Tips on Effective Social Work in a Virtual Environment

Working effectively as a virtual social worker requires a few additional strategies and skill sets than working face-to-face with clients as a social worker. In order to succeed in this unique, technologically assisted environment, prospective remote workers should consider the following tips on best practices in telehealth or telemental health.

Create a Welcoming, Professional Environment

All social workers need to use care when creating a physical environment. The environment should be professional and appropriate for the clients. While this is true in all social work settings, it’s easier to overlook when preparing for remote social work jobs. Here are the basic features of a professional setting for virtual meetings with clients and coworkers:

  • Professional attire: Clients expect a professional appearance, whether meeting in person or through video conferencing. Remote social workers must dress appropriately and wear the same attire they would for an in-person meeting.
  • Private setting: Video conferencing makes it less clear to clients whether the conversation is truly private or not. Remote social workers must ensure that the conversation is truly private and no one else can overhear the video call or have access to information the client sends.
  • Professional decor: Whether choosing a virtual background or organizing the physical background, it’s important to keep professional everything that’s visible during the video call.
  • Steady internet connection: Social workers should test the internet strength routinely to ensure a steady, clear signal when calling or sending messages to clients.

Some virtual workers in other fields enjoy the benefits of flexible work areas, such as co-working spaces and working in public areas. Virtual social workers cannot compromise the privacy and professionalism of their positions in these ways, so they must choose workspaces carefully.

Review Clinical Considerations and Rules of Engagement

Telemental health conferences can be convenient and beneficial for clients, but they also represent a new format of delivering social services. It’s essential for social workers to review rules of engagement and clinical considerations for new and existing clients. Here are some of those considerations:

  • Don’t assume a client understands how to use video conferencing technology
  • Work with clients to find affordable, high-speed internet
  • Work with clients to find opportunities for privacy during sessions
  • Continue to maintain a professional relationship
  • Remind clients about appropriate video call attire
  • Establish emergency protocols in the event of a health issue, suicidality, or other emergencies
  • Inform clients that services may need to be discontinued if telemental health isn’t suited to client needs

Use a Telemental Health Informed Consent Form

Remote social workers should establish informed consent before delivering services. This is required in some states and is recommended by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in all cases.

The telemental health informed consent form covers a few areas that apply to all social workers and others that are unique to virtual workers. For example, remote social workers are unable to appropriately handle some mental health crises, particularly those involving signs of suicidality.

NASW has an informed consent form that can be used to highlight these areas of consent for clients. Virtual social workers should use this or a similar form to avoid legal issues during telemental health meetings.

Choose a Compliant Video Conferencing Platform

Although the Office of Civil Rights has issued an enforcement of discretion regarding HIPAA-compliant technology due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, social workers should still consider using compliant video conferencing platforms to safeguard personal health information. Review approved video call services and work with clients to determine the best platform.

Challenges for Virtual Social Workers

Remote social work jobs represent an exciting opportunity for prospective workers to enter the field. These new opportunities, however, also come with challenges. Here are some challenges social workers need to consider as they transition to a virtual position or start a career for the first time in telemental health:

  • Remaining HIPAA compliant
  • Staying focused during video conferencing
  • Maintaining stable internet connection
  • Identifying services that can and cannot be delivered remotely
  • Creating a comfortable, professional environment for clients

These challenges can be overcome with the right skills, technology, and practices. A career in virtual social work is possible with the right degree, license, and best practices.

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