NEWS18 March 2020

MRS recommends pausing face-to-face research as industry responds to Covid-19

Covid-19 Healthcare News Public Sector Technology UK

UK – The Market Research Society has recommended that face-to-face research is not conducted during the Covid-19 outbreak, as agencies adjust their practices in response to government advice to limit social contact.

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The MRS recommendation has been made in response to the risks to public health involved with face-to-face research. 

Jane Frost, chief executive, MRS, said: "These are extraordinary and uncertain times for us all. Our priority will always be the health of MRS members and their families as we continue to listen to government advice regarding the outbreak of Covid-19.

"In line with this, and given the clear risks to public health, we now feel we have no other choice but to recommend face-to-face research is not carried out during this time. We have not come to this decision lightly, and understand the potential implications for fieldwork and those who are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts within our sector. We will continue to speak to our members to advise them on the best way through this period and update the guidance on our website in line with the latest government advice."

Frost said the MRS is communicating with the government on behalf of the sector to share concerns about the impact on research practitioners. "It is our hope that in the coming days there will be an announcement about how the government proposes to help people who are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts," she added.  

The MRS has also encouraged organisations to share details of the Market Research Benevolent Association (MRBA) with all staff and colleagues who have been affected by the outbreak.

We contacted several research agencies to ask if they are changing their data collection practices, whether they are advising staff to work from home, and what approaches they’re taking to otherwise adapt to and understand the challenges posed by the pandemic.

How are agencies responding?

Viki Cooke, founding partner, BritainThinks
Three weeks ago, we started to prepare for significant changes to our business, trialling new platforms, new ways of working remotely and developing ideas for how to support our team in the event of closing the office.

The vast majority of our work is continuing, albeit some of it with a pause built in while so many changes are being introduced and there is so much uncertainty. We will resume when it feels appropriate and not insensitive to people’s immediate anxieties. We have now stopped doing face-to-face fieldwork and are using a range of online and telephone approaches. We are optimistic that some of the new approaches that we are trialling will become essential parts of our future toolkit. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

All of our staff are now working from home and that will remain the case until the advice changes. We already had very flexible working policies so our core systems were well established. We are experimenting with a number of social interactions as well as professional ones, e.g. using Zoom for Friday drinks, having coffee break chats from our personal kitchens and Friday lunch and learn sessions. We will be doing more training over this time and running team meetings and all company meetings digitally. Our new best friend is Microsoft Teams! 

Jane Rudling, managing director, Walnut Unlimited
It goes without saying that Covid-19 is a human issue and our first concern is for our people and their families, our clients, respondents and the wider community. Government advice surrounding the virus is constantly evolving and as an agency we need to be flexible in responding to the situation.

Our staff are now working from home, although the offices are still open for those who need anything. All staff have the appropriate IT to facilitate home working and we are using Microsoft Teams to say connected. We have planned regular check-ins so we can keep in contact: we are all mindful that human interaction is important, now more than ever.

Naturally, face-to-face fieldwork is becoming impractical, fortunately we have plenty of expertise in many online approaches, both qual and quant, and we continue to experiment with new approaches. At the other extreme, it is also possible that we’ll see a resurgence in telephone research, again for both qual and quant. Our in-house call centre team have been busy putting contingency plans in place for virtual working so our interviewers and supervisors can work from home. This is a fascinating time to be talking to consumers and behavioural science can help us explain at least some of the reactions to the concerns raised by the virus – from panic buying to social isolation.

Although the situation is tough for many in our industry, it could also present an opportunity to be creative in our approaches – now more than ever is a time for deeper human understanding.

Roger Perowne, global chief executive, Savanta
With the situation constantly shifting and some needing to work remotely, it’s important that we maintain key touchpoints for the whole team. We find our group Teams video meetings really useful – getting people together quickly to check in on projects and keeping everyone fully connected. We hold regular video meetings at the start and end of each day. We’re finding it useful to implement some of the practices we use to work with our Americas team into our day-to-day work here.

Mental health is of the utmost importance, so we’ve taken steps to ensure nobody feels isolated. We recently gave all our staff a refresher on our mental health training. The idea was to help people remember good working practices for their own wellbeing and that of the wider team. When it’s not as easy to share a coffee break with someone face-to-face, everyone still needs to be supported.

