Tips for remote working and interviewing

Before Covid, we had been remote-working here for over over a decade.  Jane and I are in different Sydney suburbs. Our virtual administrative assistant at the time Heather was based on the NSW North Coast. Suzanne has been living part-time on the NSW South Coast for a few years now. We have used Zoom, Skype, Adobe Connect, Redback Conferencing - and that old technology the mobile phone.  We have not only worked together this way - as an agency, we have conducted probably about a thousand interviews remotely - and several remote presentations as well for international clients.  Lots of experience and our knowledge of semiotics, discourse analysis and sensemaking has given us some useful insights:

Here are the three main things we have learned about remote working and interviewing

1.The more you share the better it works

In-person meetings and group discussions are full of silent semiotic cues that tell people where to sit, when to speak and who to speak to. In an in-person meeting, the most senior person typically sits where they always sit. In a focus groups, the moderator has a designated spot at the table. He or she uses body language to take and maintain control. Participants can tell when the moderator or chairperson  wants to move to the next topic, or is getting a bit impatient with a long answer, or frustrated with a short answer. Meetings also have a shared template of behaviour that people have learnt to follow.

Remote meetings and group discussions lack these usual semiotic cues  so that when working remotely, we all seem equal. Therefore the meeting chair or moderator must assert their authority in other ways. For group discussions, one way to do this is to share the topic guide beforehand as you would a meeting agenda. This might seem counter intuitive, but if everyone in the 'room' knows that the Introductions are supposed to take 5 minutes (say), then everyone knows to modify their behaviour accordingly. When they are remote from you, they have no idea what is expected. They try to make sense of it, and often fail. The more the moderator or chair shares what is expected, the better.

These semiotic cues also include body language and facial expression which the in-person chair or moderator uses to control the flow of conversation. The conversational 'moves' (as they are known in discourse analysis) follow a familiar script.  In contrast, the remote moderator or chair needs to to create new rules for these conversational moves by setting some rules: who speaks when? Is it speak when spoken to? Interrupt when you feel like it? Make your rules clear.

2. Give up some of your power

Have you been in webcam meetings where the two of you just look at each other's face? Those meetings fall into a 'Question - Answer' format - 'I talk, she responds'.  This format does not encourage brainstorming or generating wild ideas because the power in the interaction rests with the person who asked for the meeting or interview.  That's fine for some meetings, but in qualitative research we want the person we are speaking to to feel empowered. So, in face-to-face one-on-one interviews conducted in venues we can create a space that makes the interviewer and interviewee appear equal. If we are in someone's home, we might both sit on lounge chairs. At a table, there might be a plate of biscuits to share.  In a remote meeting or interview, you have the most power because you know what it is all about. There are no biscuits to share. The result is that the person with less power will tend to be passive, to just answer your questions. For depth of insight, we need to make the interview interactive, we need to give up some of that power. How about creating an image to share on your screen of two lounge chairs facing each other with each other's name on to look at instead of each other's face? How about introducing the topic "We are here to talk about your use of social media'  and then say 'what do you want to tell me about that?  What do you want to make sure I understand about this?'.

3. Housekeeping rules

All face to face meetings and discussions have housekeeping rules. So should remote ones:

  • Written instructions: explain how it all works before hand, especially if you are using some of the remote 'tools'

  • Explain again when the meeting starts. Also say 'please do not multi-task or look at other devices'.

  • Establishing the etiquette  - such as raising a virtual hand before speaking, muting yourself while you listen.

  • In your introduction, say where you are and what the weather is like

  • Make sure everyone's voice is heard before the proper discussion starts. Start with brief personal introductions - bring something to talk about briefly

  • Don't forget the 'no right or wrong ...'

  • In your written instructions, suggest that they get themselves a coffee, tea etc.  Show them yours when the session starts.

  • If you are going to have a break after an hour (a good idea!), then tell them that at the beginning.

  • Make it clear that it doesn't matter what kind of room or setting they are in, and if house-members suddenly intrude that's OK too.

 There's so much we can do online. Enjoy!

Tags: Qualitative Research , online qualitative, Moderating