2020 in Hindsight: Recruiting in the Time of Coronavirus

It was a strange time during one of our last in-person focus groups held in our facility back in March. Everything felt like it was happening both in fast and slow-motion at the same time, which is a really weird feeling. At that time, no one knew exactly how Coronavirus or Covid-19 worked, every cough or sneeze suddenly became a weapon of fear within a group of people. One of our participants held in a cough until they couldn’t and in between his coughing fits said to me, “I swear I don’t have it!”. I chuckled nervously and with empathy just because all I could do was offer some hand sanitizer and a mint.

We all knew fully that we were all going to be in lockdown in the months to come, most of us at this point fearful of the year ahead of us. What did this mean for our jobs and futures? No clue. However, we managed to pivot and transition through the mental gymnastics of the “New Normal” being thrown our way. Typically, my attitude is to yell out, “Plot Twist!” in any scenario that I find myself in where the outcome is not what I had planned but you have to keep it moving, you know smile now, cry later. This novel and unique situation was as good as any since it affected all of us globally. I said it quite often and with impunity considering my weeks turned into months of uncertainty, I’m sure we can all relate to that heavily.

While I waited to find out what the next steps were due to projects being put on hiatus, I spent it building up my island in Animal Crossing, well-deserved long walks with my dog, and watching Tiger King. This was the fun part of quarantine until of course reality started setting in. Once our projects started moving virtually, I was so happy to regain employment again because binge eating on snacks, staying up way too late only to sleep later in the day and the doomsday feelings were starting to weigh on me. While in theory, it sounds great, I have to admit I craved whatever normalcy I had in the before times. I wanted to wake up grumpily at 9am to be in the office by 10am and have a hard time yelling at my closet that I have absolutely nothing to wear that day.

Getting back into the groove with work was a slight new learning curve, my first thought was how were participants going to adjust to doing virtual focus groups? The second was, will they show up? The third was, are you seriously going make pancakes for breakfast again?  At first, it felt odd but once we got past the weirdness of things, the camaraderie was formed during the recruitment process. However, participants had questions like “Is this in person at your facility?” or “how does that work online?” or simply hung up on me. All of which are valid.

I made an effort to constantly reaffirm that the study will be conducted online, and it will be the same except in the comfort of their own home on your computer. I found myself being a bit more informal and casual to help soothe anxieties during such an uncomfortable time where everyone’s lives have completely been put at a halt and the rug literally ripped from underneath them.  It wasn’t lost on me that I had to put more effort in not only over-explaining but I was listening more, after all, how does one get others to participate and be engaging when so many things are up in the air and on the line mentally, emotionally and physically?

The other obstacle included the tech portion of virtual focus groups. I had to consider and make sure that possible participants I reached out to had laptops, computers, and smartphones with the capability to use the programs and apps for the study (i.e., Zoom, Skype etc.) and hope they could troubleshoot on their own.

We also had a record-breaking hurricane season here in New Orleans and in perfect 2020 fashion, we were left in a wide cone of uncertainty throughout Louisiana. Recruiting can sometimes be challenging but even more so between a pandemic and the elements. I am shocked and proud that both the participants and I did not have numerous breakdowns and wished each other safety hoping the hurricane will not hit either one of us. The connection made was encouraging and sympathetic on both sides, in a way even though we are strangers, it was a good feeling that we were trying to comfort one another against the outside forces beyond our control. It was the first time I felt a form of unity in a very long time.

Now after almost a year, even though vaccines are in sight, the pandemic is just hitting its third wave and getting worse. I don’t know when we’ll have in-person groups again, but I do hope it will happen soon. I do miss our clients and participants entering our facility, I miss getting the snacks and cold drinks together for the focus groups, I miss hearing the nervous and excited chatter amongst participants about the topics they’ll be discussing for the next 2 hours. This is the part about working in focus groups that I enjoy the most. I love how participants and clients alike are always learning something new from one another, this exchange of information in person is where the magic happens because it’s genuine and in real-time. I’ve had so many folks come in and say, “That is totally not what I had expected about focus groups, it’s my first time and I really enjoyed the conversation, thank you.”

I know we’ve talked several times on the phone this entirely bizarre and sad year of 2020 and truly I’ve had a very illuminating time while working remotely.

So, with that being said, I hope that day finally comes where we get to gather once again safely in person, and I get to meet the faces to the list of names I’ve called all year.

I’ll be the bright face you’ll see greeting you at the front desk to sign you in for your focus group and yes, you can absolutely have all of the mints in the candy bowl!

By Aimee Cedro – Recruiter