Research undertaken remotely - a look back

Date: 04/05/2021 Written by: Anna 12 minutes to read.

Having recently started work within the research team at Social Change UK, I was keen to find out about the team’s experience doing research throughout the pandemic. Just after the anniversary of the first national lockdown, I interviewed Eloise and Daisy, my fellow researchers, to ask how working remotely has impacted the research process. We took the opportunity to have a chat via video call to share our thoughts.

1. Working with others at a distance 

The first and perhaps most familiar challenge encountered by the team was switching to online modes of communication while working from home. Eloise found that managing the team remotely meant deliberately scheduling catch-ups with other members of the team, rather than those casual off-hand chats in the office. 

Starting projects was also more challenging because creating the right atmosphere for collaboration was more difficult at a distance. At least our colleagues, clients and participants alike also had to adapt to this. We were all at sea together!

“[It helps that] we’re all in the same boat of being stuck at home.” (Daisy)

One of the most important parts of our research process is establishing a strong working relationship with clients, so it’s been useful too that our clients have been more interested in regular check-ins over lockdown. 

 

2. The benefits of video calling 

Remote research also meant we changed from in-person meetings and focus groups to researching via video calls. To understand people from a distance, many telephone meetings and interviews are now increasingly being done by video as well. Though the change was hard to start with, Eloise and Daisy agree that ‘reading a room’ and understanding each other through a screen has gotten easier with time! 

A key benefit that the team were quick to pick up on was how video calling has actually allowed them to better read body language and visual signals, so they can tailor their communication with clients and research participants. Where people may have previously picked up the phone, being able to see each other’s faces over video is an important tool for our researchers to be able to manage insightful conversations, to support our projects. 

When we do research online and at home it’s inevitable that the interruptions of home life filter into meetings – but as Daisy notes, these can actually be quite useful for doing research! The post arriving, a dog barking and the familiar environment of home all help to put people at ease and create a more relaxed atmosphere for interviews and focus groups:  

“It’s more humanising.” (Daisy) 

 

3. How people feel about research 

It comes as no surprise that lockdown has affected how we all spend our free time. The team have noticed that everyone being home more, and less able to do our normal leisure activities, has meant people are more flexible and willing to be part of our research studies. Eloise thinks people are more excited to sit for an interview now because we are all hungry for more social connection in lockdown: 

“People really want to have a bit more of a meaningful conversation, so they’re more interested, I think, in being involved in what we’re doing.” (Eloise) 

There is also no longer any travel involved, so people can take part in research from the comfortable and familiar settings of their own homes. This is definitely appealing - the team have found that more people are getting involved in research and feeling more at ease and comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences with our team. 

Interestingly, our researchers noticed that people in focus groups are now less likely to simply agree with others in the group. Perhaps because of their more comfortable surroundings, or because they aren't talking face-to-face, people showed less of a ‘hive mind’? A research question for our research team to explore further, perhaps. 

The fact that people are less biased by the group and will more readily express their own opinions is a huge benefit to our research. This means that we can more accurately understand what people really think about the issues up for discussion! 

 

4. Changes to the accessibility of research 

With primary research such as focus groups now being conducted online, our research projects are made more accessible to the public taking part in our research. It's also great for us as we no longer have to travel for the opportunity. This saves us time and money and means more people are now able to involved in the conversation.

Other methods of research are seeing the benefit of working remotely too. When we need to observe people doing an activity, they now have complete control over what video content they record and share with us. This places more power in the hands of the participant than ever before, though it does mean that our researchers are in the dark about how much data we’ll receive!

Though there are many positive changes from doing research remotely, one drawback is that some people may have slow or no internet access at home. For them, our new video and online methods of research are not accessible. Typically, our researchers would use a good old-fashioned postal survey, given out to people by services and organisations who we work with to support our research. Currently, though, many of these services are not serving as many people face-to-face.  

Instead, the team now connect directly with service users through telephone surveys and interviews. Our researchers continue to search for new ways to reach these audiences, to make sure they have the opportunity to engage in our work and have their voices heard. 

 

5. The changing world 

Over the course of the pandemic, it feels like the public’s attention has been increasingly drawn towards the news cycle. More people are becoming familiar with discussing social issues online too, whether that’s engaging with online activism for movements like Black Lives Matter, debating how we can address issues like mental health in lockdown, or airing opinions on the latest government restrictions. 

I was curious to know if the research team felt these changes (and the pandemic more generally) have influenced the behaviour of those taking part in research too. Our researchers pointed out that many people feel that the pre-pandemic fast-paced life has slowed over lockdown, providing people with more time for self-reflection and thoughts about social issues. 

“[People had] that time to reflect on what the pandemic’s meant for them.” (Elosie) 

With all this extra time on our hands, the team highlight that we are linking social issues brought up in research to our own experiences more than ever. This may be down to the personal challenges many may have faced throughout the pandemic, or even the growing appetite for debate and public discussion of social issues. The team describe how the taboo of mental health especially has seen huge progress over the past year: 

“Everyone in the country was talking about mental health… feeling lonely or feeling low, and everyone was there to support each other.” (Daisy) 

As well as generating more conversation around social issues, these changes appear to make participants more willing to engage in social research and offer their opinions on topics that matter to them. Eloise suggests these changes are reshaping the way people consider social issues and how they engage in research: 

“[The pandemic] has helped norm a number of issues in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in normal times.” (Eloise) 

 

6. To a brighter future 

Looking forward to our movement out of lockdown, and a gradual return to ‘normal’, the research team are keen that some of the changes experienced over the past year are retained in post-Covid research.

Working online for client meetings and focus groups could continue to be useful for building working relationships and for the research process. Eliminating the need to travel, for example, is a benefit our researchers may be looking to hold onto, to save resources and make our work more accessible. 

“[Online research methods are] not just something that we have to do when we’re working remotely, this is something we can do into the foreseeable future, to help research for everyone.” (Daisy) 

One of the challenges the team expect to face is that the transition back to in-person meetings may be difficult now people are accustomed to remote working. A bizarre by-product of the isolation of lockdown, our researchers think it may be harder to ‘read the room’ face-to-face than through screens when we begin to reduce remote working!

In the midst of a return to 'normal' that is both exciting and scary, welcome and resisted, there is still work to be done in determining the future of research. Eloise is hopeful that the changes we’ve seen in how the public engage with social issues, particularly in health and wellbeing, will continue to positively influence how people engage in social research in the future. 

One question we need to ask ourselves is how we can sustain the momentum of recent social movements past lockdown. We also need to be thinking about how we can further engage those people who may be openly discussing social issues like mental health for the first time. 

“[We need to question] how we maintain those conversations when we eventually go to that fast-paced life [after lockdown].” (Daisy) 

It’s an important question for anyone with an interest in behaviour change for social good, like our team at Social Change UK. We'll be thinking this one over with you and as Daisy optimistically puts it... 

"Watch this space." (Daisy)

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