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February 2024Vol. 25, No. 1The Impact of Information Communication Technology on Worker-Client Relationships

Relationship building is a major element of social work, and communication is a major piece of relationship building. Recognizing this importance, researchers examined the impact of information communication technology on social worker-client relationships. The study, Information Communication Technology and the Social Worker-Client Relationship: Lessons from Communication Theory, reviews the benefits and challenges of communicating with clients via technology. The study also includes a list of “selection factors” to help social workers evaluate and select communication tools.

There were four challenges associated with communicating using technology:

  • Worker-client boundaries. It may be more difficult for workers to establish and maintain professional boundaries (e.g., related to availability and timing) when communicating electronically.
  • Technology competence and digital literacy. Social workers need to be digitally literate in electronic tools (such as video conferencing) to effectively form relationships and communicate with clients.
  •  Surveillance. Social workers’ ability to use social media to gather information about clients (and vice versa) can cause tension.
  • Message misunderstanding. A lack of verbal or visual cues can lead to misunderstandings.

In addition to the challenges, the study also highlighted several benefits:

  • Methods of communication. Electronic communication creates multiple ways to communicate beyond in-person interactions.
  • Ease and efficiency. Emailing, texting, or calling is easier and more time-efficient than arranging in-person meetings.
  • Social presence. Electronic communication can mean increased availability of both worker and client, increased frequency of communication, and increased flow of interactions.
  • Fixed format. Electronic communication typically creates a fixed record of communication that can be easily accessed and reviewed after the exchange.  
  • Responsiveness to client preference. Clients (especially younger ones) may prefer to communicate electronically, which can increase communication and participation in meetings and case reviews.

The following are key factors social workers should consider when selecting communication tools:

  • Communication medium bandwidth
  • Mutual directionality
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Formality of the exchange
  • Complexity of the message content

The study concludes that further research is needed to determine how information communication technology affects the worker-client relationship.