Out in the cold

Editor's note: Florian Groth is a senior research consultant for consumer research, and Rieke Burfeind is a research executive for health care research, at Point Blank Research and Consultancy. They can be reached at florian.groth@point-blank.net and rieke.burfeind@point-blank.net.

As young qualitative researchers who embarked on our career paths during or in the aftermath of the COVID-19 era, we’re acutely aware of the pandemic’s lingering shadow on our professional lives. We are part of Generation COVID. The retreat of COVID-19 globally might prompt some to believe we’ve moved past its implications but the reality we live and work in suggests otherwise. Our everyday research practices still bear the marks of COVID-19’s upheaval, so we thought other young researchers around the world must be feeling the same.

Digital research methodologies have largely taken precedence over traditional face-to-face interactions since the advent of the pandemic. Clients have learned that online research works – perhaps not as methodologically effectively as face-to-face research but good enough for the right questions and, above all, with the benefits of saving time and money. 

Of course, face-to-face studies haven’t vanished entirely, with the occasional project or even some thrilling international ethnographic work cropping up. Yet young researchers we have spoken to observe a trend: such opportunities are scarce for our generation and a full spectrum of qualitative research techniques remains out of our reach. Why is this? Because the few studies that are complex, expensive and, let’s face it, exciting, tend to be assigned to senior researchers.

To explore these issues and other ongoing impacts of the pandemic on contemporary work life, we connected with 14 of our peers from across the globe through a series of one-hour digital interviews. These market research agency professionals were between 20 and 35 and had entered the industry during or shortly after the pandemic, mainly within the last three years.

Early in our interview process, we encountered two glaring truths of Generation COVID. First, regardless of the country or the local work culture, be it the 10-hour office days typical in Asia or the American preference for eight-hour remote workdays, young researchers from all over the world face similar problems. Second, the situation is more concerning than we initially anticipated. 

We started the interviews with the hypothesis that the pandemic might have ushered in a mix of both positive transformations and challenges to the field of market research. What we heard: The problems are big, they are constant and they are urgent. Among our interviewees, over half expressed dissatisfaction with their day-to-day work, three were contemplating resigning from their current positions and two were considering exiting the market research field entirely.

One researcher’s reflection was particularly telling:

“When I started my job in qualitative research, I was given the choice: office or home office. I opted for 100% remote. Today, one year later, I know it was the wrong decision. I’m now quitting my job and I don’t want to work in qual research ever again.”

Unwelcoming conditions

Many members of Generation COVID are opting for the seeming comfort of working from home – a supposedly easier path which has actually led them into a trap. Out of the 14 young researchers we spoke to, most were taking the call in their home office. And by “home office” we don’t mean a big, light-flooded workroom but rather a crammed studio apartment with a kitchen, bedroom and workplace all in one. In theory, these young professionals could go back to their corporate offices but many choose not to due to the unwelcoming conditions they’re met with. Our interviews revealed that many know their colleagues just as faces on Zoom, a situation that fosters social barriers that are tough to break, especially for newer team members post-COVID-19. 

While working from home means they forgo lengthy commutes and awkward social interactions with unfamiliar colleagues, a kind of vicious circle develops: The more Generation COVID stays away from the office, the more they miss out on learning from other researchers, having informal chats and forming social connections.

These factors don’t affect senior marketing researchers, who have enough methodological skills and internal networks from years of in-office work to compensate for working alone. They also don’t have a sense of the problems Generation COVID is facing because they can’t relate.

Generation COVID encounters poor structures for informal communication. They do not have the internal company network to ask for help, to address and solve problems. One interviewee of ours encapsulated this sentiment: 

“Working remotely, everyone is selfish. Everyone only looks at getting their own work done.” 

The effects of this hit new team members the hardest.

A two-class system

The issues don’t stop there, they pervade the entire research process, starting with project planning. Our interviews highlighted a two-class system emerging from project planning in which our participants report predominantly getting online projects – managing pre-tasks, conducting online interviews and so forth – while the interesting face-to-face projects (scarce after COVID-19) are typically allocated to the veterans:

“When there are cool international projects, they are given to the directors. I actually went into qualitative research because I wanted to travel a lot but I’ve never had the opportunity.”

Working from home aggravates this problem: Those who are physically present tend to be in the right place at the right time for exciting projects. In contrast, those who work remotely are sometimes overlooked, even for planning meetings:

“Sometimes they forgot to invite me to the planning meetings. I then was told afterwards what online community I was supposed moderate.”

You could argue that it’s just the normal way of things: Young researchers have fewer years of experience – and thus fewer opportunities – than their older colleagues. But our 14 interview partners don’t even see the possibility of getting to the same level as their older colleagues because they are completely denied access to some methods.

