My face to face interviewer job ended last year. Rounding off the saga, I’d like to summarise what it was about, and speculate about why, overall, it worked well.
I was quite good at the job, and feel I’ve learned a lot, even though the work was quite repetitive. My boss was happy about my work and communication, and I had plenty of positive feedback from respondents both directly and through the quality control procedures. My response rates were also pretty good – not remarkable compared to the average, but good factoring in that my home range was supposedly hard to get decent results in. I was praised for the quality of my submitted work – data forms and weekly reports – for high accuracy, good order, and entertaining weekly reports.
The job ended because my employer had lost their tender for the project, so they had to close the whole project department down and sack everyone involved in the project… That’s all the interviewers, the office staff, and even my lovely boss.
If was a much bigger collapse for some of the other people, than it was for me. The staff turnover was notoriously low among both the office staff and the interviewer crew, and some had been working on the project for well over a decade – almost since the beginning.
The organisation is the best employer I’ve had, and they handled the close-down well too. There was a proper explanation of what had happened (as much as they knew), scenario-thinking and instructions for what was and wasn’t allowed if moving to the competitor, and there was the usual supportive attitude underpinning the process. My boss also gave everybody her personal email and phone number, so future employers could still contact her for recommendations when she would no longer be working there.
Summary of the job
The project was a large, continuous social survey about the needs for and usage patterns of certain infrastructure, along with detailed background information, for ongoing planning purposes.
The job was home-based, own-car based and assignment-based. Each assignment had a list of a set number of sampled households where I had to interview every member of the household (including kids) – if they’d agree to do the interviews. Each interview was quite comprehensive, so it was a bit of an ask.
I was paid per hour with the same rate for interviewing, driving and admin. Each assignment had a timeline of 2-3 weeks with an interview deadline for each household, and for submitting the data set when the interviews were completed.
My driving range was up to 70+ kms, but the majority of the assignments took place within 1-30 kms from where I live. Since I got paid the normal hourly rate for my driving time plus reimbursement per km, the sampled households’ locations had a huge impact on my pay for each assignment; the pay for hours spent driving could sometimes almost outstrip the pay for hours spent interviewing.
What about the job worked well, and what didn’t:
The role presented many challenging aspects, such as:
- Knocking on strangers’ doors = anxiety-trigger
“Recruitment” of the sampled households – the door knocking part – was the hardest part. The dread and anxiety when knocking on a stranger’s door never really eased no matter how many times I’d done it, and how many times it was a positive experience. I needed to overcome the anxiety barrier every time, for every door, and before every drive. The barriers were particularly high at the start of a new assignment.
(Image: Ossidiana on Open Clipart)
There is no way to know who is behind a door when knocking for the first time, or how the person will react, so one needs to prepare for *anything*. It is a chronic wild-card state of mind, very stressful. There were of course often cues outside the house – like the number, types and sizes of shoes on the porch, number and types of cars in the driveway, the house and garden’s type and condition, signs and artefacts, along with broader cues: neighbourhood, ethnicity and socio-economic profile of people walking in the streets. However, mostly my cue-based person-forecasts were proven wrong.
My home range contained mostly small, newer outer suburbs with or in semi-rural outskirts, just because of where I live. Further out there’s real countryside and bush suburbs, which I also covered. Sometimes suburbs were so new they came up as bare fields on Google Earth. Occasionally the households were in high-rise security blocks with intercom in town or cities, and sometimes no one in the household spoke English.
Sometimes the residences were brand new mansions on grassy hills, almost like castles side by side on big blocks of land, enclosed by tall security fences and wall-framed security intercom gates far from the houses. I met almost no ethnic Australians in these types of residences.
Sometimes the sampled household was a single old hermit living in a shed down a long-winded dirt path in the forest. A few times I had to walk among loose horses or goats to get to the front door, and I worried about potential loose dogs whenever it was a fenced property where I had to enter through a closed gate.
Experiencing the huge diversity of neighbourhoods, residence and families was a valuable quality of the job, but also a constant source of anxiety. I don’t like surprises. I typically felt shaken after interviews, no matter how well they went and how friendly and welcoming the vibe was, and how much I smiled and joked and winged the interview.
