The Journey of a Field Interviewer during the Pandemic

Along with all other areas of life, the market and social research sectors were severely disrupted in March 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, good data about society and insights into behaviour were needed more than ever.  Face-to-face interviewing was largely suspended during lockdowns due to health risks, but remains vital in ensuring participation in research of the widest range of people.  Adele Bearfield (Head of Field, Ipsos UK) has previously described the adaptations required to maintain good quality data collection. For this blog post, Adele has invited Geoff Walkington (Field Interviewer) to describe his journey through the pandemic.

I remember March 2020 well. I was just about to set off for central London, some four hours drive from where I live when my Manager at Ipsos called to inform me that the company had made the difficult decision to suspend face-to-face interviewing due to COVID-19.  Not long after, furlough followed, and the interview field force were off work for a couple of months.  I have to confess, I enjoyed the break and spent the spring and early summer tending my garden and painting fences. 

In May, the company announced that we could re-start working as there were new opportunities to train on either telephone projects or as a Study Worker on a high profile Covid-19 related study. After 40 years in the military and a keen marathon runner, I definitely prefer to be active, so I elected to be a Study Worker - working locally, interviewing and collecting swab samples from households with pre-agreed appointments before dropping the samples off at various courier locations.  This was - and still is - a highly rewarding role, knowing the Government were using the data that I and others were gathering to brief the public and direct Covid policy. 

The COVID-19 study was also a great opportunity to demonstrate that market research interviewers are multi-skilled and can adapt to changing circumstances.  It has allowed me to utilise my interviewer skills to encourage the public to participate, whilst providing me the opportunity to maintain my skills and keep up to date with training.  Almost two years have now passed, and I still work on this study alongside our traditional portfolio of projects. 

During the pandemic, Ipsos was extremely proactive in adapting our projects and organising a wide spectrum of computer-based training for interviewers and when the first lockdown ended, I was glad to go back into field work with new training under my belt - This included detailed advice on how to interview whilst wearing PPE, maintaining a 2-metre social distance at all times and administering participant and interviewer health screening questions. 

I didn’t find wearing PPE during data collection too much of an issue. The company tablets worked perfectly well whilst wearing gloves when using the touch screen function. The main issue (albeit very little) has been reading the tablet screen whilst wearing glasses and a PPE face-mask.  Your glasses can easily fog up when the temperature/humidity rapidly change, especially on a participant's doorstep.  However, one of my participants solved the issue when they gave me a good tip on how to mitigate this. You just pace piece of surgical tape outside and over the top of the mask above the bridge of your nose!
Part of the return to interviewing included the opportunity to use alternative modes of interviewing, for example telephone and Team’s interviews alongside other online/web options with participants. There were also weekly opportunities for the interviewers to share experiences at (virtual) coffee mornings. 

Upon returning to face-to-face interviewing, considering we were only allowed to interview on the doorstep rather than in home, I was pleasantly surprised just how accommodating and helpful the general public were. Throughout the summer, it was great to be back at work, the weather was fine and many of the potential participants were either furloughed or were working from home and it was relatively easy to persuade them to participate. 

When the second lockdown occurred, we had to suspend our traditional portfolio of work again. However, this time I had no worries about the future as I knew that when lockdown was finally lifted it would be business as the new usual. 

Entering the Autumn and Winter months brought familiar challenges. These seasons, even pre-pandemic, are the most challenging for an interviewer. Two of the most difficult things that any face-to-face interviewer must deal with are the weather and the dark nights, which is further amplified when interviewing is done on the doorstep. A face-to-face interviewer cannot avoid all issues, but they can at least mitigate some of them and I do this by using a head-torch and a necklace light which illuminates my badge, clipboard and tablet. 

As part of my extended role, I coach new interviewers and I always pass on these hints and tips to support them as they learn the job. Traditionally, new interviewers to the panel attended training days in person and would then be accompanied in the field by an experienced interviewer like myself.  Covid restrictions have halted this approach, but once they have completed their online courses and been assessed, I spend time virtually supporting them take their first steps into market research interviewing and helping them overcome any issues that they are having.  I explain that there are many aspects to being a successful face-to-face interviewer and - like training for a marathon - we start slowly and only run short distances initially and slowly build up our (stamina) skills set.  

As I look back at the last two years, it is clear that the pandemic has been a tremendous challenge across a wide spectrum of different areas of market research. However, I believe that our company has responded superbly, rising to the challenge and ensuring that our interviewers have been supported and able to continue their valuable work whilst, at the same time, protecting participants.

AUTHOR BIO: Geoff Walkington grew up in rural Yorkshire in the 1950s and, despite coming from a farming background, he decided to enlist into the Royal Air Force at the age of 15 and spent 43 years in the military serving at numerous locations throughout the world. During his long military career, he was regularly involved in many different sports including long distance running and football refereeing.  He became a Face-to-Face interviewer almost 20 years ago and, despite living in Yorkshire, he regularly completes work assignments throughout the UK and also coaches new and less experienced interviewers.  Away from work, he has now retired from refereeing and has reduced his marathon running to 10k's.