They become online research experts but fear they’re missing out on broader skill development. This causes boredom, frustration and anxiety over career progression, leaving them feeling like pretenders within their own profession:

“I became a senior a few months ago but I have never moderated f2f...I feel like an imposter.”

Fallen out of sync

A recurring theme in our conversations revealed that our industry has fallen out of sync post-pandemic. Only a select group of young professionals expressed excitement about heading to the office for collaborative analysis sessions. These researchers cherish the in-person brainstorming, the tangible energy of working with real sticky notes and having a clear understanding of the expectations for their reports. However, for the majority, the experience is starkly different.

The common reality is that Generation COVID is working asynchronously from their more senior coworkers. The newbies are given an analysis assignment, which they draft at home. Their senior colleagues then add their thoughts and the newcomers navigate the subsequent analysis phases in isolation. The casual yet insightful discussions at the hotel bar in the evenings after face-to-face field days that once used to be the starting point of joint analysis, helping structure and verbalize reports, are now remnants of the past. Consequently, the COVID generation usually has no real sense of what a good report should look like and, above all, they often don’t dare to ask for help. The hurdle of calling colleagues virtually to get answers to questions that they can’t even formulate themselves is too great.

Always on, never off

Generation COVID is also witnessing a blurring of work-life boundaries. There’s an absence of informal dialogue – uncertainties about when others sign off for the day, what defines a well-completed report or if deadlines are flexible. Without enough experience or a supportive professional network, they struggle to navigate these nuances, leading to overwork:

“Working 100% from home means you have no physical, no psychological break. Sometimes I sit in front of my laptop until 10 o’clock, basically exploiting myself. You can feel the walls in your head, not just in your house.”

What now?

We’ve laid out the struggles faced by Generation COVID, underlining a palpable sense of dissatisfaction. It’s time to pivot our focus to what the whole qualitative market research sector can do to rectify these issues – not merely for comfort but for the urgent preservation of our industry’s future.

As mentioned before, a few of our study participants do commute to the office, benefiting from the interactions with colleagues but sacrificing some flexibility in return. Others see no appeal to commuting, preferring to retain the flexibility of remote work, even if working from home keeps them unfamiliar with their colleagues and leads to missing out on potential opportunities. It’s a trade-off. Yet, the solution isn’t in forcing Generation COVID to give up flexibility, as is often attempted by imposing fixed office days on employees. It is much more about creating structures that allow both interaction and flexibility.

Incentives instead of imperatives

Our interview partners gave us examples of structures that allow more flexibility and in-person interaction. Some ideas centered around compensating commuting and considering the time spent doing it as part of working hours. Interviewees said they were much more likely to make the journey to the office if their commuting time was counted as working time and they were given options such as company-paid taxi rides to the office twice a week. Such measures can draw Generation COVID back into the fold, fostering essential interpersonal learning and exchanges with their more experienced co-workers.

However, the mere presence of the younger generation in the office isn’t a fix for all the problems we as an industry are facing. There needs to be an office infrastructure that encourages meaningful learning and constructive interactions. The benefits of working together on-site should already be conveyed during onboarding: 

“My onboarding was f2f: you get immediate feedback, you can ask questions. People can show you things you didn’t know existed, such as shortcuts on the keyboard.”

Shared office work also makes it much easier to impart tacit knowledge and hidden norms, things that Generation COVID doesn’t realize when working from home: 

“I’ve learned the hard way that I have to keep evidence of my extra hours. Colleagues gave me the tip to screenshot them, I’ve overheard this during lunchbreak.”

We need structures to reconnect with our co-workers. Connections won’t spontaneously regenerate just because COVID-19 restrictions are lifted – we all have to work on them. Together.

Crisis DNA

Initially, we questioned whether the market research world would revert to its pre-pandemic state and if the younger generation would be the catalyst of change. The reality is, members of Generation COVID are currently not allowed to reshape the market research world. Its members are being relegated to online work. And some of them are leaving the industry. To prevent this from happening, it really comes down to two ultimate reshaping strategies: 

We need to enable them. Don’t be a senior stay-at-home. It’s not enough to meet once a year at the holiday party. The sense of community, the bonding, the learning happens during work. Sharing moments means sharing face-to-face moments. This is what you remember. Nobody remembers Zoom meetings. And the young generation needs to see the older generations face-to-face in order to learn from them.

We need to let them. Leverage the potential of Generation COVID! This generation is the one with the crisis DNA. They have learned to constantly adapt to new challenges and situations. They are the perfect researchers because they are curious and always able to get involved in emerging topics and technologies. By tapping into their potential, we can facilitate their growth and, in turn, (re)invigorate our industry!