Building rapport and establishing meaningful relationships using technology in social work

Published: October 2020

This briefing for social workers and social care practitioners will support understanding on how to build rapport and establish relationships with the people you work with using technology.

You will see quotes from people accessing care and support and carers that support your approaches to building rapport.

 Hear from adults and carers

  • 'Treat us like people, think about us like people.'
  • 'I feel like a case rather than a person.'
  • 'Some people don’t want social work intervention, there are many reasons for this.'
  • 'Some people read the notes and go beyond – and have the necessary empathy.'
  • 'They need to put interest in the person!! And flexibility, transparency and openness are key!!'
  • 'They come with forms and processes and the individual gets scared.'
  • 'Forms and processes get in the way.'

There is no evidence to support that a social worker or social care practitioner meeting an adult or carer face to face facilitates building rapport and establishing meaningful relationships work in all cases. Many factors contribute to a meaningful relationship between them.

Do not assume that all adults prefer face-to-face interactions. Even when using technology, you can still gather information by observing the context or through non-verbal communication. This will help you build rapport and establish a meaningful relationship despite not being face-to-face.

Good professional skills and competences and the right professional attitude are more crucial to building rapport and establishing meaningful relationships than seeing the person face to face.

A key element for a meaningful relationship is trust - the person has to perceive that they can trust us and that we do have empathy towards them and their situation.

Evidence suggests many young people can feel more at ease in digitally mediated communication (PSW research, 2020). Indeed, data from the Principal Social Workers national research and the more recent information, observations and feedback from frontline practitioners, IROs, CP chairs and others indicate that practitioners have noticed better and more open communication with children and young people and some parents online.

The PCFSW & Social Work England best practice guide for video call/contact and virtual/online home visit

In the last few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to depend much more on technology like mobile phones and video calling to communicate with others, including in the social care sector. Many of us have found that some people actually are more open and feel more comfortable talking to us on the phone or through a screen.

Key messages from adults and carers

Adults and carers agree that the main ways for a social worker or social care practitioner to build rapport or establish a meaningful relationship with them are:

  1. Be human and person-centred

    It is not so much about the mean of communication, but the approach, behaviour and attitude of the professional.

    • Letters Open

      'A letter could be good, but a good welcoming letter!! I received an impersonal letter starting "Dear sir/madam". It said nothing about what to do if I didn’t understand the letter or where to call for further information or whether it will be a follow up.'

    • Phone call Open

      A phone call could be helpful, if the social worker introduces themselves, gives time to the person to respond, shows respect and consideration to the person’s circumstances, etc. ‘Is this a good time to talk?’

      • 'Having a perfect stranger ringing you up and asking personal questions about your health, etc. is a barrier on its own. They – social workers – need to start with the assumption that they are a problem, there is a barrier.'
      • 'I was contacted by mobile phone by a care manager, saying that she would like to come by the following day and do my review. I didn’t know the woman!'
    • Video call Open

      During the lockdown, local authorities approached adults and/or carers in different ways. In some places, adults and/or carers did receive a call from the local authority:

      • 'A person I didn’t know called out of the blue and asked "are you ok?"'
      • Very few people have got a courtesy call asking 'how are you?' Across the country this has not happened much.
      • 'Many people had no communication from social workers during the lockdown – nothing like "how are you?" or "anything you need?"'
      • 'John got contacted during the first week – I was impressed. They asked how I was and if I had everything. That wasn’t the norm but the exception.'
      • 'Paula got a call from somebody who was nice, human, close asking how she was, giving her time… . she feels lucky and thinks it was good.'
  2. Be fair to the adult and/or carer and their circumstances, ensure you are open minded enough to adapt to them when and if needed

    Hear from adults and carers

    • 'It sounds like it is the one size fits all here and that is not right.'
    • 'Discrimination has to be incorporated into guidance. Racism is nasty and can call out.'
    • 'How people communicate is subtler. There are assumptions about people that social workers make based on race or disabilities. It is beyond being aware.'
  3. Don’t make assumptions based on age, race, disability or anything else – find the best way of communicating for each individual

    Look into the records to see if there is information about the preferred method of contact/communication and ensure that it is respected.

    Ask the individual which is their prefer method of contact/communication, for what and in which circumstances. ‘Would you like to receive this information verbally, website, link, email, etc.?’

    Remember that sometimes people face communication problems.

