Qualitative research with residents during a pandemic

Soon after lockdown began, we started thinking about how best to find out about the needs and experiences of our residents through the pandemic.

If we wanted to talk to residents pre-Covid, this could have involved stuffing people into a windowless room for a focus group with the promise of free coffee and biscuits, engaging with people in public spaces, or spending an afternoon chatting at close quarters in someone’s living room.

Clearly, none of these things were an option while we were all stuck at home, so we pondered how best to undertake qualitative research with residents.

Surveys and opinion polls are all well and good, but if everything had to be done virtually, could we still build that rapport with participants that is so important for in-depth interviews? Get them to open up and share their personal experiences with us? Would it be the same without being able to observe their body language?

We’d done phone interviews for previous projects, but had usually seen this as a bit of a second-rate option. How would it fare for gathering really rich, qualitative insight into people’s lives?

In order to track changes in attitudes and experiences throughout lockdown, we settled on doing a series of video/phone interviews over several months. This was with 15 participants from across Essex, representing a range of different household types.

And guess what?...

It turns out when people have been confined to their homes with nobody to talk to but their families, they’re generally pretty happy to tell a complete stranger all about their lives!

We used a combination of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and old fashioned no-video phone calls (remember those?), and we really got to know the people we spoke to.

While we weren’t able to meet and observe participants in their homes, we were still able to connect with people, understand their situations, and capture those little details from their tone of voice. For the purposes of the research, phone/video interviews were an ideal way to talk to residents and ‘check in’ at regular intervals.

We carried out 4 interviews with each participant in total between April to September. We were able to flex our schedule where needed to fit around the latest government announcements, which worked well in enabling us to observe the impact on our participants in a timely way.

The mathematically minded among you may have worked out that is in fact a whopping 60 interviews in total – a heck of a lot of data!

We’ve talked before about how our team has adapted to working from home, and this was no different. As a small project team we collaborated virtually on all elements – developing the recruitment screener, research materials, and the analysis stage.

It’s fair to say we went on a bit of a learning curve in terms of how best to analyse the interviews while making the best use of our time, and working out ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to reporting. We’d never done longitudinal research before, so that on top of the move to doing everything remotely gave us whole new challenges to navigate.

But what we’ve ended up with are a series of short and snappy reports around key themes from the research, covering people’s response to lockdown, health and wellbeing, neighbourliness and volunteering, employment experiences, and children/education. They are full of quotes to bring our participant’s experiences to life, as well as photos and a number of case studies. Take a look at our summary report.

The reports are being shared with a range of ECC’s Covid-19 recovery groups, and will contribute in particular to the economic growth recovery programme. We plan to keep sharing this research more widely, so that others can benefit and learn from it.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the research or would like copies of our other reports, we’d love to hear from you at

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