November 23


How you can use the self better in social work (no hacks required)


After 2 years in social work, I admit.

I haven’t used the self that well in social work. It came as a surprise, really. As pompous as this might sound, I thought I wasn’t that bad a social worker.

After all, a first-class honours degree should have been a stamp of guarantee that I was good, right? I don’t say this to boast.

But I share this because I want you to know that 2 years of life on the frontlines, led me to see how little university had taught me about social work.

And that doing well at university had no implication on how well you would do as a real social worker. After two years of being humbled by how little I know, I hope this helps you to grow as a social worker.

Here are the 3 lessons on using your self better.

Let’s be clear

I want to be clear. This isn’t just about the emotional part of social work. But it also concerns the practical parts, where you look at how you can be

  1. more efficient in your work – being able to hand things up on time, on target, on scope
  2. More effective in your work – getting to your outcomes with clients.

Make no mistake. As you can see from the above graph, as much as 45% of a social worker’s time is spent on admin. If you don’t handle your administrative work, it’s a guarantee that you will underperform as a social worker.

Who are you to talk about this?

Nobody, really. Just two years of painful experience as a social worker, that made me realise – hey I didn’t realise this in my university education. Should have listened rather than spend so much time counting down the days to the end of my placement!

But first, the mindset shift.

There’s a mindset shift needed to use the self better in social work. It was only during a recent conversation with a senior social worker that I realised how entrenched this mindset was in me. Maybe in you too.

Adjusting the concept of the journey

Many of us enter social work wanting to journey with the client.

You want to do that 1 to 1 work that allows you to walk with the client every step of the way.

Every step of the way.

Does that sound familiar? It does, for me. Because there were so many times that I did everything for the client, rather than helping the client to eventually do it by themselves.

You are guiding the client on his journey. You may be leading him on the journey. But this is important.

It is his journey. Not yours.

Sometimes, social work can feel like we are doing everything, for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be like this.

It’s easy to get this mixed up. So often, I’ve been guilty of wanting to put my agenda forward in the client’s life, when he may not be ready for it. I forget that this is not my journey, but it’s the client’s journey. It’s his life. I can’t change anything.

Only he can.

I remember a supervisor once reminding me,

Anytime you feel like you’re doing more work than the client, there’s a problem there. You have to start relooking your relationship and ask yourself,

“Why is this affecting me so much?”

It explains why I’ve often felt frustrated with clients. I argue,

He’s not putting in enough effort!

He’s not doing enough!

He should be doing more!

It’s his journey, isn’t it? So why are you getting so affected?

Unless… unless you’re taking as your journey too.

You are not a counsellor (or a tutor or a therapist or a doctor or a volunteer…)

There’s an important distinction here. Social workers are not counsellors. Nor therapists.

They are case managers. Period.

You are a puppet master.

Think of yourself as a puppet master. You’re pulling strings in the background to weave together a tapestry of support for the client.

That means your most important role is not to do everything. But sometimes, it’s to refer people to the right resource/person who can do that thing.

You’re a puppet master

I’ve made this mistake many times. When I was working with a youth who was struggling with his studies, I became his tutor. I taught him math. And science.

I also took him out for coffee. I became his mentor.

Looking back, I rationalised it as ‘establishing rapport’ and building relationship. But was it the best way to sustain this support?

What would happen if I left?

Support would end.

I know, sometimes it’s easier to roll up your sleeves and get it done yourself, rather than writing a 4 page referral report on the needs, together with a psychological assessment and relevant documents. By the time you get that done (and get the other party to accept the referral), you don’t even know if the client will still need your help!

That’s why I love the concept of the tree rings, introduced by Donald Roos in his book, ‘Entrepreneurship for Creative People’. He shared how trees grow ring by ring. They don’t grow upwards. They grow outwards.

You don’t try to build an entire tree and then stack it on top of the tree. Rather, you slowly expand the intervention outwards.

You start small, and build outwards.

Similarly, in planning a sustainable intervention for someone, rather than looking at how to do it yourself, or whether it will even work, start with the smallest thing you can do first.

If it works, carry on to build sustainability with the experiment.

Here’s an example of what I did.

I saw a child struggling with his English. It was producing considerable stress for the mother, who couldn’t afford tuition to help.

Initially, I taught the child twice. I saw that he was willing and eager to learn. I reached out to others who might be able to help.

You are a matchmaker.

You’re connecting available resources to those that don’t have any. Over the past year, I’ve realised that so much of my work has been about connecting people who want to help, but don’t know where to help, with people who don’t have help.

You’re here to connect available resources to those without any.

