Reflections on community business resilience and researching during a pandemic
By Eve Avdoulos and Zoë Wilkins, The Young Foundation
Over a 12 week period from June to August 2020, we followed the stories of 26 community businesses across England, and one from Scotland, as they adjusted to impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Using an online digital research platform, participating community businesses from a range of sectors responded to a weekly set of tasks involving short answer questions, journal diary entries, and photo submissions among other activities. Through their responses, we captured their experiences in real time and highlighted the many ways that they were adapting to the rapidly changing and uncertain circumstances.
New ways of delivering services
As they shared their stories, it quickly became clear that a willingness to adapt was fundamental. For the community businesses, this became a key feature underpinning their survival, with teams continuously reviewing and revising their operations as the situation evolved. As nearly all participants reported facing a loss of income, businesses had to find ways to keep afloat, and sometimes turning to creative methods to do so. Over the period in which the study took place, almost half of the community business leaders reported feeling innovative, and excited to embrace the opportunity to do something new. For many, us included, this meant undertaking a shift to digital. There was a rapid pivot to communicating and engaging through digital channels, as well as some adoption of online retail or service delivery. For some community businesses this highlighted pre-existing gaps around digital exclusion, yet for others this facilitated thinking towards how adaptations for Covid-19 could support community businesses not just for the lockdown, but into the future.
Another theme that strongly emerged was that collaboration was key to ensuring support and remaining resilient. Many community businesses shared with us the ways that their relationships with other local businesses and charities were strengthened during this time. The ability to respond in a more small-scale and collaborative way is felt to have paid dividends, both in terms of supporting local people during the pandemic and in the future prospects for the local economy and community. For all, the support of local residents was the most valued source of support during this time. The true nature of the word ‘community’ was reflected in the support these community businesses received from local residents as well as the businesses themselves finding ways to continue to support their community – by diverting volunteers, donating space for food banks and collaborating with others.
Social capital in a time of crisis
Overall, this research highlighted new ways of working and the power of adaptation, and brought to the fore the unique experience of community businesses. What makes community businesses stand apart is the connection they have to their communities, and their capacity to identify and prioritise the specific needs of the people they serve. Over the course of the study, it became clear that the resilience of community businesses is not determined by their ability to pull on financial capital, but rather determined by the strength of their social capital – their professional networks, community support, cooperative ways of working and reciprocity with others. The majority of community businesses are looking to identify the positive opportunities from an unprecedented situation – taking the time to refocus and reflect on both their strategic goals and operational model. Not only have these organisations needed to identify and prioritise the specific needs of the communities they serve and adapt in ways to focus on these needs, but they have remained both resilient and accountable to their local constituents while doing so.
New ways of researching
Alongside learning about the changes experienced by these community businesses, we had to learn to change our own ways of working to adapt to the new online environment. While in pre-Covid times, we would have typically carried out our research in person, we had to think about how to translate all the components of research – from building relationships to gathering data – to a completely remote sphere. In looking for a solution to our new digital environment, we invested in an online research platform which allows us to carry out mixed-methods research in a flexible and simple way. The platform provides a flexible range of question formats from written diaries through to short polls, sorting and ranking tasks, and uploading photos or other creative methods. The platform also has a comment feature allowing them to respond to one another’s submissions, and a discussion board feature whereby participants can interact through the use of discussion threads, encouraging a social setting where experiences can be shared.
While this was a new way of conducting research for us, we found this process to have many benefits. First, we were able to engage with a larger group of businesses over a longer duration of time. This allowed us to build strong relationships and hear their stories over a few months of work, capturing their experiences as the pandemic unfolded. Second, the platform allowed for a greater level of flexibility than in-person research. Not only could we adjust the questions on a week by week basis to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances presented by the pandemic, but we were able to combine qualitative responses with quantitative data. This is something that would have taken a significant amount of resources and would not have been possible in the time frame of this work had we conducted this research in person. Third, the businesses themselves were able to build a peer network via the platform, sharing the unique issues they were facing and being able to hear from others with similar challenges. After the study concluded, many participants noted that they really enjoyed being able to share their experiences with others and hear from other participants about what they were going through as well. Finally, we were able to share findings more frequently. The format of the research platform allows the community businesses to directly respond to a series of questions and as a result the data was easily and quickly analysed, allowing us to share the findings as they emerged.
As we continue to rely on digital technologies, we will need to embrace new ways of working together, learning from one another, and staying socially connected. As this work highlights, not only are community businesses at the heart of their local areas, at the forefront of innovation, and key to staying socially connected, but they have a lot to share with us as we continue to navigate these unprecedented times.
“On a personal and community business level, the pandemic has demonstrated the important of community, neighbours and friends and local businesses in a way that needed to happen and hasn’t happened for decades.”
“I think the Covid crisis has made us reach out in a different way to our local community”
The Young Foundation is a UKRI accredited Independent Research Organisation, social investor and community development practitioner, whose mission it is to develop better connected and more sustainable communities across the UK.