Not to speak of refusals. Every one of those (I typically had at least one in every assignment, sometimes two or more) was some degree of traumatising, at least temporarily.
- Response rate stress
The response rate is essential for the quality of a survey like this. It isn’t about getting “enough” responses (as people often seem to assume), but about getting responses that represent the population as a whole, and in the right proportions.
A household didn’t count as completed if just one household member out of no matter how many couldn’t be interviewed, whatever the reason… it was besides the point whether a household comprised one person or 10, it counted as one household response, when every household member had been interviewed. If there was missing data, e.g. if a respondent couldn’t or wouldn’t answer a few questions, then the household did also not count as a full response. In many typical families, there was at least one person who were always busy, never home, or cranky (typically adolescent family member/s), and sometimes people had something against particular questions, or struggled to remember things.
People were often fickle. The long (main) interviews were by appointment, but even when respondents had said they would all be home, there was no guarantee that was what would happen. The survey wasn’t a high priority for many people and also a bit out of their usual schedule, so appointments were often missed due to people forgetting, being delayed, or the appointments being out-rivalled by people’s’ other priorities. No matter how well prepared I was, I could never predict what would actually happen when I arrived.
The response rate stress lasted throughout every assignment until the last interview was completed & checked.
- Sensory challenges inside homes
I rarely visit people in their homes in my private life but when I do, I tend to feel awkward and out-of-place and over-fixate on things in the surroundings, overwhelmed by irrelevant aspects and struggling to hold the social attention. It takes time to adjust to unfamiliar places.
Unsurprisingly, I had the exact same issue on every in-home interview visit, only slightly eased by the task-focussed nature of the visit. Inside houses, there were often kids. I don’t have kids myself, and was never really mentally prepared for the chaos and noisiness of homes with kids. I like kids, but they often screech a lot, scream, play with noisy toys (beep beep! Clang! Wrrrr Wrrrr!), and talk a lot. TV and/or radio ran in the background, people talked over and interrupted each other often, asked me multiple question at once, or people came in and out of the room.
The interior architecture of the houses, especially acoustics and lightning, varied greatly. Some houses had shiny tiled floors with light reflections echoing restlessly from all directions and hard, confusing acoustics. Some were hard to navigate even if they weren’t large (*aims for the front door, opens the door to the bathroom/bedroom/kitchen*).
I tend to disassociate when overwhelmed with too many “channels” at once, and that happened quite often. As if my eyes were cameras and reality a real-time video stream I watched from afar, I observed people talk and remote-controlled my face to smile and my hands to handle the forms; heard myself respond, micro managed my body language step by step… until I got into the familiar flow of the interview form, it almost always helped.
- Sensory overload from driving in traffic
Driving can be enjoyable but it can also be very stressful, especially over long distances and/or dense traffic and/or dealing with tailgaters and other traffic bullies.
Driving at night is particularly stressful. Lights in the darkness can seem blinding, such as the headlights of oncoming cars. As the lights come closer, everything else turn blacker, and if the headlights are very bright, the darkness is so all-absorbing that it is hard to see lines on the road, including the ones marking the sides. Light is also stressing in itself, and often somewhat painful for the eyes.
Even worse: when it rains, and all sorts of coloured and moving and flickering lights are glaring from all sorts of surfaces (mainly road surfaces), constantly changing and blending (traffic lights, street lamps, ads and headlights et.c being reflected in rain puddles), creating a kaleidoscope-like temporary world, a visual cacophony that put intense demands on concentration in order to navigate safely through.
You should be OK to drive through this puddle, the light is green
(Image: Ben Mazur at Flick)
- Socialising is draining
The social interaction was so draining so I was typically fully “spent” after just a few hours of work, even when the interactions went great with all smiles and good vibes… and couldn’t do much the rest of the day. So despite working few hours and not even necessarily every day, I was often tired, and never managed to combine it with other work (as had been the original plan).
- A few hours here and there swallowed entire days
Combined with the above, a few hours of work (especially by appointment) tended to have whole days wrapped around them – I needed to prepare mentally, work myself up to the visits, professionalise my mind, dress code and demeanour every time.