I believe that also involves a mindset shift. You’re not just fighting the system for more resources. You’re there to bring in more resources.

I will be the first to admit that I used to think a good social worker was someone who was able to fight for the rights of our clients, against a system that didn’t want to help! After all this was what we were taught in a British social welfare system. The system was broken, and social workers were there to right the injustice!

It was not until another social worker pointed out to me that the way most people approached it in Singapore didn’t work.

In Singapore, some may think the system is broken. It’s not. It works well. Yes, there are places where it can be improved.

Two things.

Firstly, there’s no perfect system. We can keep comparing. Personally, comparing keeps me feeling powerless and frurstated. It’s easy to rail at the government and say,

You should do this! You should do that!

But it doesn’t tell you what you should do, if you are the social worker supposed to help.

Here’s a question that may help.

What if as far as you were concerned, you were the problem…

and the solution?

Secondly, on the whole, we have an efficient government that has planned well, if you plan well. If you are in a stable job, get married, and get a home, you’re pretty much sorted.

The problem is when those don’t happen according to convention.

It’s not to fight the system and say that the system is bad. But it’s to work within the system, and to see how you can convince the system to make exceptions.

Whilst the system makes up its mind, you design a system that can continue supporting people who have fallen through the cracks.

The basics matter (a lot).

I confess. There were many times when I approached clients without much of a plan. I just relied on gut feel.

Which is dangerous. That’s why we keep building systems, to avoid practitioners from falling back on instinct, bias, and noise.

I like to think of social work through the frame of a science experiment.

  1. Observe what’s happening
  2. Hypothesise about what’s happening
  3. You have a theoretical question
    – Why is this happening?
  4. You think of certain answers to the question.
  5. You plan interventions based on your proposed answers.

But there’s no time, right? Who has time to sit down and think about what to do, when crises are being thrown left right and centre?

That’s also why we come to the concept of leveraging systems. It’s why sector administrators are focusing on technology, volunteers, and shared services.

The idea is that with better corporate services, you improve the organisational processes that are giving practitioners pain.

But how does this relate to you? How can you pluck the low hanging fruits to better leverage yourself.

What if you could design yourself out of a job?

Here’s a thought for you.

Don’t think of yourself as a social worker designing interventions for individuals.

Rather, think of yourself as a systems designer. You are designing a scaleable system, that continues to provide help even when you are not there. This is the future.

This is an idea taken from business. That you want to be working on the business, rather than in the business. You eventually want to build a system which runs, even when you are not there. You design a system that makes you, the social worker, obsolete.

Isn’t this what we want? Okay okay, it may not be what you want. It’s what I dream of though.

It’s a day when there’s no longer any social need. That people are equipped to help themselves. That if someone fell through the cracks, there would be an automatic intervention. Its like a system failsafe. At every crack a person falls through, there’s an automated kick-in that helps.

use of self
How do you design a system so that you are no longer needed?

It’s already there in the CPF system and the Silver Support Scheme. The government tops up the Medisave for the Merdeka generation.

An example today would be unemployment insurance. You lose a job, fall through the cracks. But because you’ve paid premiums previously, you start receiving some income.

Granted, this may not happen in my lifetime, but we can move it a little closer.

Leverage technology

This is not another list of quick hacks and productivity tips.

We do this so that you have more time to do the deep thinking required in your assessment, problem-solving, and interventions.

The principles in leveraging technology, leveraging anything is to make the solution

  1. Strong – this means that there is a demand for it. For example, you wouldn’t bother building a solution for a problem that you hardly face.
  2. Light – it’s scaleable. This means that using the solution more times doesn’t cost you more money, time or resources.

I’m not going to list every single tech tool.

But here are the ones which are replicable. In Singapore, the National Council of Social Services recently introduced its Industry Digital Plan. You might be aware of the need to digitalise, in the face of the growing digitalisation trend.

There are two things thought.

Firstly, the key thing is to be aware of not how much more technology you can use, but how much better you can use technology. For example, the capabilities offered in something like WhatsApp Business were there before COVID-19. But it wasn’t until COVID that we found social workers jumping onto WhatsApp Business, using automated replies.

use of self
Some tech tools should definitely come with health warnings too!

Maybe it’s about using old technology in different ways, rather than finding new ways for new technology.

You played Gameboy? Yes! Gameboy is the perfect example of how Nintendo created breakthroughs through lateral thinking with withered technology. This example, pointed out in Epstein’s ‘Range’, showed how Yokoi used technology from the 1970s like a monochrome screen. Yokoi used Sharp’s calculator screens to put into the Gameboys. Old tech, new use.

It’s similar in the social work sector.

