NMR Chats Post-COVID Field Work with Eugene McGowan

We met with Research Analyst Eugene McGowan to talk about the nature of field work at NMR since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how things have evolved over the past four years.

How did field work change immediately in the early stages of the pandemic? What problems and/or opportunities arose?

As you might imagine, all field work stopped early on in the pandemic, including projects in the planning stage that had to be put on hold, but we were able to adjust methodology to replace field work with other forms of data collection. One example involved a commercial lighting study where we were replaced site visits with phone “revisit” interviews, calling back site contacts to ask whether there had been any upgrades since the previous visit. In cases where there were large changes, we also utilized a virtual audit software for the contact to show us around to document the new lighting.

What types of protocol developed over the next few years? How did this affect participation, the work, and the results?

After vaccines rolled out in 2021, and in agreement with our clients, we decided it was safe to return to field work. Before even getting into the logistics of conducting this work safely, we had to gauge our field staff’s comfort level on the potential health risks while also explaining the precautions we would be taking. We administered a few rounds of anonymous surveys to find out how staff felt, and luckily we had enough willing to go back into the field. We added additional on-site protocols to limit the possibility of infection, and the assurance that we were taking these measures was added to all recruiting materials. Specifically, we required our technicians to be vaccinated, to wear face masks at all visits, to report any symptoms and test for COVID-19, and to clean equipment after each visit.

On the recruiting side, we made reminder calls the day before to confirm not only the visit but also that the homeowners had not tested positive or experienced any symptoms recently. We also assured them that, in the event our technicians tested positive for COVID-19, we would conduct all necessary contact tracing and let them know so they could test themselves.

Perhaps because of this extra communication and our protocols, recruitment actually went quite well and we hit our target of complete visits – with no incidences of COVID-19. We continued to implement similar protocols for field work through 2022, then lifted the requirement for technicians to wear masks in the field in 2023. Visits began to look a lot more like they did pre-pandemic, and participation has remained strong.

What have been the challenges and successes of post-pandemic field work? Are there any welcome indicators for the future?

After the scramble and stress of figuring out how to conduct field work safely during the pandemic, things largely went back to normal. One notable change was many more people working from home, which has made scheduling a lot easier. Most of what we do on-site can be done pretty independently, and as long as someone is home we can conduct a visit with minimal interruption.

Another welcome change is a move towards virtual audit tools. We have internally developed a self-audit survey in which homeowners submit photos of the equipment in their home in exchange for incentives. This tool lets us collect meaningful data without travelling into the field. We have also begun video conferencing with homeowners. These tools also reduce travel time and expenses for food and lodging. However, they are typically limited to basic appliances and HVAC equipment that a homeowner or business owner can easily understand and access. There are plenty of other data points that we often need to collect that require a trained technician, so field work is by no means going away. We have every confidence that we will continue to execute that work at a high level in a post-COVID-19 environment.