Sometimes when respondents failed to be home for an appointment, if it was a local visit then I would perhaps have held up the entire day just for doing a 2 x 8 minutes drive and a 5 minutes visit. That’s just 20 minutes of paid work, which I had stayed home to do, mentally prepared for, dressed up for and so on… Not cool.
Phone calls and telephone interviews were even less viable. Telephone interviews could be done only under specific circumstances, as a way to rescue the response rate by getting that elusive last interview in a busy household. A telephone interview would take perhaps 10-15 paid minutes to do, but still require mental and practical preparation. A telephone interview appointment meant that I had to stay home or at least be able to conduct the interview in a confidential setting and have the forms with me, so it meant I had to stay focussed on work and mentally prepared, and bend other plans around it just to do a tiny bit of paid work.
- Absence of professional development opportunities
I was grateful to have a job, but overqualified for the job with my master degree. My education was in some way helpful (I could explain the statistical purposes of the survey quite well), but not needed, and there was no scope for progression in the job. It was basically the exact same scene with the exact same script repeated over and over indefinitely in a variety of settings that all had the same basic structure (:a household).
- Low income and no work benefits
The hourly rate was fair enough, but I didn’t have enough hours. Also, it was a “casual” role (although the assignments were fairly regular and scheduled several months in advance), which meant I was paid only for the hours I worked. There were no work benefits such as paid sick leave or holidays, and no guarantee for any work at all. So overall it was both low-income, and low-income security.
- High income unpredictability from payday to payday
The fortnightly payments depended on many factors partly or completely outside of my control. Here under how many assignments I’d done (and submitted) in the pay period, the locations of the sampled households (driving distance – huge factor), household sizes (because number of interviews per household), interviews lengths (could vary hugely), results (especially the response rate), how many times I had to return to households to complete all interviews, and waiting time and other random factors.
If I was really unlucky on my payday, I’d get just payment for one local assignment – or even none at all (=no pay). If I was really lucky, I would get paid for two or more assignments, perhaps even long-distance assignments. I tried to even it out of course, by setting money aside from the luckier payments for hard days, but it was hard because the overall income level was low, and surprise expenses sometimes happened.
— but despite all these major downsides, the job worked anyway. I was able to do a good or even excellent job much of the time, and never had any particular social problems in the job (that affected others), communication was excellent and I felt appreciated, so in those ways it was a success. So what made it work?
- Freedom and flexibility
The freedom to work when it suited me (and when I had appointments) – be paid to drive in my car listening to my favourite radio programme – take breaks whenever I wanted, was a big positive. I can have many down-days, so the flexibility to minimise (or omit) work hours on bad days was very helpful.
It was also enjoyable. The sense of freedom and independence was great.
- Highly systematic job structure
Although many specific factors of the day-to-day work were unpredictable, the job’s overall structure was highly systematic and consistent, and easy to manage in my visual systems.
Every aspect of the job had clear, meaningful rules and instructions, and these were all outlined and explained in the thick interviewer manual, which all interviewers were paid to read once per year (a new revision came out every year). If there wasn’t a rule for something and the supervisor was made aware of it, then they’d give an ad hoc instruction for that situation, and a new general rule would be made afterwards to cover that type of situation onwards.
The employment started with a training course, where the overall aspects and context of the job was taught, and the interview forms and skills practised and tested as role plays.
Additionally, my boss/supervisor was on call to clarify ambiguities if needed.
- Great management and supervision
I reported to my boss weekly via email or phone, and otherwise if I needed permission to bend a rule for some reason, or had a question to a situation that wasn’t scenario planned in the instruction manual.
Competence was assumed (I guess that has to be the case when managing a large fleet of remote, independent workers), initiative encouraged, needs accommodated.
The trusting attitude was combined with consistent and fair quality control procedures. In-field monitoring (part of the quality control) by the supervisor resulted in a verbal evaluation followed by a written report. It was a brief summary followed by a table rating each performance on a standardised list of a range of aspects. The report had to be read, signed and returned with any comments that may be. And so on.
