Information Communication Technology and the Social Worker-Client Relationship

Lessons from Communication Theory




Communication, generalist practice, pandemic, social worker-client relationship, technology


A core value in social work is the importance of the worker-client relationship. Communication is a key factor in this relationship. The pandemic, marked by a dramatic, rapid increase in communication through information communication technology (ICT), has underscored both challenges and benefits for the worker-client relationship. Informed by communication theories, this paper provides a conceptual framework for examining ICT interactions between workers and clients at the generalist practice level. The review revealed four challenges (e.g., more permeable worker-client boundaries) and five benefits (e.g., increased opportunities for social presence). Factors to be considered in guiding tool selection are: (1) communication medium “bandwidth”, (2) mutual directionality, (3) privacy and confidentiality, (4) message formality, and (5) complexity of message content. Implications for practice, education, and research emerged from this framework. For instance, increased methods of communication via technology can enhance social workers’ social presence in relating to clients. However, social workers must know how and when to use which tools. Finally, evidence is needed regarding how ICT use affects the worker-client relationship. Moving forward, we recommend applying communication theories to guide research on the impact of ICT on the worker-client relationship with the goal of establishing best practices for ICT use.


Barsky, A. (2020, March). Ethical exceptions for social workers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing. New Social Worker.

Beresford, P., Croft, S., & Adshead, L. (2008). ‘We don’t see her as a social worker’: A service user case study of the importance of the social worker's relationship and humanity. British Journal of Social Work, 38, 1388-1407.

Berzin, S. C., Singer, J., & Chan, C. (2015). Practice innovation through technology in the digital age: A grand challenge for social work (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 12). American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

Bickle, J., Hirudayaraj, M., & Doyle, A. (2019). Social presence theory: Relevance for HRD/VHRD research and practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 21(3), 383-399.

Bryan, A., Hingley-Jones, H., & Ruch, G. (2016). Relationship-based practice revisited. Journal of Social Work Practice, 30(3), 229-233.

Byrne, J., & Kirwan, G. (2019). Relationship-based social work and electronic communication technologies: Anticipation, adaptation and achievement. Journal of Social Work Practice, 33(2), 217-232.

Byrne, J., Kirwan, G., & Mc Gucklin, C. (2019). Social media surveillance in social work: Practice realities and ethical implications. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 37(2-3), 142-158.

Carlson, J. R., & Zmud, R. W. (1999). Channel expansion theory and the experiential nature of media richness perceptions. Academy of Management Journal, 42(2), 153-170.

Conrad, J. B., & Magsamen-Conrad, K. (2022). Understanding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on families involved in the child welfare system: Technological capital and pandemic practice. Child & Family Social Work, 27(1), 11-21.

Cook, L. L., & Zschomler, D. (2020). Virtual home visits during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social workers’ perspectives. Practice, 32(5), 401-408.

Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1984). Information richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organization design. In B. M. Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior (Vol. 6, pp. 191-233). JAI Press.

Davidson, J. C. (2005). Professional relationship boundaries: A social work teaching module. Social Work Education, 24(5), 511-533.

Dienger, L. (2019). The future of work for social services. IBM Corporation.

Falkenstrom, F., Granstrom, F., & Holmqvist, R. (2014). Working alliance predicts psychotherapy outcome even while controlling for prior symptom improvement. Psychotherapy Research, 24(2), 146-159.

Funk, K. (2021). The last mile: Covid-19, telehealth, and broadband disparities in rural Indiana. Advances in Social Work, 21, 45-58.

Goldberg, A. E., Brodzinsky, D., Singer, J., & Crozier, P. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on child welfare-involved families: Implications for parent-child reunification and child welfare professionals. Developmental Child Welfare, 3(3), 203-224.

Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(2/3), 147-166.

Heitin, L. (2016). Digital literacy: Forging agreement on a definition. Education Week, 36(12), 5-6.

Helton, D. (2003). Online therapeutic social service provision (Therap-pc): A state of the art review. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 21(4), 17-36.

Hill, A., & Shaw, I. (2011). Social work and ICT. Sage.

Hitchcock, L., & Sage, M., (2018, March/April). Professional learning networks for social workers in the digital age. Social Work Today, 23-25.

Hitchcock, L., Sage, M., & Smyth, N. (2019). Teaching social work technology. CSWE Press.

Indiana University School of Social Work. (n.d.). The future of social work practice is here. Indiana University.

Kadushin, A., & Kadushin, G. (1997). The social work interview: A guide for human service professionals (4th ed.). Columbia University Press.

Kagle, J. D., & Giebelhausen, P. N. (1994). Dual relationships and professional boundaries. Social Work, 39(2), 213-220.

