OPINION19 April 2021

Reflexivity is key to our industry building back better

Covid-19 Opinion UK

The research sector is at a pivotal moment to take the steps needed not only to survive, but to thrive, says Carol McNaughton Nicholls.

As an industry, we have survived. The value of what we do has shone through. We are privileged to be in the business of understanding human behaviour, attitudes, drivers – representing the social landscape and the implications this has for future planning and change.

Now, as we tentatively emerge after a period of lockdown far longer than any of us could have imagined, it is also a time for us to continue to reflect, as an industry, back onto ourselves.

Sociological concepts can help to make sense of the social world around us. Reflexivity is one such concept – the act of reflecting on ourselves, intentionally, and by doing so influencing what comes next. Reflexivity creates a bi-directional relationship whereby we are both influenced by external forces, and also influence how they are shaped and responded to via our own agency. Reflexivity is a fertile concept for our industry.

Being reflexive, we don’t just provide our clients with insights and implications – we take these on board ourselves, always asking: ‘What does what we hear and learn mean for us, as an industry?’ We can influence what happens next, as well as being influenced by it. We need to be intentional in the type of industry we want to be as we look to the future.

Progress has been made in the past 12 months, for example, the MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council, and the ongoing conversation about wellbeing in research. It was promising to see that the 2020 report on mental wellbeing showed some positive developments, in part due to home working.

However, home working and the stress of the pandemic has led to challenges, too. The World Health Organisation has identified pandemic fatigue as “an expected and natural response to a prolonged public health crisis, not least because of the severity and scale” which has had “unprecedented impact on the daily lives of everyone” and online searches for burnout symptoms increased by 24 in 2020.

There are specific tensions to address when we consider, for example, qualitative research practitioners (of which I would count myself).

Qualitative researchers love to get out in the field; meeting, observing, talking to people, seeing their environment. It is a wonderful part of the process. Many particularly love the opportunity to do so across the globe, and as a way to develop strong and meaningful connections with clients who also attend. But we have found that we can do great qualitative work online, without leaving our home.

This current status quo is likely to change – as the world opens up, certain types of behaviours and interactions will still benefit, methodologically, from being discussed and observed in person. But the travel of old is unlikely to ever return. It isn’t great for the environment or for efficiency – there will have to be a strong case for face-to-face research to be the ideal option. But then what of the joy of face-to-face research, the relationships made, the mentoring of new staff? If we lose this, will we lose some of the appeal of research as a career? Or will it open it up to more and different researchers if less travel is required?

There is also the ‘agency paradigm’ to consider – deadlines, evening fieldwork, delighting clients – it is exciting, it is what we do, and it is driven by the way agencies work and also what clients want and need. But research on changing consumer attitudes during the pandemic, including our own, has found people are reassessing what matters to them – and work-life balance is a strong consideration. So, it is likely that this will become a higher priority for new (and established) talent in our industry, too.

Will these two factors mean a genuine paradigm shift? If they do, will it hopefully and genuinely support a more inclusive and diverse workforce and better ways of working, or create new tensions or challenges?

As a reflexive and informed industry, we have a unique opportunity at this point in time to think about the type of working practices that we should and do have. It matters because there are individuals, groups and life stages that certain practices may inadvertently exclude, and as an industry, we may not be able to attract and retain the workforce we need if we don’t look at this.  

BritainThinks is certainly not alone in looking at these issues – we have become employee-owned and implemented policies such one extra paid day off for each 19 days worked – but change cannot and should not be down to individual agencies, or brands, and their practices alone.  

To be effective, we must be reflective on ourselves as an industry and have shared goals, reconciling what we are now with what we can be – more diverse, more flexible, more open, and committed to our own sustainability agenda. Change in this area will come from a systems approach – insight buyers, industry leaders, agency management, recruiters. Everyone has a role and only then can paradigms shift.

We are uniquely positioned and privileged to make our living understanding people and society. The road ahead is just beginning, so let’s take this opportunity to build the industry we want for the people we are. I certainly don’t have the answers but feel it is an important conversation to have. We have survived – now what do we do to thrive?

Carol McNaughton Nicholls is associate partner at BritainThinks