A new way of working: conducting qualitative research during a global pandemic
Covid-19 has disrupted the lives of so many across the globe. For some, the lines between work life and home life have become blurred and indistinguishable.
12 January 2021
In March 2020, UK office workers packed up their desks and moved to a new working environment, the home office. For some this has meant working on the dining room table, dressing table or making do with makeshift desks. This has presented new challenges that no one could foresee, including working and home schooling simultaneously, maintaining work relationships virtually and managing Zoom-bombing pets (yes, I know we all love seeing the pets).
For University researchers the challenge of working from home and conducting robust research has been felt acutely. Specifically conducting qualitative research has been challenging. Qualitative research proposals have had to change overnight to fit with Covid-19 regulations and current research projects adapted. These changes have raised many questions about how to run a qualitative research project effectively whilst also navigating Covid-19 restrictions.
The challenges of carrying out qualitative research during the pandemic has been discussed keenly at the Qualitative Support Group based at the Manchester Centre for Health Psychology, The University of Manchester. This group is run by myself and colleague, Leanne Cook, on a 6-weekly basis. It is a diverse group with, PhD Students, Research Assistants/Associates/Fellows, Senior Lecturers and Professors all in attendance. When I emailed members of the group regarding what topic they would like to discuss at our next virtual session, the question of ‘how do I navigate Covid-19?’ filled my inbox.
The Covid-19 themed virtual session was well attended. Some researchers came with questions and others came with their advice. Below outlines the issues raised at the session, as well as some workable solutions and appraisals of data collection methodologies. Although the Oxford vaccine has been approved, it is likely that we shall still be conducting research remotely for some time to come. Therefore it is important to share advice between researchers and I hope that the thoughts of the Qualitative Support Group will be helpful for all those navigate their qualitative research through this pandemic.
By Victoria Woof
It can be difficult to deviate from your plan of how you want to conduct your research. But as researchers we are required to constantly adapt and problem solve when challenges present themselves. The default data collection methods consistently used in qualitative research are face-to-face interviews and focus groups. However, Covid-19 has made these in-person methods impossible. However, this does not mean that these methods cannot be adapted for virtual use, and of course they are not the only methods of data collection available. There is a popular misconception that face-to-face methods are the only ‘true’ way to gather in-depth qualitative data. In our discussion group we mused over the various data collection methods available and their utility to researchers during the pandemic.
For many of our researchers face-to-face interviews had to be rearranged as telephone interviews. Novick (2008) describes telephone interviews as a neglected method of data collection, often seen as an inferior alternative to face-to-face interviewing. Indeed, Block and Erskine (2012) acknowledged that telephone interviewing is sometimes disregarded as an effective qualitative method in the academic community. Yet now more than ever the utility of the telephone interview is being realised and has perhaps surpassed face-to-face interviewing as the most attractive method of qualitative data collection. At the Manchester Centre for Health Psychology telephone interviewing has always been seen as a serious data collection method. At our Covid-19 session, researchers’ experiences and expertise in using telephone interviewing enabled a dynamic discussion of the method’s merits and the following guidance and tips were provided:
- From experience it was identified that telephone interviews are often rearranged more frequently than face-to-face interviews. This was attributed to the participant either misremembering the appointment or the timing of the call being suddenly inconvenient. To avoid calling and having to re-arrange the researcher should contact the participant 1 to 2 days before the telephone interview to remind them of their appointment and to check that the time and date of the appointment is still convenient.
- Rapport between researcher and participant can still be made over the telephone. Researchers should take some time at the beginning of the interview to have a general chitchat with the participant to put them at ease rather than ploughing into the agenda of the telephone call. Do as you would in a face-to-face interview, rapport building should not be ignored just because you are not meeting face-to-face.
- Again, telephone interviews should be treated in the same way as face-to-face interviews. The same protocol of explaining what the interview will be like and allowing participants to ask questions and have these answered should be followed. It was identified in the discussion group that researchers can have a tendency to launch into the consent and interview procedure without taking the time to first remind the participant what they have agreed to do.