    Hear from adults and carers

    • 'If I go into relapse I can’t speak and I have great difficulty in typing and reading, the way my brain works.'
    • 'I had a practical problem, and the social worker did not need to do and did not do an assessment of needs or risk assessment, she connected me to people – it was a problem with cameras – she did not panic and safeguarded me, she just enabled me, she provided a practical solution to a practical problem, and was very helpful and exactly what I needed.'
    • 'Social workers are gatekeepers, they have access to support and the person needs them.'
    • 'First default way to contact is landline and ask are there alternatives you prefer? And build from there.'
    • 'Ask about access needs, be open minded…. Is a fairly basic thing from my point of view.'
    • 'Don’t be judgemental.'
  4. Enable or enhance engagement with advocacy, consider how it could help the adult and/or carer in being engaged in the process

    Hear from adults and carers

    • ‘Would be good to get the questions in advance. So, I am prepared and they can be answered in my own words.’
    • ‘At the end of the day it is whether the social worker or social care practitioner can adapt and be flexible and go that extra mile.’

Considerations

Social workers and social care practitioners should reflect on what could be the impact of a video call or the phone on the dynamics of the relationship. This will vary depending on the person, the circumstances, the reason for the interaction, etc.

Whereas some people feel that a video or phone interaction is more formal, others will feel that the professional boundaries are blurred, as they feel less formal, more like other informal or social communications. Social workers and social care practitioners should identify how to put the adult and/or carer at ease.

It may be a need to be more explicit about what the rules of interaction are, and to ask the adult and/or carer how do they find the video call or phone interaction and what, if anything is preventing them from being at ease.

Social workers and social care practitioners must be able to gather information with less non-verbal communication clues, and should make explicit through questions or feedback any perceptions they have to give the adult and/or carer the opportunity to confirm them or clarify them.

Other considerations raised by adults and/or carers

  • Are there people who still need support with paying for a landline?
  • Some people have iPads or tablets but not for communication.
  • Some people don’t have a landline and some people only have a landline.

Hear from adults and carers

  • ‘Majority of older people still have their landlines and it is their means of communications and they are not familiar with technology and they don’t use mobiles.’
  • ‘Sometimes getting to the door on time is difficult as a wheelchair user.’
  • 'Don’t assume that because people are shielding or because of COVID or any other reason people are available.’

Key social worker or social care practitioner’s competences for telephone or video call interactions

The below is not meant to be a comprehensive but an indication of the key competences a social worker or a social care practitioner should have to enable successful rapport and building meaningful relationships through technology.

Note: the competences have been adapted from the competences for telephone and e-counselling framework developed by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

  • People may behave differently online Open

    When establishing online interactions social workers and social care practitioners should be able to:

    • draw on knowledge that people may behave differently online from how they would do in a face-to-face interaction
    • recognise the implications of the above differences in the process
    • be aware that the sense of anonymity can play a role in the behaviour the adult and/or carer may display in an online interaction, as well as the practitioner’s behaviour
    • take into account that without face-to-face checking, developing inaccurate assumptions may be more likely. They should therefore ‘reality check’ any assumptions, gaining clarification, evidence, corroboration, etc. and proactively identifying when assumptions could have been made.
  • Potential differences in impact of written word Open

    Social workers and social care practitioners must be fully aware of the impact of the written word as opposed to a verbal message, ‘it can acquire a sense of permanence, it can appear more authoritative than the spoken word its meaning cannot be moderated by contextual features’ (BACP).

  • Potential blurring of boundaries Open

    Social workers and social care practitioners should be able to establish appropriate professional boundaries using technology in their interactions.

  • Appropriateness of online interaction Open

    Social workers and social care practitioners should determine the best way to interact with a given adult and /or carer. Please see Matching interventions and people - A decision-making tool to establish the best means of working with people to determine which is the best mean(s) for an intervention and assess suitability for phone or video calling. This decision should be made jointly with the adult and/or carer.

    Some things to consider are: the adult’s preference regarding the type of technology to be used, their competence in using different technologies, and whether the adult would feel comfortable communicating and/or expressing their feelings using particular technologies.

    In some cases, supplementary ways of communication or additional questions may be needed to get a full picture of the adult and/or carer and their circumstances and needs.

  • Identify and manage risk Open

    Identification, assessment and risk management is core in social work and social care interventions. Using phone or online communication could prevent professionals from identifying risks that could have been easily observed in a face-to-face interaction. Having said this, the professionals should carry out interventions in a way that allows the identification of risks in a different way.

    Social workers and social care practitioners should understand that it can be difficult to identify risks in phone and online interactions without input from non-verbal communication and observing the context. They should therefore use verbal communication to gather information otherwise gathered by observation.

    They should also be able to manage their own anxieties in relation to the change in practice and potential limitations in identifying, assessing or managing risk.