Korzenny, F. (1978). A theory of electronic propinquity: Mediated communication in organizations. Communication Research, 5, 3-24.

LaMendola, W. (2010). Social work and social presence in an online world. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 28(1-2), 108-119.

La Rose, T. (2019). Limiting relationships through sousveillance video based digital advocacy: multi-modal analysis of the nervous CPS worker, Journal of Social Work Practice, 33(2), 233-243.

Markowitz, J. C., Milrod, B., Heckman, T. G., Bergman, M., Amsalem, D., Zalman, H., Ballas, T., & Neria, Y. (2021). Psychotherapy at a distance. American Journal of Psychiatry, 178, 240-246.

Mishna, F., Bogo, M., Root, J., & Fantus, S. (2014). Here to stay: Cyber communication as a complement in social work practice. Families in Society, 95(3), 179-186.

Mishna, F., Bogo, M., Root, J., Sawyer, J., & Khoury-Kassabri, M. (2012). ‘‘It just crept in’’: The digital age and implications for social work practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40, 277-286.

Mishna, F., Milne, E., Bogo, M., & Pereria, L. F. (2020). Responding to COVID 19: New trends in social workers’ use of information and communication technology. Clinical Social Work Journal, 49, 484-494.

Mitchell, E. (2020). “Much more than second best”: Therapists’ experiences of videoconferencing psychotherapy. European Journal for Qualitative Research in Psychotherapy, 10, 121-135.

Murray, A. (2021). 2021 Amendments NASW Code of Ethics: Self-care and cultural competence. NASW Press.

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics. NASW Press.

Nesmith, A. (2018). Reaching young people through texting-based crisis counseling: Process, benefits, and challenges. Advances in Social Work, 18, 1147-1164.

O’Leary, P., Tsui, M-S., & Ruch, G. (2013). The boundaries of the social work relationship revisited: Towards a connected, inclusive and dynamic conceptualization. British Journal of Social Work, 43, 135-153.

Parrott, L., & Madoc-Jones, I. (2008). Reclaiming information and communication technologies for empowering social work practice. Journal of Social Work, 8(2), 181-197.

Păstae, V. (2016, April 21-22). Interpersonal communication in the era of e-communication. The 12th International Scientific Conference eLearning and Software for Education, Bucharest. DOI: 10.12753/2066-026X-16-111

Perron, B. E., Taylor, H. O., Glass, J. E., & Margerum-Leys, J. (2010). Information and communication technologies in social work. Advances in Social Work, 11(1), 67-81.

Proctor, E. K. (1982). Defining the worker-client relationship. Social Work, 27(5), 430-435.

Reamer, F. G. (2003). Boundary issues in social work: Managing dual relationships. Social Work, 48(1), 121-133.

Reamer, F. G. (2015). Clinical social work in a digital environment: Ethical and risk- management challenges. Clinical Social Work Journal, 43, 120-132.

Reder, P., & Duncan, S. (2003). Understanding communication in child protection networks. Child Abuse Review, 12, 82-100.

Rettie, R. (2008). Mobile phones as network capital: Facilitating connections. Mobilities, 3(2), 291-311.

Rollins, W. (2020). Social worker-client relationships: Social worker perspectives. Australian Social Work, 73(4), 395-407.

Schelbe, L., Randolph, K., Yelick, A., Cheatham, L., & Groton, D. (2018). Systems theory as a framework for examining a college campus-based support program for the former foster youth. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 15(3), 277-295.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. John Wiley & Sons.

Simpson, J. E. (2017). Staying in touch in the digital era: New social work practice. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 35, 86-98.

Smyth, N. J. (2010, September 10). When is cultural incompetence ok? [Blog post].

Sumner, E. M., & Ramirez, A. (2017). Social information processing theory and hyperpersonal perspective. In P. Rossler, C. A. Hoffner, & L. van Zoonen (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of media effects. John Wiley & Sons.

Tidwell, L. C., & Walther, J. B. (2002). Computer-mediated communication effects on disclosure, impressions, and interpersonal evaluation. Human Communication Research, 28(3), 317-348.

Tregeagle, S., & Darcy, M. (2008). Child welfare and information and communication technology: Today’s challenge. British Journal of Social Work, 38, 1481-1498

Trevithick, P. (2012). Social work skills and knowledge (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Walter, J. B., & Bazarova, N. N. (2008). Validation and application of Electronic Propinquity Theory to computer-mediated communication in groups. Communication Research, 35(5), 622-645.

Walther, J. B. (1992). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective. Communication Research, 19(1), 52-90.

Wolf, L., & Goldkind, L. (2016). Digital native meet friendly visitor: A Flexner-inspired call to digital action. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(51), S99-S109.