Checking-in during “field” work

It is definitely not an easy transition to go from being the researcher in-the-‘field‘ to sending someone else off to do the work that often got you into the business in the first place (and that someone else may, in turn, be relying on field managers and other similar folks to do much of the data collection and logistics).


Even though i check-in by phone at least once a week during field work and text/slack plenty with my direct reports, i often feel that these calls only focus on one or two urgent topics. Plus, phone calls can be frustrated and curtailed by poor connections, background noise, and other general distractions. Meanwhile, the weekly written updates i receive focus too squarely on just-the-numbers for my liking — tables of households or schools reached for first interviews or spot-checks relative to our goals.


This means i often miss some of the really important stuff (whether important to me, to my direct report, or both). i also fail to get a flavor of ‘the field,’ which i miss.


Curtailed written notes from my direct reports also mean that they are getting limited practice / professional development in writing field notes — which my background in anthropology deems imperative to doing good and reflective social science. (i should note that while i have tried to make a good practice of doing field notes myself, many (but not all) bosses and advisors never actually seemed interested in reading them, which was always a bummer. On the other hand, my parents were avid readers.)


Finally, by-voice check-ins can put my direct reports slightly on-the-spot if they need to provide me some tough upward feedback in terms of improving how i am supporting them and the project.


For all these reasons, i am going to trial a system of slightly more (semi-)structured written feedback during fieldwork times. Note that this does not replace our informal chats and texts, nor our weekly non-project check-ins (stay tuned for another post on that!). However, i am hoping that it (a) forces my direct reports to create time/space to reflect on the field week and (b) can aid with feelings of loneliness and under-appreciation while in the field.


Though a lot of internal crowd-sourcing from IDinsight folks (one of the great things about working at IDinsight is how seriously we take good management, our values, and our mission — so people are brimming with good ideas!), i have come up with a nascent system. The ‘system’ consists of an excel sheet with rows of questions/topics on which i hope my direct report will reflect — and then a weekly column for the direct report to fill in his/her responses and a partner column for my responses. For now, i have budgeted in my calendar 30 minutes to review and respond weekly. i hope the excel sheet will help keep things organized as well as make it easier to spot trends in the ‘mood’ in the field.


i will update on how it turns out but i also welcome thoughts and insights from folks in the meantime.


One idea from my colleagues that i have not, for the moment, decided to take up consisted of a daily written update focused on three key reflective questions to be answered at the close of the day, hopefully not adding too much time and effort to what are already usually long and tiring days:

  1. What i did today 
  2. What i plan to do tomorrow 
  3. Something i am concerned about / a challenge i am confronting


For now, i am going to try to focus on the weekly written update, which is a bit longer and will hopefully provide an outlet for sharing a more holistic picture of the field experience. This is still very much a beta list, so we’ll see how it goes — but i am encouraged by early and enthusiastic crowdsourcing not just from leadership at IDinsight but from Associates as well.


Bearing the beta-ness in mind, below please find the inaugural questions (in addition to the basic ones about survey and data quality progress) — and please make use of the comments section to suggest additional questions you have found powerful in making for good fieldwork and happy colleagues! Of course, it may be that in some weeks, the answers to these questions are simply “N/A,” but the benefit to keeping them in is, hopefully, to communicate that i am always open to hearing if something went wrong or was scary or troubling in the field.

  1. How is team morale (provide at least one piece of evidence to support that claim)?
  2. How is your morale and energy? Roughly how many hours did you work last week and how do you feel about that? What is one non-project/work thing you were able to do this week?
  3. Provide a brief update on your own and your field manager’s professional development — what is something new learned on-the-job this week and/or a gap in (tech or soft) skills that we should address? 
  4. What is one thing the field managers did exceptionally well this week? Did either face any specific challenges?
  5. Across the whole field team (from enumerators on up), what is one example of an organizational value-in-action that you have seen or heard about? 
  6. What is the most inspiring thing that happened this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team) that relates to our mission of driving action and social impact?
  7. What was the funniest thing that happened in the field this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? 
  8. What is your favorite photo you or a member of the field team took this week? Please share and explain why it was your favorite. 
  9. What was the most interesting thing that happened in the field this week (that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? 
  10. What was the most disappointing and/or scariest thing that happened in the field this week that you witnessed or heard from the field team)? (If scary, does any action need to be taken?)
  11. Overall, how was respondent and gatekeeper/stakeholder morale this week? (h/t @urmy_shukla for this idea!)
  12. What is one mistake or misstep that happened in the field this week? What changes will you make to help guard against it happening again?
  13. What is one change, if any, the field team will make before starting work next week?
  14. Any budget surprises this week?
  15. Any implementer interactions or observations about which we should be aware? How is the morale of the implementation team?
  16. Are there any things that [us supervisors] need to do or prioritize in the coming week to support field work?

4 thoughts on “Checking-in during “field” work

  1. sallyanne says:

    well if I were in the field,I would not want to have to fill in sooo many questions etc about funny stories and photos and feelings. But then again, I am not sure what you are researching. My experience is that few ever read these reports. But then again, I like questions and meetings that accomplish things. otherwise,i feel a waste of time. I like to get to the problem and tackle it and then move on. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true… but when people are out in the field on their own, i think it is good to know that your higher-ups are interested in the positive things, not just what is going wrong!


  2. John Q says:

    Great post! The weekly list strikes me as too long, but I understand that you’re brainstorming. I’d prioritise #15 and #1-2. Maybe the others can be shuffled week to week? Another tradeoff to consider: the value to the field manager of talking to a PI on the phone vs via email. The psychological benefits can be significant.


    • Yes, but 2 things. 1. I’m trying to partially build a habit of taking field notes as well as reflection. 2. We also talk regularly but these end up being quite in-the-weeds of why such & such school refused us entry, etc. Also, if connection is bad, I feel like calls can end up more demoralizing (also, some language barriers). I further have a working hypothesis that burnout may be more easily communicated in writing. I can share my weekly non-project check-in list as well, if helpful. The present set of questions are strictly for in-the-field time!


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