As a tech and security-first business, we have a dedicated team who develop all our proprietary tech. They ensure we have access to everything we need, and are able to open out all our systems and dashboards to ensure the team and clients can access it whenever they need to, from wherever they’re working.

Peter Dann, co-founder, The Nursery 
As soon as the government advice changed, we moved all our qual to remote methodologies and we expect to do so for the foreseeable future. Our clients and participants have been wonderfully supportive: after an initial period of uncertainty everyone is working together to get through this extraordinary time.

We implemented home working on Monday. We have tested our business continuity plan and we can conduct all our usual work to the same standards – not only quality of work but equally importantly without compromising data security. We suspect that implementing the plan was the easy bit, getting used to a whole new way of working over a prolonged period will be an interesting challenge.

Most of our quant work is online so we don’t see any significant change there, and for qual we are using a range of options according to the project. For developmental work, where the group dynamic is important, we’re using video rooms and conferencing platforms; for other studies we’re using online platforms, video and even the good old telephone. Across the board we’re seeing great response rates: people are keen for the social contact as well as incentives!

Jane Bloomfield, chief growth officer, Kantar
We are seeing most of our clients turn to us for more guidance. More than 2,000 clients are scheduled to join us on a webinar this Friday. We are not cancelling any projects and continue to deliver against all the commitments we have.

Where we do face-to-face research, we are following local government guidance in each market. In the UK, for example, we suspended face-to-face interviewing, in agreement with clients and the MRS, on Tuesday 17th.  Face-to-face research has its own strengths and value, and switching to online research is not always going to be the right approach, but we are working with our clients to evaluate whether a switch to online would be a valid switch in methodology. We are luckier than most in that our Profiles panel division has the world’s largest access to research-ready respondents with over 88 million people.

Our overarching strategy is to operate within the guidance issued by the public authorities in the countries where we operate. Local public health policy takes precedence at all times in guiding our decisions. So, in countries where there has been a public lock down, or strong guidance, our workforce is working remotely. Where we have roles that cannot be done remotely, we are implementing social distancing policies – for example, splitting teams in two – and having them alternate coming in to the office to reduce office utilisation.

People’s behaviour is changing rapidly around the world. Besides keeping our staff safe, our biggest priority is to keeping clients as informed as can be of the fast-moving shifts.

For example, in the past week we have developed and fielded a survey to explore people’s behaviours and attitudes in the face of the pandemic. This is being fielded in almost 40 countries to get a strong global understanding of how consumers are feeling. That research will start to become available this week and will be one of the first detailed understandings of how people are reacting.

We are using AI to track social conversations and social imaging to track hashtags around topics like self-isolation, working with our behavioural change team to understand societies and communities, and we have launched a web page to aggregate all the advice and knowledge we have published to date – and to share experiences from different countries at different stages of the pandemic.

We have a set of collaboration and security tools to operate remotely and compliantly. We’re working with Microsoft Teams to run virtual meetings and workshops, Office365 and the ON24 platform to turn face-to-face events into virtual events.

Stephan Shakespeare, chief executive and co-founder, YouGov
It is business as usual at YouGov. Across our global sites we now have a majority of staff working from home but as an online company we expect clients and panellists to see little to no disruption through this period.

Unlike traditional market research firms, we were founded on online research and we operate an agile and flexible working policy as a matter of course so are well set-up to operate through this situation.

James Endersby, chief executive, Opinium
The health and wellbeing of our team is incredibly important to us. But so too is the health of all the thousands of consumers and business decision-makers we speak to daily for our research studies. As such, we will only be using online surveys, immersive online pop-up communities and telephone interviews to ensure that we offer a safe environment for research participants. This means that we are extremely well-placed to ensure that all our research projects can carry on as normal.

We have taken the decision as a business that it is the right approach that everyone at Opinium in the UK and US works from home for the foreseeable future, until government advice changes. Clearly, as a consultancy, it is easier for us to adapt our working practices than some other types of businesses and we feel it is right and appropriate that we do so promptly.

As always, we are using research for good, and conducting quantitative and qualitative studies of our own to help understand the impact of the virus and to share with charities, government bodies and policy makers. We are also offering free research to any charity client that wants to understand the impact of the virus so they can better help the people they support.