What’s the old tech around you that you can use in new ways?

I used to try fancy solutions like figuring out how to automatically count the number of case sessions from my case recordings in Microsoft Word, and then transfer it to a Microsoft Excel Sheet. Tried APIs, played around with Microsoft Power Automate, before I talked to my boss about it…

And realised we didn’t need that number.

The old tech was a conversation. The new way? Cutting the numbers we had to report.

I know, it sounds a stretch to say that this was an innovation! But it reduced the entire team’s work by 2 hours a month.

But when you apply lateral thinking to withered technology, you start seeing new uses for things you would have otherwise chucked in the bin.

Secondly, it’s about recognising that technology is not just about digital technology. But there are other types of technology too. Like social technology, such as how you conduct a meeting effectively.

When I was contracted under Google, I was amazed to walk into its meeting rooms and find…

Not fancy smart boards with holographic displays…

But simple whiteboards with markers that allowed people to iterate and reiterate their ideas.

The trap with digital technology is to think that we can solve more things with more pixels, rather than with better people. It’s not just about looking for more digital tools, but it’s about using what’s available on hand better.

Whatsapp Business

WhatsApp Business is FREE!

Use WA to automate quick replies

Here are the quick replies that have helped.

  1. Zoom meeting links
  2. Sharing of contact details like phone, email
  3. Sharing of available appointment dates on Calendly

Everytime someone wanted to meet me, I would have to go to Zoom, pull out the invitation, and then send it.

With WA, no longer needed. Just save your meeting link under quick reply, type ‘/(name you saved it under)’ and then send it.

Calendar scheduling

Bouncing back and forth with clients and colleagues over when to meet? Have massive tables over email that people fill with crosses about when they are amiable?

I love Calendly.

Send them the link. Book a slot.


The other option is with Microsoft Bookings.

Leverage resources

Gather donors

Recently, I noticed a pattern. The people who were coming forward to donate seemed to be the same, most times. They wanted to do good, and would frequently go on places like to find people they could donate to.

What I didn’t do, in hindsight, should have been to let them know how the client was helped, and how they could help again.

Rather than having to find details of donors again, and then having to share the details of clients again, I could go back to let them know.

You’re here to connect clients and communities.

You may say,

Won’t it be sleazy to keep going back to the same people? How if they don’t want to donate?

I was speaking to Deborah Antoine recently, the CEO of Women’s Sports Foundation. She shared with me how we often have this misconception towards asking for money. Firstly, people are not giving to you. They are giving through you. You’re a channel. You’re not the client. Therefore, asking for money is not for your sake. It’s for the client’s sake. People love giving when they know how their gift is making a difference. Connect them with the tangible signs of their impact, and donors start feeling good about their giving.

Secondly, we think that people give to charities. Yes, and… they give to causes. All of us come with a specific story. There are certain causes that prick us more than others. They are not giving because you are from XYZ Organisation. They give because you’re helping ABC Cause. You’re connecting them to a cause that they care about.

Here’s a thought. Rather than going back to the donor board (like Passiton) over and over again, why not gather your regular donors on a broadcast list on WhatsApp Business, and send them regular updates?

It’s like keeping a regular newsletter.

Bridge awareness to conversation

I was talking to the founder of Design Prodigy, Marc Goh a few days ago when he pointed out the beauty of thinking like a polymath. We all have polymathic abilities – the ability to know things from different domains. The greatest examples in history are those like Da Vinci, who knew art, engineering, and biology.

The method of Design Prodigy
The method of Design Prodigy

But he also pointed out how concepts from marketing could be applied to social services. Like how the concept of the ‘sales funnel’ could be used in engaging more clients. For example, if we struggled to reach youth, we could follow their digital trail. We could improve the first touch so that they could then be engaged, and re-engaged.

It’s like how Facebook today sees you following pages about football, and then targets and retargets you with ads about football boots, football TV, and football tickets.

It’s how today, a possible client or donor may know about you from all the different content or connections through social media. But you need to find a way to intentionally bridge that gap between them knowing you, and eventually talking to you.

Use shared knowledge

All the OD grants have produced a corpus of knowledge that can be used.

Another OD practitioner recently pointed out to me that for many SMEs or smaller organisations, some of the initial consulting work can be shared. In other words, some of that initial time the consultant spends understanding your unique situation might end up being wasted.

Rather than repeating the same work, it’s helpful to look at what NCSS has curated about what others have done.

See if you can repeat that.


This is a working document. I’m confident that you have better ways that you’ve thought about in stitching together the work you do for clients.

Why not share the most effective tool you’ve used for leveraging greater effectiveness and efficiency?



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