Written by: Odelsie Vella Bayliss (Department of Probation and Parole, Malta)
The global Covid-19 pandemic has brought changes to various industries and work forces, including our work as probation officers. I vividly remember that day (way back in 2020) where the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Malta. This was followed by the closure of schools, shops, and many workplaces, while new methods of online schooling and teleworking were being employed. Being a mother of two young children, prior to Covid-19, I had already started benefitting from “workplace family friendly measures”, including teleworking, hence I had already experienced a feeling of what this way of working was all about. The only difference was that this time, besides working from home for the whole week instead of my usual two days a week, my children were online schooling on a full-time basis, and my husband, who is also a government employee, was on a full teleworking regime of his own too.
I remember collecting all client files from my office and taking them home with me. I was also asked to collect my children’s books and stationery from school, whereas my husband gathered all his work-related material from his office too. One can only begin to imagine the mountain piles we had at home. At this point, planning and organization in our household became a must. Together with my husband, we created workstations for ourselves, and our kids, placed every technological device we had at home on charge and downloaded various virtual communication programmes and applications.
Practice makes perfect
I must admit that the first week was not an easy one, however as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Thankfully our children’s school realised the importance of recorded lessons, and this was a massive help to both myself and my work. Setting a routine became important and so we planned a schedule that worked best for our needs, our work, and our family. Waking up at an early morning hour, I printed the handouts that were sent by the kids’ respective teachers on the previous day, I prepared craft and art activities for them and books to read – anything to keep them busy really, in the hope that my husband and I could have a peaceful working day. I also carried out housework and prepared lunch before commencing my working day.
Whilst working from home, I filled my mornings with video and telephone calls with offender-clients, other professionals, victims, clients’ employers, family members and so on, answering and sending emails, attending to online case-conferences, giving online court testimonies and keeping virtual contact with my colleagues and superiors. Thankfully, a few months before, our department had given every probation officer a mobile phone, to utilise for work purposes, and this made working from home much easier to carry out. Moreover, via the continuous professional allowance granted to us probation officers by the government, I was able to purchase a laptop, printer and other devices that enabled me to carry out my work from home in a more effective and efficient manner.
To say that I was never interrupted by a poor internet connection, or a “mummy I’m hungry” or “mummy my hands are stuck with glue” or my two Jack Russell Terriers barking because the postman rang our doorbell, would be a huge lie.
By time, I had started to accept this as a normal part of my workday. Most of my clients were in the same situation as I was, that is, working from home too and hence they were very understanding. Whereas at times it was I who had to excuse myself and log off or put them on hold, at other times, it was them who had to do this.
Offenders adapted themselves
Surprisingly enough, offenders soon adapted to this new means of contact and I dare say that this technological communication made it easier for some of my clients and their families to reach out or get in touch. Via this communication software, several clients happily sent me photographs depicting their everyday lives. I perceived this as something quite positive that ameliorated the client-probation officer relationship. I could notice that having clients speak to me virtually from the comfort of their home or work environment, made them more at ease, than having a more formal physical session at our offices. This led some of them to open up about situations and difficulties that they had never discussed with me before.
During video calls, other clients were comfortable enough to give me a virtual tour of their house or workplace and introduce me to other family members and colleagues. Whilst, prior to Covid-19, I, as probation officer did conduct physical home visits at clients’ houses and did get the opportunity to meet with some of their family members, due to our high caseloads and intensity of the job itself, these home visits were not conducted as often as desired. This working from home experience provided me with a better chance to observe offenders in their own environment and their interaction with the people that they spend most of their time with.
The afternoon was usually dedicated to my kids and their schooling. We listened to the lessons recorded by their teachers, worked out all the examples together and read whatever was needed. Homework and revision work was left for the morning after. Extracurricular activities were also being held online during that time and hence this followed schooling. It was not an easy task since everything was so new.
The hour after dinner was dedicated to a family activity, either playtime with the kids, watching a movie together, having a video call with other family members and so on. Bedtime followed…. but not for me! As soon as the kids lied down to sleep, my laptop was turned back on, and in the silence of the evening, I was comfortable enough to perform work that required more concentration and less interruptions, that is, writing pre-sentencing reports, social inquiry reports or parole reports, preparing court testimonies, compiling and finalizing progress reports to the courts or the parole board, giving written feedback about clients to other professionals, filling in referral forms and keeping written records on every client’s file. Although working at such a late hour is not desirable by most, this was what worked best for me at the time.
All in all, I can say that my working from home experience did have its ups and downs, but in my opinion, the perks outweighed the disadvantages. While working from home proved to be challenging at times in terms of a lack of physical interaction with clients and colleagues, and in my case, having to work outside my normal working schedule, I feel that via this experience I have gained certain skills that have made me a better person and a better probation officer, which skills I still make use of today.
Development of new skills
During this time, I have managed to plan and organize myself and my time better, I have built stronger relationships with my clients, and I have developed better contact with clients who had difficulties coming for sessions at our offices due to the nature of their work, mobility, medical or transportation problems. Moreover, I feel that as a probation officer I was still productive in terms of work, I adhered to deadlines and most importantly I was reachable in forms that appeared to work better for most of my clients. Moreover, much time that normally was wasted being stuck in traffic or searching for parking was now saved, and hence more of my time could be dedicated to my client group.
As a final note, I can confidently say that the skills acquired via this working from home experience, has enabled me to adequately serve the client and society in general.