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Making the Best of Online Social Work Supervision

One consequence of the current COVID-19 pandemic is how most of us are restricted to working from home. For social workers, this seems an odd situation. Our profession is built on face-to-face interactions. We do outreach, we make home visits, we assess risks, we observe parent-child interactions - all these require our being where the clients are. So, it takes considerable effort and adjustments to be as effective when working from home.

Similarly, social work supervisors are also turning to online platforms to conduct their supervision sessions. While nothing beats face-to-face interactions, necessity requires us to embrace technology full-on.

Despite its challenges, social work supervisors can make the best of their situation to ensure social workers get the support they need, the continued professional development, and the administrative oversight of their casework management.

I found the following useful when conducting online supervision:

1. Ensure good connectivity

While face-to-face supervision is sometimes interrupted by the occasional crisis phone calls or walk-ins, online supervision gets interrupted by poor connectivity, causing lag in video and audio outputs. It gets frustrating when this happens too often during the session. I make it a point to ensure my wifi bar is at its fullest before supervision starts. Any obstructions that will affect my connectivity is dealt with before my session starts.

2. Set the agenda and goals clearly

Just like face-to-face sessions, having a clear agenda and goals for that supervision session helps both the supervisor and supervisee to remain focussed during that supervision period. Personally, I kept my agenda limited to be covered within 3/4 of the period, allowing for time to discuss issues newly introduced by the supervisee during the session.

3. Being flexible with time

While I am mindful to keep to the time allocated for each supervisee, I find it useful to be flexible with the time during online sessions to include troubleshooting technical issues. I find it most helpful to alert the supervisee that our session time will end within the next 10 minutes and ask if an extension of another 15 minutes would be useful. We then move forward with the extended time.

4. Avoid distractions to communication

Being online, our field of vision is limited to what the laptop camera captures. We get easily tempted to multitask during supervision. For example, checking on emails, doing a literature search of the topic of discussion concurrently, or having side conversations via text messages. Being at home, distractions from family members ( for both supervisor and supervisee) may interrupt the flow of the supervision session. Thus, ensuring that I have a dedicated space for my sessions and expecting the same from my supervisee will help with focus. And since physical cues are limited to facial and hand movements, extra attention to micro-skills like attending, active listening, asking questions to clarify, paraphrasing, and summarising is helpful to enhance understanding.

5. Manage confidentiality

Since our sessions are conducted outside of the office environment, privacy and confidentiality issues must be addressed so that the integrity of the session is maintained. Thus, having a dedicated space is not only to avoid distractions, it is also necessary to avoid accidental or unintentional exposure of the content of discussion with non-employees who are within earshot.

It looks like the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for some time. Social work supervisors may have to consider online supervision as the new norm and respond with the resilience that we expect out of our supervisees as well.

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