An article written by Maria Mifsud
As a Probation Officer who is used to work on site and one that embraces the outdoors, it wasn’t easy to shift to remote working overnight once the national lockdown was announced when Covid-19 struck in early 2020.
‘What is a Probation Officer’, you may ask. That is a valid question. Here is a concise explanation by yours truly:
The job of a Probation Officer is provided with a diverse roster, where all sorts of criminal cases can be encountered. It entails dealing with offenders that have committed all kinds of crimes, some of which are considered petty, while others involve brutal and unspeakable acts. I’ve had the opportunity to thoroughly interview and supervise clients from all walks of life, whether they are minors, adults or elderly. Other responsibilities involve supporting the court with sentence decisions, writing detailed reports and supervising offenders with a parole license.
Working remote, the benefits and the disadvantages
I used to look at remote working as very restricting, but after having experienced the perks of teleworking, such as avoiding traffic and not having to desperately seek parking. This new way of working seemed more attractive than I had initially thought after all.
For starters, my productivity rate increased tenfold despite the downside of working longer hours during the adjustment period. I am a person that easily tries to adapt to new situations and embraces challenges with determination. I was initially looking at remote work as another obstacle in my life that needed to be superseded. Because in my childhood I’ve experienced a difficult and sometimes traumatic experience, this pandemic seemed like a small pebble in a pond of experiences.
Teleworking was a turning point for us Maltese Probation Officers. I grabbed two large bags and packed them with all of my clients’ files. These files contain ultra-sensitive and confidential information. The next thing I did was look for a hiding spot. I decided to put them under lock and key in two separate suitcases for security reasons. Luckily, I had also just bought a new laptop and a set of headphones, which came in handy.
The next step was to choose a workspace in my home that wasn’t noisy. The room I chose offered me the possibility to mentally distance myself from my private life. A golden rule that was established with my other family members was quiet hours and break periods, as well as what circumstances warrant an interruption of work time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for the two construction areas that were nearby my house. Imagine trying to communicate with clients when you could hear the jackhammers digging away for 6 hours a day for months on end.
As time went on, the realization that the pandemic was going to be sticking around for a while sank in. The stress this brought was tough for me. I had to engage in mindful techniques to be able to stay focused and calm. An especially hard period was when I had contracted the Covid-19 virus. I informed my colleagues about testing positive and therefore the whole department had to go into quarantine.
For a whole two weeks I wasn’t feeling well physically, let alone mentally, as I was hit by the virus pretty hard. What proved to be of great support during this taxing period, was connecting with the colleagues that had tested positive as well. Together we morally supported each other by keeping in contact every single day. Talking about the challenges that we were facing helped me feel less isolated. Living under the same roof as my family was a privilege during times like these. Having my beloved pets around helped minimize the sensation of claustrophobia and cabin fever.
I am a social being and social connection is a major part of who I am as a person. Nonetheless, I embraced teleworking from the beginning. Surprisingly enough, my clients responded positively to it as well. I was able to carry out pre-sentencing or parole reports, interview victims, conduct meetings online and whatever the work required. Despite not being able to talk face to face, virtually speaking, I was very much present with my clients.
The success or failure of working from home really depended on my work disposition, work style preferences, work ethic and commitment to the department. But also having an appropriate work place at home with the availability of dependable equipment. Such as a computer, internet access, phone, microphone and speakers. Also important was a strong commitment to stick to a regular work schedule. As for requirements more specific to my job, I would include making efforts to maintain relationships with co-workers, integrating opportunities for in-person connection with other staff when possible, and working closely with my senior Probation Officers in terms of defining my client’s care plans and expectations.
An effective approach I utilized prior to doing a video call with a new client, was speaking with my client on the phone first. Somehow just hearing a voice on the other end of the line helps them warm up and ease in into the process. I would also build a rapport with their family members. It is from then onwards that I would hold a video session.
As to my existing clients, I would establish boundaries and expectations with them. I had clients on video call whom appeared shirtless on a beach or sipping cocktails on their boat with friends. I later made clear what I was expecting of them. They had to be earnest and behave appropriately. If I conducted a multi-professional and joint virtual home visit, I would inform my client beforehand to discuss and agree on the priorities, focus and structure of the session and what was being expected of them.
In preparation for the video call or virtual home visit, I would find a neutral area. This to avoid personal pictures or distracting objects to appear in the background. Very important, during a call is privacy and confidentiality. I made sure that my house members could not overhear. However, having my sister’s dog poke his head underneath my desk was a tough one to control or resist for that matter.
There were clients that adjusted quite well to the digital takeover, some clients took advantage from the situation. These clients came up with the excuses that they didn’t have a proper smartphone. So trying to reach them was somewhat of chasing game. On the contrary, clients with no privacy went to playgrounds or sit in their cars. Further, clients with no internet connection searched for public Wi-Fi to connect.
This situation has taught me is that how flexible you are willing to be with technology and other media, can determine the success with adapting unexpected and challenging events like this pandemic.