‘They all know how to use their phones at home!’ Normalising and undervaluing digital skills in complex social care work

19 October 2022

Gendered notions of the endless capacity to care have long reinforced the undervaluation of a largely female, low paid workforce in social care.

During the pandemic, care staff have had to become more reliant on digital technologies in order to undertake their work.

Our recent Digit Innovation fund project reveals that, in keeping with the low value ascribed to care workers in society, their ability to learn and adopt new digital skills has also been undervalued and normalised by managers as just a necessary and expected part of the job.

Our study shows how this further consolidates the ways that the work of a low status, largely female workforce goes unrecognised and unappreciated by their employers.

Care workers had to rapidly adapt to new technologies

Technology has, for a long time, loomed large in debates about the value and autonomy attributed to care workers. Automation, via assistive care services, or the increases in surveillance and monitoring of the workforce, have been a particular concern to researchers.  Mobile devices, such as phones and tablets, have been used in social care for over a decade, but in rather non-systematic ways, often relying on workers’ private handsets and individualised bargaining about internet costs and contracts.

During the pandemic, the use of these mobile devices became indispensable for the continuation of social care both for managerial tasks and the delivery of essential front-line services. This additional impetus from the pandemic required a strategic acquisition of hardware and software by care providers. Workers increasingly needed to undertake care tasks such as writing and updating care plans and notes on mobile phones.  Devices such as tablets therefore became an essential part of service delivery during lockdown, including for connecting isolated service users with social groups and family members.

Regardless of the level of previous technological adoption in the organisations, carers had to quickly learn to use new digital technologies, adding to their workload in already stretched services.

Managers disregard the additional work required to acquire new digital skills

In interviews, with a total of forty-five care workers and managers in four social care organisations, we found that management tended to frame these new skills as acquired and normalised through experiences outside the workplace. Just as passion and a nurturing demeanour represent gendered assumptions of care workers’ ‘natural’ motivation for the job that do not need to be rewarded, digital skills in predominantly gendered workplaces are also normalised, and diminished in value.

Managers did this in three ways:

1 Exploiting digital skills in care

Digital skills are publicly touted as important and special but, similar to other sectors, their utilisation was not remunerated. For example, care workers were ‘being volunteered’ as Digital Champions or Ambassadors in their organisations. Within these schemes, workers acted as peer trainers to support their colleagues in tackling digital challenges at work and on top of their existing workload.

Managers spoke highly of these Champions, but when it came to the question of reward for their additional efforts, an uncomfortable silence emerged or was filled with statements such as: ‘They just like using technology’.

2 Responding to non-engagement by perpetuating stereotypes

Carers who struggled with technology, or were reluctant to use it, were ‘excused’ or dismissed as older women who did not know how to use technology, thus perpetuating ageist as well as gendered stereotypes: ‘Technology just scares them’.

Moreover, workers were seen as stubborn, or framed as actively undermining organisational needs for technology uses by withholding skills. Organisational responses suggested workers already possess and utilise these skills in their day-to-day lives: ‘They know how to use their phone at home!’.

3 Offering only the bare minimum in training in digital skills

Training for digital skills was minimal, with limited or no involvement by training specialists or rigorous analysis of the development needs of workers. During the pandemic, where training was available, responsibility was largely devolved to workers to find the additional time to engage with online training platforms while working in overstretched services.

Neglecting the complexity of care work

The managerial perspective is underpinned by a common misunderstanding that reduces the implementation of technology to that of a simple tool and follows the selling strategies of tech companies, consultancies, and even policy debates around new technology. In this perspective, technology is seen as supporting workers, and its application becomes similar to a plug and play tool.  However, applying one-size-fits-all technological solutions, with minimal inclusion of the workforce, neglects the complexity of care work.

It also showcases the digital divide between many decision makers and leaders in organisations and those on the frontline of service provision. Managers tend to engage with digital technologies when sitting comfortably at home or in the office navigating several wide screens; whereas care workers may find themselves typing notes into a small phone while supporting vulnerable people in need. This is often done in spaces where there is poor connectivity, leaving them to complete this work elsewhere and outside their working time.

Our findings reveal that the mobile phone has become the ubiquitous device that encapsulates an increasingly digitally mediated and controlled social care workplace.

The multiple levels and layers that have to be navigated by care workers via the phone are demanding. The phone as a device might be ‘simple’, but its application to complex work is undervalued by management and is adding to work intensification and pressure on an already stretched, often unsupported workforce. Prospects for the creation of a fully digitally skilled workforce in social care appear limited, requiring organisations make investments in skills acquisition and rewards that adequately recognise these additional responsibilities taken on by workers.

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