How to Conduct Research Remotely during a Pandemic

How to Conduct Research Remotely during a Pandemic

To determine the best way to support workers looking to transition careers, we begin by listening to their first-hand experiences. Learn how we're undertaking this work remotely amidst COVID-19.
Private: Sihwa Kim
Policy + Research Intern
September 17, 2020
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Behind all the labour market data, there are real people with a diverse range of needs and concerns.

We recently announced a new phase of our Job Pathways project. This work assumes that tailored programs that consider people’s unique circumstances will enable more successful job transitions than a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Embarking on a new project amid a global pandemic

The second phase of the Job Pathways project involves more intensive qualitative methods, this time working directly with frontline workers in the grocery sector. As we geared up for the project, we were faced with an unexpected challengethe novel coronavirus outbreak. How do you understand someone’s job, and the priorities in their life, from a distance? The factors that go into making career transitions can be quite personal, and face-to-face interviews often create the kind of intimacy needed to build trust and openness with our research subjects. So, how do you do thisresponsiblywith essential workers who are already busy navigating the challenges of our new normal?

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The pandemic has affected the food retail sector in almost every possible way, from a surge in online shopping to cashiers behind plexiglass interacting with customers in masks and temporary wage increases for front-line grocery workers.

Our people-focused approach is difficult to replicate in a world where our team is forced to interact virtually. Human-centred design tells us to focus on people and to seek out real-life experience. But how does one realistically seek to understand the perspective of a grocery cashier from a work-from-home computer screen?

The pandemic has also affected the food retail sector in almost every possible way, from a surge in online shopping to cashiers behind plexiglass interacting with customers in masks and temporary wage increases for front-line grocery workers. Beyond grocery, the economy at large has been hit with COVID-induced shocks. In regular circumstances, talking about career transitions can be difficult, but it’s particularly challenging when 3 million people are also searching for work.

Good news: it’s possible to do research in a pandemic and do it well 

To plan our approach, we performed a rapid review of distance-based methods and tools. We are grateful for excellent crowd-sourced resources like Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic, edited by Deborah Lupton. Here and in other places, there are many examples of strong and practical qualitative methods for looking at careers and workplaces, offering advice on virtual focus groups, career narratives, organizational research in workplaces, and even researching everyday pandemic life.

This project plans to incorporate simple semi-structured interviews—for example, interviews conducted to find out if local employers are hiring for jobs of interest. Interviews are relatively easy to carry out without sharing physical space. There are several guides for conducting virtual interviews, like this one, that informed our planning.  

Next, the project will explore different ways of conducting virtual focus groups to provide workers with a space to comment, explain, and share experiences and attitudes towards career transition. We realized that the usual open-ended focus groups may not be enough to generate insightful comments in a virtual setting, but that we also need specific prompts. Vignettes will be used to instigate intuitive responses from workers on topics like how they decide to make a career transition and what trade-offs they are willing to make in the process. We’re exploring both synchronous and asynchronous interactions with group interviewees, as well as written and video-based tools with an easy-to-use interface (in this case: Zoom and WhatsApp) to mitigate any barriers to access and to keep a manageable group size. 

All of our team members live in Toronto and work at a policy institute. For this reason, we asked ourselves how we could most effectively learn about the circumstances and perspectives of the people whose work we’re exploring. It is a task that is especially difficult to do virtually, though not impossible. To address such limitations, we intend to conduct a digital ethnography to more intimately interact with mid-career workers over the span of weeks or months. We will ask them experiential questions about topics like thoughts, feelings, stresses, ambitions, perceived barriers, to which they voluntarily respond (or not) via phone, email, or text. 

Lastly, the project team is planning to design an online survey focused on ranking the priorities and concerns of mid-career workers to help us triangulate the insights generated by interviews, focus groups, and digital ethnography.

It’s not all bad: 3 advantages of distance-based methods

One of the new opportunities presented by distance-based research is our improved ability to reach more diverse populationsas we are no longer limited by the physical, financial, and time constraints of geographical distance.

Remote research methods empower participants as they have more control over their involvement. If research is planned appropriately, the participants can engage with the research at a time that works for them, in a more flexible capacity. It is an important aspect, especially since we don’t want to overburden our essential workers in the food retail sector.

Distance-based methods enable us to access workers safely and efficiently by generating data while observing health and safety policies. Our employment landscape is changing in ways that are unpredictable and unknown to many of us. The data we collect from the workers themselves will help inform job pathways during a tremendously disruptive time where economic recovery is incredibly important. 

 …but there are unique issues around ethics and risk to consider

Privacy and protection of data are key risks in distance-based research. Measures including a confidentiality agreement, use of pseudonyms, and encrypted devices for data storage will be put in place to ensure we engage more deeply with user needs while maintaining the high ethical standard of BII+E research. 

We acknowledge that mid-career workers are not a homogenous group, rather they are individuals with unique needs, priorities, and concerns and multifaceted identities. In order to reflect different perspectives, wherever possible this project seeks to include individuals with diverse backgrounds, including age, geography, socio-economic status, and other factors. We have recruited advisors who work in the grocery industry to help shape our project and the way we interact with workers. 

If you’re interested in getting involved or learning more about our research, fill out this form or contact Kimberly Bowman (kimberlybowman@ryerson.ca) and Annalise Hyunh (annalise.huynh@ryerson.ca).    

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Private: Sihwa Kim
Policy + Research Intern
September 17, 2020
Print Page

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