Forming, Leading and Inspiring High-Quality Remote Teams
The pandemic has normalized remote work for several sectors and industries, even the skeptical ones. But this is still unchartered territory for many others, like field research.
While the novel coronavirus is the greatest threat to public health right now, people in many parts of the world are still dying from other preventable diseases. Malaria presents a big public health problem in the African nation of Cameroon as one of the 15 highest burden malaria countries worldwide.
Large national campaigns to improve testing and treatment rates have had success across much of the country, but they have not had as much impact in northern and far northern areas. Rates of infection remain quite high in these areas with young children particularly at risk. As part of Breakthrough Action, one of the world’s largest social and behavior change program by USAID, ThinkPlace USA explored opportunities for improving testing and treatment rates for children under 5 in these areas.
The hard-to-reach locations of these communities meant that the TP team had to take on an innovative approach: a fully remote research process led by ThinkPlace Senegal and conducted by a team of local field researchers.
With the layered challenges of remote research, unfamiliar processes, diverse levels of team experience, and a wicked problem to investigate, there was pressure across everyone in the team.
Embracing Learning Culture
Fortunately, there were two lead field researchers that were able to provide crucial on-the-ground leadership. Yannick, the National Coordinator for the Breakthrough Action, and a talented facilitator, took on one of the locations. Jean-Louis, a specialist HCD (Human Centred Design) consultant, took on the other. Both men brought tremendous experience and passion for the HCD process and were able to actively support the local research teams.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere amongst the team at the project’s onset was one of nerve-wracking uncertainty. Everyone felt uncomfortable and out of their depth in some capacity – for the ThinkPlace team, leading research remotely was new; and for many of the field researchers, the design process was new. Everyone felt they were stepping into uncharted territory.
Lise and Oumar from ThinkPlace realized that for the project and the team to thrive, they would need to accept the uncertainty and embrace the discomfort as an important part of the learning process. They worked with the team to change the culture to one of open dialogue, encouraging teams to honestly share how they were feeling. Daily check-ins in the first weeks of the project were reframed to be focused on checking in on everyone in the team and how they were doing in the field, rather than on the research itself.
The effect was overwhelmingly positive. The field researchers began sharing tips and proactively collaborating on difficult tasks. By normalizing the uncertainty every team member was facing, the team were able to build their own confidence levels and feel empowered to tackle new challenges.
Sharing Knowledge and Experiences
The goal was to avoid putting pressure on the in-field team to deliver high quality data from the outset of a research process. Lise understood this and lowered the team's expectations on data collection to focus instead on collaboration, as this would mean the data would get richer and richer.
In the initial week of training, the researchers out in the field continued to prioritize growth and learning. Yannick and Jean-Louis worked with the field researchers to build their confidence in conducting interviews and focus groups; shadowing them in engagements and providing supportive feedback on their work. Going forward, the team set aside an hour of every synthesis workshop to discuss challenges the team had found in the field and sharing learnings tips to resolve them.
By the second week the team was noticing the impacts this was having. In daily debriefs, the field researchers were beginning to suggest new contacts to talk to, new leads to follow, and other ways to get more deeply into the research.
At this point, ThinkPlace team realized that their role was really to be research advisors, not research leads. The researchers were building unique understandings of the field and taking ownership of the process. Soon the ThinkPlace team was able to step back and dedicate their efforts towards filtering and analyzing the data coming in. Where, at the beginning of the project, only around 40% of synthesis workshops were dedicated to data, by the end it was up around 80%.
Being patient at the start of the project was paying off with high quality data and teams that were passionate about what they were doing.
Pay attention to your team’s mood and dynamic. It has a real effect on the project results and its sustainability. In HCD, you are designing for people – but you are also designing with people.
Lower expectations. Do not act like you are in the field if you are not. Be patient with your team and your data.
See yourself as an advisor, not a lead. Yes, you are conducting research, but if you are remote from the process, your goal should be to share knowledge and experiences so the local team can lead the research themselves.
Lise and Oumar reflect proudly on the project, the team, and their approach. When the field researchers shared their future aspirations in a final workshop, it was a moment that drove home the impact of prioritizing the team. They spoke earnestly about being inspired to go back to study, to reorient their careers, to learn more about HCD, and even to be more tolerant.