Checking-in during “field” work

It is not easy to transition from ‘researcher doing-the-data-collection‘ to supervisor of this sort of work, sending someone else to do the work. Especially, when that is part of the reasons you got into the business in the first place–perhaps especially for qual researchers (?).
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Even though I check-in by phone at least once a week and text/slack often with my direct reports, it still feels insufficient. Those interactions only focus on one or two urgent topics. Phone calls can also be hampered by poor connections, background noise, and other distractions. Meanwhile, the weekly written updates I receive often focus too squarely on just-the-numbers, showing me what activities and outputs happened. I get tables of households or schools reached for first interviews or spot-checks relative to our goals. Important–but I want more!
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Reporting of only activities and outputs achieved 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,’ with implications, inter alia, for later analysis and sense-making.
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Structured written notes from my direct reports also means they get limited practice / professional development in writing field notes. My background in anthropology deems this imperative for proper social science. (I should note that while I have tried making a good practice of doing field notes myself, many bosses never seemed interested in reading them. This was always a bummer. However, my parents have been avid readers.)
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Finally, vocal check-ins can make it difficult for my direct reports to provide tough upward feedback. Feedback that can improve how I support them and the project.
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For all these reasons, I am going to trial a system of more (semi-)structured written feedback during data collection. Note that this does not replace our informal chats and texts, nor our weekly non-project check-ins. However, I hope that it:
(a) Makes my direct reports to create time/space to reflect on the data collection week and
(b) Lessens with feelings of loneliness and under-appreciation while in ‘the field.’
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Through a lot of internal crowd-sourcing from IDinsight folks, I have created a new system (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!). The ‘system’ is a spreadsheet with questions/topics for my direct report to reflect on, a weekly column for them to fill in and a column for my responses. For now, I have budgeted 30 minutes to review and respond to this weekly. I hope the sheet will keep things organized and make it easier to spot trends in the field team’s ‘mood’.
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I will provide an update on this but in the meantime, I welcome thoughts from everyone.
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One idea from my colleagues that I have not decided to take up yet, was a daily written update focused on three key reflective questions. This was to be answered at the close of the day. Hopefully it wouldn’t add too much time and effort to what is already usually long and tiring day. The key reflective questions were:
1. What did I do today?
2. What do I plan to do tomorrow?
3. What am I concerned about /what challenge am I confronting?
For now, I am focusing on the weekly written update. It is longer and will hopefully provide an opportunity for sharing a holistic picture of the field experience. This is still a beta list, so we’ll see how it goes. I am encouraged by the early, enthusiastic crowdsourcing from IDinsight’s leadership and associates.
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Bearing the beta-ness in mind, please find the inaugural questions below. Please share any questions you have found powerful for creating good fieldwork and happy colleagues. Of course, in some weeks, the answers to these questions may be “N/A.” The benefit for keeping them is, to show that I care. 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 of you 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 saw 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 this week (that you saw or heard from the field team)?
8. What is your favorite photo you or a member of the 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 saw 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 saw or heard from the field team)? (If scary, does any action need to be taken?)
11. 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 [we, 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!

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  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.

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    • 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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