By Celina McEwen, Alison Pullen and Carl Rhodes
For many academics, working from home has long been a regular part of their lives. Being away from the bustle of the university office environment and the classroom has been a welcome retreat to get research work done. One might easily think that, given this experience, the new demands for working from home imposed by our government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be an easy transition. Not so.
While the opportunity to work from home when convenient is a great form of flexibility, being required to do all of one’s work from home takes all flexibility away. This is inestimably worse for those academics on precarious employment contracts, and for those who are feeling the full brunt of the intersectional power structures at play in our society.
Working from home, under the current arrangements, means that an environment suitable for some forms of academic labour is now the place where almost all academic labour must take place. This includes, of course, research fieldwork.
Our ARC funded project, Leadership Diversity through Relational Intersectionality in Australia, is an example for what the ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ measures mean for doing research. The researchers are developing qualitative case studies, which involves us working with three different organizations to investigate how the relationships between staff are affected by different forms of workplace diversity.
Given that all of our case organizations are affected by the lockdown and our main methods are observation and interviews, we have needed to rethink our data collection, and our interactions with organizations and key individuals. The need to maintain physical distance has raised many issues. One issue is since both participants and researchers are working from home, there is certainly no in situ workplace observation to do.
Another issue is the tension this situation has created with our sense of responsibility towards participants; we have become mindful of the need to sustain good working relationships with our research sites and their members, a commitment made to each organization as we negotiated access. This is especially visible to us because our project is based on the centrality of embodied human interaction to the meaning and experience of work.
When the new work measures came in, we were in the middle of collecting data at one of our case organizations. This organization, and all of the staff, like us, were asked to work from home. We were committed to continuing our fieldwork and participants indicated a willingness to purpose with the interviews. Initially, we felt we could continue the interviews by simply using technologies like Zoom and Skype. After all, we had already conducted some video interviews when participants were not available to meet in person, because they were working flexibly from home or in other work locations impractical for us to meet.
What we soon realised, though, was that lockdown video interviews were quite different from the ones we had done before. Suddenly, we felt that we were in people’s homes, just as they were in ours. A good interview always has a level of intimacy and vulnerability to it – for the researchers and the participants – but this was different. An invisible line felt crossed.
When people agree to participate in research they are not just sources of data. They are people who give generously of their time to an endeavour which give little immediate or direct benefit in return. Accepting this generosity demands a level of humility and gratitude, and even acknowledging the changed conditions and expressing our concern for their wellbeing felt like we were being opportunistic. It felt like taking them for granted, which during these difficult times was an arrogance that we could not countenance.
The last thing we wanted to do was add layers of extra activities for people who were already dealing with the competing demands of increased workloads to respond to the crisis and non-work demands, from child-care, elder care and/or home-schooling. We could not predict or adequately address the very different ways in which people have been affected.
How could we respond to people living in home situations that are dangerous, for example where domestic violence becomes a reality from which there is no escape? Were we really in a position to take responsibilities for interviews with people struggling with exacerbated mental health issues? How could we willingly participate in the intensification of and added pressure to people’s lives?
Taking our responsibilities to the people who give their time to our research seriously, it didn’t take us long to decide that the best response was to pause our fieldwork. We are not advocating that this should be the case for all research fieldwork. For example, there are researchers whose human-centred fieldwork needs to be undertaken to better understand how we cope or not with rapid changes and crises.
Whatever the situation, we are convinced that there can be no business-as-usual response to research fieldwork during this pandemic. Instead, it is time to rethink what we do and carefully consider what it means to accept the generosity of others.