- A major advantage to interviewing over the telephone is that researchers are able to take notes whilst the participant is speaking without appearing rude. During the interview it is helpful and good practice to take notes. You can make a note of what the participant has said if something particularly interesting grabs you and remind yourself to probe further. This has the advantage of reminding you to follow up on the area you found interesting which will enhance the quality of your data collection. These notes may also serve as a helpful resource when considering researcher reflexivity.
- Researchers in the discussion group advised putting the telephone on speaker for the duration of the interview. Obviously this should only be done if the sound quality is good and the audio recorder is placed near the speaker. Putting the telephone on speaker leaves your hands free to take notes and enables you to sit more comfortably, which is more important than you think when an interview is lengthy.
- For researcher confidentiality if calling from a personal mobile or home phone, turn off your caller ID. Be sure to tell the participant you will be calling from a withheld number.
Virtual focus groups
Focus groups are an effective data collection method when the researcher aims to collect views, opinions and experiences resulting from a group interaction. Differing opinions and views cannot be gained from individual interviews. Thus substituting focus groups for telephone interviews during the pandemic may not be suitable if the researcher wishes to collect data which originates from dynamic discussion. Conducting focus groups virtually sparked concern across the discussion group. However, for those who have engaged in this form of data collection the experience was positive and identified advantages to conducting focus groups virtually. For example, the power dynamic between the researcher and group members appears to be less prevalent, with virtual focus groups take the form of a general conversation as opposed to answers being directed to the researcher. Advice of how to conduct focus groups virtually is limited. However, an in-depth discussion of conducting virtual focus groups during the pandemic can be found in Dos Santos Marques and Theiss’s (2020) paper. From our discussions though the following tips and advice were provided:
- Before the focus group begins ground rules should be set. This is best practice for both face-to-face and virtual focus groups. The ground rules may be slightly different when the focus groups is conducted virtually.
- Virtual focus group ground rules may include introducing participants to some of the functions of the software that you are using to conduct the focus group, for example, the mute function. It may be helpful to meet virtually with each of your focus group participants prior to the main event so they are able to ask questions of you on a one-to-one basis.
- As is customary for face-to-face focus groups, virtual focus groups should also have a moderator and note taker. This enables the moderator to focus their attentions on the group discussion whilst the note taker can document a detailed representation of what was discussed, which can be used to feedback to the focus group at the end.
- As qualitative researchers we know all too well the devastation of losing an interview recording. When conducting virtual focus groups it is essential that the recording is backed up. The software that you use is likely to have a recording function but to be on the safe side use an audio recorder and place it next to the speaker on the computer. A good quality audio recorder will pick up the conversation clearly and will provide you with peace of mind that you have a backup copy.
Perhaps even more neglected than the telephone interview is the email interview method. In the discussion group email interviewing was highlighted as an effective form of data collection but was also described as a method which is not often considered. There was particular concern that emailing questions to participants would not produce in-depth data or may not be responded to at all. However, it has been suggested that interviews via email have a successful response rate due to the advantage that respondents can answer the email at a time of their choosing (Fritz & Vandermause, 2017; Gibson, 2014). This is especially advantageous for respondents who are extremely busy and would find it difficult to take an hour out of their day for a telephone interview. It is also argued by some that a rapport is more easily established via email interviews, as the relationship between researcher and respondent is maintained for a longer period of time (Hawkins, 2018). The majority of the discussion group had not used email interviewing before. The minority that had provided the following points, advocating for the use of email interviewing:
- As indicated by Fritz and Vandermause (2017) and Gibson (2014) email interviewing was advocated as a good option for participant groups who may find committing to an hours interview difficult. Participants are able to choose when they reply to emails and in how much depth they wish to reply. Email interviews are convenient for participants where research needs to fit around work and home life.
- Those in the discussion group appreciated concerns that the spontaneity of interviewing in the moment is lost. However, it was explained that answers provided via email are thoughtful and in-depth, as participants have had time to think of their views and experiences. In the experience of those who had used this method it was concluded that the quality of the data was not compromised.
