HACT’s Head of Research Frances Harkin reflects on a turbulent 18 months, how she and others had to adapt in conducting and delivering research and discusses some of the fantastic work that resulted from the pandemic and the learnings gained.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to change how we conducted and delivered our research projects to respond to the changes that our partners were going through at the time.” HACT’s Head of Research Frances Harkin reflects on a turbulent 18 months in her first blog in our three-part research series.
Some of our research projects changed at pace, such as the second report we published with JRF from our RCT programme, ‘Changing research in social housing’, and our report with Town & Country and Clarion on the role of place based partnership working in response to Covid-19, ‘Keeping it Local’.
Due to the limitations that social distancing placed on conducting research in certain ways and collecting particular data, these reports became more reflective. We asked our partners to implement a learning log, for example, to help them reflect on lessons learnt from delivering these projects without the resources and levels of engagement that they were initially expecting.
Likewise, the ‘All About You’ project that we evaluated for Cotman Housing changed substantially. We set out to do a HACT research project, but because of the pandemic we learnt how to be adaptive to change while still meeting the needs of the customers. With that project, we reassessed what we could do with our budget, adapted our research methods, and delivered an evaluation that was different but equally meaningful.
As well as changing how we delivered projects, we also were approached by new clients to help them understand the impact of the pandemic.
In spring 2020 HACT were contacted by several housing associations who wanted our support to capture the changes that were happening within their organisations because of the upheavals caused by the pandemic. They expressed how critical it was to have an independent body to do that work. As an organisation with a thorough understanding of the social housing operating environment, we were able to fulfil that role for them, as well be flexible and adaptable to the changing needs and priorities of their research focus.
Our piece of work with Placeshapers culminated in the publication a joint report ‘Places After the Pandemic’, which showed that the Covid pandemic could offer an opportunity for housing associations to deliver more in their communities and improve services with residents. It’s themes of placemaking championed importance of anchor institutions as important community touchstones. The report led directly to the highly successful and influential placemaking programme, which was a direct result of the research and its findings.
The pandemic had a direct influence on our work with A2Dominion as well. We supported them with two pieces of work which looked at how the pandemic had impacted their residents, especially their BAME residents. The evaluation of A2Dominion’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic made a number of recommendations about the organisaitno’s future operating policies that were bolstered by research done by the Centre for Excellence In Community Investment around sector wide impact measures.
Another piece of work that was linked to the pandemic last year was the report we wrote for Network Homes, ‘Optimising resident feedback’. They wanted HACT to research how resident feedback cold be put to more meaningful operational use. This report goes further and proposes a resident feedback framework we believe can be applied across the social housing sector.
Although the report wasn’t about Covid, the most recent Social Housing White Paper highlighted the need for our sector to do more around customer engagement. Measuring and improving the customer experience is thus an ongoing theme that we’re interested in, and the evaluation for Network Homes highlighted that community investment type services are incredibly important to centring the voices and experiences of residents.
The Covid pandemic and the subsequent move to working remotely meant that our research methods and processes inevitably changed, too. Before the pandemic, the HACT research team would travel around the country to meet clients and customers face-to-face. Research work over the past year, however, has predominantly been conducted and delivered online via Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and project meetings and interviews have all moved online. Digitally communicating with partners who we had existing relationships with worked fine but building new relationships with customers and clients online was more challenging.
Nevertheless, there were many positive aspects to conducting our research remotely. Whereas before we might have conducted a phone interview with a client, on Teams or Zoom we could meet that person face-to-face. For focus groups, we could also get more people in the room because participants didn’t have to spend time travelling to be there in person; they could participate from the comfort of their homes and were generally more accessible. My travelling time was also cut down, meaning that I had more time for meetings with other partners – so online working has made me more productive!