OPINION21 February 2022

Back home again: a return to in-person interviewing

Opinion Trends

Research conducted by an interviewer in-person and in-home delivers vital evidence that helps shape public policy. It suffered badly during the pandemic, but is now making a welcome return. Here, Ben Collins and Michelle Lewis of Kantar Public UK describe what a return to this technique might look like.

Young female researcher interviewing an older man at home

Covid-19 has been incredibly challenging for the research industry and our clients. As covered in our article published in August 2021, in the face of the pandemic, the need for evidence and advice was not reduced; in fact, it increased greatly.

From generating national statistics, to providing rich longitudinal data, or to giving a window into peoples’ lives, in-person research plays an incredibly powerful role in gold standard social surveys.

This type of research was heavily disrupted by Covid-19 and returning to conducting interviews in person was highly complex and challenging. Kantar Public successfully completed a live pilot of a return to Covid-19 secure in-home interviewing in August 2021 and since then we have been delivering a number of ongoing projects, learning much along the way.

We believe that the feedback and insights we have been gathering are incredibly helpful to our clients and public policy makers, as well as to the research industry more generally. These learnings provide evidence on the effectiveness of our Covid-19 secure approach and the industry guidelines; they tell us much about public attitudes and willingness to take part; and they give insights into the long-term future of in-home and broader in-person research. 

The return of full-scale, in-home interviewing 

Our interviewers have fed back on what works on the doorstep when faced with a wide range of public reactions. Attitudes vary, understandably, with some people still concerned about Covid-19 and wanting to see safety measures in response, while others are not particularly concerned, and some even feel safety measures go too far.

Our approach puts the safety of our participants, interviewers and the public as the primary driver of what we do. But the extra requirements and equipment can affect fieldwork. Interviewing in a protective mask, for example, can be uncomfortable for longer surveys and can create a barrier between interviewer and participant. The rapport that our interviewers build with participants is an important element of encouraging them to take part openly, so they are learning to build that same connection while wearing a mask, keeping safe distances and so on.

There are pragmatic lessons too. Wiping down equipment before sharing it with a participant is an important part of our health and safety requirements. We’re also innovating and testing the application of approaches that could have longer term benefits, such as the use of secondary screens for interview materials like showcards.

It would be premature to say for certain what the long-term pattern in response rates will be, but there are clear challenges. Currently, response rates are lower than we would typically expect. Some of this is due to extra Covid-19 screening questions, but we are seeing some higher refusal rates as well.

This is making achieving interviews at the rate we might previously have expected harder and we cannot expect this to get easier for some weeks or months. This is a universal pattern linked to the pandemic, but it’s too early to say if it will be a temporary one. We are working closely with clients to manage fieldwork and our methodologists are digging deeply into the response data to learn more.

For some interviewers, uncertainty about what interviewing will now be like and their personal safety (even after the extensive protective protocols), has made them initially reluctant to come back. We know this is a challenge across the industry. Even small actions, like interviewers being able to talk to our regional team whenever they need to, can make a big difference for individuals.

But there are significant activities as part of our overall management approach that are also having an impact on interviewer retention and ability to work. These include the (now virtual) roadshows where interviewers can hear from our leadership, their regional contacts and their peers and where we can provide holistic support and training such as sessions on mental health and wellbeing, innovation and interviewer practice. We are also recruiting new interviewers as we see growing demand for in-person research from our clients.

Negotiating a tricky landscape

The challenges of conducting in-person, especially in-home, research will continue. The pandemic is ongoing, we must continue to keep everyone safe, with all that entails, and we can anticipate continuing concerns from some members of the public towards letting an interviewer into their home.

We may also yet see impacts from flu season, both due to illness amongst participants and interviewers, or as a further influence over attitudes. And there are practical implications of the colder weather, such as less ability to open windows to ventilate homes. Add in the changeable weather and dark evenings, and it makes for a tricky interviewing landscape.

But our interviewers, staff, and clients have demonstrated their resilience since the pandemic started. It is also still the case that many people want to take part in this type of research, to have their say, share their experiences and play their part in shaping public policy. Our Covid-19 protocols mean we can safely and confidently continue to conduct in-home and in-person research, giving them that opportunity.

There are circumstances where research conducted by an interviewer, with the face-to-face interaction, is vital. In-person and in-home research, either alone or as part of a seamless mixed-method design, continues to play an incredibly powerful role in helping us understand people and shape public policy.

Ben Collins is head of business excellence and Michelle Lewis is head of data and operations at Kantar Public UK.