Author: Dan Bunter and Cam Williams 

Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) are more complex to adapt as remote surveys compared to one-on-one interviews. This is due to researchers preferring to be ‘in the room’ to probe and follow-up depending on the reaction and non-verbal behaviour of respondents. In many hard-to-reach areas, limited access to secure internet or a good phone connection also restricts the researcher’s abilities to plan and implement FGDs remotely. 

During the COVID-19 era, data collection firms such as EDI Global have sought where possible, and in compliance with national COVID-19 guidance, to continue in-person FGDs to deliver the high-quality data that research organisations require  

Considering these experiences, we thought it would be useful to share our best practice tips for conducting COVID-safe FGDs. We hope that these are of interest to researchers, funders and implementing partners. 

Factors to Consider When Implementing FGDs During the COVID Pandemic: 

  • Is it legal to conduct in-person group meetings in the survey country? 
  • What is the level of awareness of COVID-19 in the survey locations and among the respondents that are being surveyed? 
  • Do the research organisations have standard COVID-19 protocols? How do they interact with the protocols provided by the in-country health authority?

Best Practice Tips for Conducting COVID-safe FGDs 

The best practice tips detailed below follow the chronology of implementing an FGD.   

Tip 1 – Communicate with study locations in advance of a field visit to outline the COVID-19 protocols you will be following. 

As part of the preparations, the Field Coordinator should call the relevant survey location leader (e.g. Headteacher/Business Owner/Community Leader). The call should: 

  • Inform them of the upcoming visit;  
  • Provide awareness of your company COVID-19 protocols; 
  • Assess community awareness of the pandemic.  

This manages the expectations of those involved in the study and demonstrates an awareness and mitigation of risk from the data collection firm. 

Tip 2 – Protect all participants and colleagues through daily staff health checks. 

Field staff should complete a temperature check of both the participants and their own colleagues using contactless thermometers and a health survey submitted using CAPI software. It should be self-administered under the supervision of the Field Coordinator. This reassures all project personnel that no field staff are knowingly putting respondents or fellow staff at risk by potentially transmitting coronavirus. Participants should undergo the same contactless temperature check and health survey prior to interview, whilst also agreeing to wear a mask issued to them by the data collection team throughout the interview process.  

Tip 3 – Reduce risk of transmission by travelling in a COVID-safe manner. 

Travelling in a COVID-secure manner includes avoiding public transport and instead using private transport (e.g. taxis or private car). One-metre-plus social distancing should be observed by all travellers with reduced seating capacity (e.g. only 3 passengers in a 5-seater). All people in the vehicle must wear face masks, with windows being left open for ventilation, and sanitise regularly throughout the journey. 

Tip 4 – Where possible, try to conduct the FGD in a quiet, outdoor location. 

Being outdoors reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission. To comply, FGD field staff should do everything they can to make an outdoor FGD possible and ideally in a quiet space to aid the recording quality. Use a quiet, indoor, well-ventilated room with space for up to 10 socially distanced people as a back-up. 

Tip 5 – Set up the seating arrangement before respondents arrive. This manages expectations and sets the ground rules. 

All relevant COVID health and safety measures should be in place as respondents arrive. A suggested seating arrangement, allowing for social distance and equitable recording device access, for an FGD with 8 respondents, 1 Facilitator and 1 Notetaker is found below.

Try to follow the one-metre-plus rule on social distancing with no respondent more than 3 metres from the recording device to improve the quality of recording. 

Tip 6 – One staff member should be responsible for conducting respondent temperature checks, health surveys and acquiring consent to wearing face masks as respondents arrive.  

This provides reassurance for FGD staff and respondents, all respondents should undergo routine temperature and health checks before being allowed to participate in the FGD. This staff member should briefly explain the protocols before conducting any health checks. Any respondent who is unable or unwilling to wear a face mask or fails the health check should be replaced. Anyone failing the health check must be referred to the local health authority straightaway. 

Focus Group Discussion for the Endline Evaluation of the Waache Wasome Program on behalf of NORC at the University of Chicago. 

Tip 7 – Provide participants with face masks to wear throughout the interview 

From EDI Global’s experiences in school-based FGDs in Tanzania, all FGD staff and respondents agreed to wear face masks – this was not the cause for any refusals to participate. We did not find that wearing facemasks affected the quality of recording, however, you should test that your audio receivers can record clearly a person talking with a mask on from a distance of 3 meters away during preparation. 

Face masks are available worldwide at a minimal cost and should be supplied by the field team in a non-contact way, for example individually sealed masks placed in a box where respondents enter and can take their own.  

Tip 8 – Use the study introduction and consent process to provide some public health information about COVID-19  

During the study introduction, provide basic health information to respondents and inform them of the reasons behind and importance of wearing face masks, washing hands and social distancing to quickly address any concerns or lack of understanding around this topic.  

Tip 9 – Add a break after 30 minutes to allow participants time without face masks 

Wearing face masks in a hot climate for any length of time becomes stifling Therefore, it is important to mandate a break for 5-10 minutes without a mask, if discussions go beyond one hour. It will certainly prove more beneficial for your results to include more breaks and to avoid respondent fatigue. 

Tip 10 – Have an alternative floating recorder 

EDI Global ensured FGDs had a back-up recording device as an insurance policy – especially with initial uncertainties over recording quality. This back-up device was controlled by the notetaker and was placed nearer to respondents who were speaking more quietly than others. 

To synchronise the recording devices, ensure both record buttons are pressed at the same time.  

Tip 11 – Using mobile money to administer respondent incentives 

To avoid giving cash incentives (and unnecessary hand-to-hand contact), mobile money transfers are recommended and are, in many cases, already the preferred mode of payment in rural locations. This also avoids the need to sign for payments.