- Following up on answers and probing is still an option with email interviews. Do not be afraid to ask interviewees to elaborate on their previous answers.
For some in our discussion group original recruitment plans had to be abandoned and new strategies devised. There was a feeling of concern with regards recruiting via social media. However in the group there was evidence of successful recruitment via this method. Those who engaged with social media to recruit participants provided the following advice:
- Create an eye catching social media advert. The advert should clearly contain the inclusion/exclusion criteria and researcher contact details.
- Be sure to tag relevant charities/groups in order to spread the word of your research. By tagging these groups your advert will be receive a boost in the participant area you wish to recruit from.
- Be prepared to spend hours searching for closed groups on Facebook relating to your research area. Engage with these groups and request whether your advert can be posted on their group page. Closed Facebook groups were found to be the most effective way to gain interest.
- Do not assume that you will not be able to recruit older adults via social media.
- When interested participants contact you, remember to screen them against your eligibility criteria to ensure that you are recruiting the population you intended. This can be done over the telephone or via email.
Those in the discussion group who recruited via social media described it as a positive experience. Engagement with study adverts was high and for one researcher the suggested recruitment target was met within 2 days.
Every time research protocols are adapted and recruitment and data collection methods are changed researchers need to remain cognisant of ethical considerations and the impact changes may have on participants. In our discussion group issues were raised particularly about managing participant distress during telephone and virtual interviewing. Some members of the group were not confident in how they would handle participant distress when in-person reassurance is not possible. The discussion group advised that managing distress virtually should be no different to doing so in person. To help researchers handle participant distress effectively, the following tips were discussed and provided:
- Before embarking on any interviews where possible distress can be caused, a managing distress policy should be in place. These policies can be adapted for use with virtual methods.
- Try not to get flustered if someone becomes upset. Ask the participant if they would like you to pause the recording and to take a breather.
- Give the participant options, (1) stop the interview completely, (2) have a break and come back to it or (3) rearrange. Reassure the participant that they do not need to continue if they do not want to.
- Perhaps offer the participant a follow-up check to make sure they are ok and whether they would like to discuss anything. This may be particular important if the participant belongs to a vulnerable research group, for example in the case of suicide research.
- Remember researcher wellbeing is just as important as participant wellbeing. Should you be involved in a distressing interview, it is important to arrange a debrief with your research team to discuss how the experience affected you and to ascertain whether the situation could be handled differently. More general advice and information on managing your well-being as a qualitative researcher can be found in Cook and Woof (2020).
It is understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has been and continues to be a difficult and trying time for us all. Aside from the disruption to our research I believe there has been some positives to being forced to work and think differently. Alternative qualitative data collection methods have been realised and will hopefully grow in popularity as a result. Researchers have also come together to advise and share knowledge to support one another in our shared goal to produce robust and meaningful research. It is this show of support that inspired me to write this piece and share my colleagues’ views, experiences and tips with the wider qualitative researcher community.
Block, E. S., & Erskine, L. (2012). Interviewing by telephone: Specific considerations, opportunities, and challenges. International journal of qualitative methods, 11(4), 428-445.
Cook, L. & Woof, V. (2020). Tips on maintaining wellbeing for qualitative researchers. QMiP Bulletin, 29.
Fritz, R. L., & Vandermause, R. (2018). Data collection via in-depth email interviewing: Lessons from the field. Qualitative Health Research, 28(10), 1640-1649.
Gibson, L. (2014, August 28). What is email interviewing?
Hawkins, J. E. (2018). The practical utility and suitability of email interviews in qualitative research. The Qualitative Report, 23(2).
Marques, I. C. D. S., Theiss, L. M., Johnson, C. Y., McLin, E., Ruf, B. A., Vickers, S. M., ... & Chu, D. I. (2020). Implementation of virtual focus groups for qualitative data collection in a global pandemic. The American Journal of Surgery.
Novick, G. (2008). Is there a bias against telephone interviews in qualitative research? Research in nursing & health, 31(4), 391-398.