- Nice colleagues, good vibes and no office politics
It is quite easy to get along with people who are not around. The interviewer “team” was spread out over the entire metropolitan area. I only met my interviewer colleagues at the big meetings held a few times yearly, but everybody seemed like very nice and sympathetic people. A very diverse bunch but generally independent, mature people who enjoyed the freedom, flexibility, variation, sociability or other aspects of this quite unusual job.
The office was 4 hours drive from where I live, and I only ever visited once, so I was never exposed to whatever office politics there might have been.
- Nice respondents, geographic adventures and sociology galore
I learned that the vast majority of random Australians are lovely, friendly people.
I visited a never-ending variety of suburbs and landscapes – learned to navigate many different places. I’ve been inside houses and interviewed people in many areas, so I’m now geographically familiar with range of places where people live. When I drive through random suburbs – often places where I’d never otherwise know anyone, I now recognise plenty of landscapes, houses, streets and landmarks. I see that “Hey, I have been in that house! I’ve interviewed the kids in there! I’ve talked with several families in this town!”
That is pretty cool. Especially because I otherwise don’t know much about how other people live and what their home lives are like, their family cultures.
While the majority of the families had the standard human set-up with two parents, a few kids, jobs and a certain typical home interior structure, there were many that differed too, and ultimately every household is unique. Overall, I got a good look at what’s normal is in Australia (~ within my survey region), and how elastic the boundaries of normal are. That gives some sort of answers to the question I always have: “What is Normal, anyway?”
- Phone skills training
My mobile number was on the many (probably well over 1000+) calling cards I left in people’s’ mailboxes when they weren’t home, and sometimes people called. I hate when people call, but I managed to handle the calls professionally, and my husband says my general professionalism improved vastly during my interviewer era.
- Highly structured socialising
The interviews themselves were of course highly structured and rule bound, due to the nature of data collection, where data needs to be as consistent as possible across different interviewers.
The introduction was scripted. The interview forms guided the questions (the path of questions depended on the respondents’ answers). The little random and unpredictable talk that took place in addition to all the scripted communication, was limited and easy to close by leading the respondent into the survey.
I’ve been asked many times by respondents if I wasn’t bored / going insane (and so on) from asking the same questions over and over, but actually: no – I enjoyed that part of it. There was a pleasant rhythm to it, and it put me in a familiar flow where I felt at home and knew what to do. A good platform for communication.
Having a fixed communication agenda and a predictable track as the “backbone” of a social situation, makes communication so much easier. Verbally, I could focus on explaining questions, clarifying responses and body language, rather than depleting my energy trying to guess what people are talking about now and what they mean, as tends to be the case with free-range small talk.
- Extensive communication skills training
Strongly related to the above, the extensive communication experience is one of the best things I got out of the job.
Doing interviews like this is really like a kind of communication laboratory. Since the key aspects of the communication are fixed – the set-up, the structure, the scripted talk, the interview forms – it is easy to observe the variable elements: the social and non-verbal aspects of communication.
I’ve observed a huge variety of strangers react to the same situations, the same script, and answer the same questions*. I’ve seen the body language responses to the same kind of communication over and over in a great variety of people, and been able to work systematically with my own body-language, categorise behaviour, test home-made strategies. That is such a huge learning opportunity which I won’t go into too much detail now, it deserves a post on its own.
In summary, the biggest disadvantages of the job were the high uncertainty, ongoing anxiety triggered by the social demands and unpredictability; sensory overload; drain on energy; low income and very low income-predictability.
The positives were the freedom and flexibility working from home, the systematic set-up and highly structured social communication, great management, nice colleagues – good social relationships overall, the remote nature of the job, and the social practice, experiences, and skills learned.
So that’s that. It is the longest job I’ve held to date – 3 years (part-time… still very good compared to my usual standard). All in all it wasn’t an easy job, it wasn’t a “career building” job either, and it was hard to make ends meet, but it was a worthy and interesting role in other ways.
*The path through the questionnaire varies depending on their answers, but because of the vast total number of interviews, inevitably many people followed the same paths and answered the same questions, often with similar answers