitly. If they want or need to work from home that is fine, I don’t need to always physically ‘see’ them and we don’t believe in presence management. It is 2014 and people live and work in different ways to how they did even a decade ago. The days of working 9:00 to 5:00 are long gone and if people need an hour for a dentist appointment, to do the school run or just want to take stock, then as long as they make the time up, surely that is ok?

All in all, we want to create and sustain a culture of freedom, honesty and integrity and unquestionably, mobile working is a key component of that. I would say to others that mobile working it is a modern and progressive way of working and I am convinced, the future for social care.

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