  • Professional skills Open

    Social workers and social work practitioners should have the necessary abilities to behave in a professional manner using phone and online communication. This includes:

    • ability to open the conversation in a professional and approachable manner
    • conveying empathy and ensuring the adult feels listened to
    • being able to infer the adult’s and/or carer’s emotional state without non- verbal communication
    • being able to gather evidence and information through questions and nuances
    • ability to end the phone or online communication appropriately.

Do's and Don'ts

Do

  • Be flexible, use processes, procedures and forms to support your intervention, not to drive it. Shape your intervention within legislative context in line with the individual’s circumstances.
  • Be empathetic and professional at the same time.
  • Focus on the individual, their life, their circumstances and their personal outcomes.

Don't

  • Make assumptions, get background information from evidence and corroborate asking the individual.
  • Decide the best mean for the interaction without the individual’s input.
  • Focus solely on solving a problem or closing a case.
  • Allow your insecurities or prejudices about a particular mean of communication to get in the way.

Ethical framework

Although the ethical framework was developed in light of the pandemic, it embodies the key ethical values that adult social work is built on. Therefore, it is a useful framework for social workers and social care practitioners.

It is made up of eight values:

  1. Respect
  2. Reasonableness
  3. Minimising harm
  4. Inclusiveness
  5. Accountability
  6. Flexibility
  7. Proportionality
  8. Community.

For more information, see a detailed explanation.

Case study: About Anna

Focus: Building rapport and establishing meaningful relationships using technology

Mrs Anna Shah is a 75-year-old retired nurse. She has a son, daughter and three grandchildren who live about three hours from her. Anna was the main carer for her husband, Kevin, who died a month ago following a two-year battle with lung cancer.

Anna lives in a small city in the Midlands. She is very close with some of her neighbours and has many good friends. She regularly attends her local Church of England, where she has been a valued member of the choir. Members of the church refer to her as a friendly person, with a magnificent voice. She loves singing, but has not been able to attend that many choir practice sessions or musical concerts over the last two years, due to her caring responsibilities.

Anna has a very strong character, with a positive outlook on life and she often brightens the day of those she meets. Despite her caring responsibilities, she has maintained a strong link with her community, as this is important for her.

Anna is finding it difficult to cope on her own after Kevin’s death and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been unable to say goodbye to her husband, as she was not able to attend his funeral in person. Anna is becoming quite lonely, given that she is not able to see her family or friends and has not felt able to ask them for help.

Although she’s aware that Anna is grieving, Anna’s daughter, Mia, has contacted social services. Mia is concerned for her mum’s wellbeing because she is not eating and caring for herself as she used to. Mia has also noticed her mother is now more isolated since lockdown. Mia has told Anna that she has contacted social services out of concern. Anna is not keen to talk to anyone from social services.

Using the ethical framework

A social worker or social care practitioner who will be working with Anna may want to consider the ethical framework to support them in establishing a meaningful relationship and building rapport with Anna.

The social worker or social care practitioner may consider the following when using the ethical framework.

  • Respect Open

    • Anna may prefer for the social worker or social care practitioner to talk with some family members and not others, which should be respected. Anna may feel more comfortable discussing certain topics and not others. An initial conversation with Anna should happen to establish, when and how is convenient for her to explore this.
  • Reasonableness Open

    • Anna may prefer a phone call, rather than a video call for her intervention and this would be reasonable depending on the risks of her unique circumstances.
  • Minimising harm Open

    • Anna may agree to a referral to some bereavement support, but may not wish to have an assessment of needs. It has to be considered jointly with Anna the risks that any approach or lack of it would have in her wellbeing.
  • Inclusiveness Open

    • Anna may have particular cultural needs. For example, she may not want to talk to anyone outside her church on a particular day because of choir activities and these needs should be included when interacting with her.
  • Accountability Open

    • After meeting or talking with Anna it is important to let her know what is being recorded.
    • If it has been agreed to refer her to any other private or voluntary service, this should be followed through and be accountable for all suggested actions.
    • Anna should be informed, or any other relevant parties, of what agreed actions have been completed when and what the outcome was.
  • Flexibility Open

    • Should Anna express that she will take better care of herself, flexibility has to be shown.
    • An agreement should be reached with her that she or her family can reach out for help in future if this is not the case, given she potentially did not agree to a social care assessment.
    • A positive risk-taking approach should be taken working with Anna and in agreeing next steps, if that is what she wishes.
  • Proportionality Open

    • Anna agreed to bereavement support and that she will take heed of her family’s concerns about her self-care. This may be proportionate to the current level of risk in her circumstances.
  • Community Open

    • Anna may have sufficient support in her community, including her church community, to provide the support she needs.
    • By talking to her about these strengths, she may agree to have focused conversations to understand what support she needs from these individuals and groups.

Further reading