Working from home was not a new concept for us at EpiMetrics. Online calls and chats were a part of our daily life. Pre-pandemic, the whole EpiMetrics crew would only get together in person once a week, on Wednesdays, for what we called EWoK. This was our time to report on ongoing projects, exchange ideas, socialize with our peers, and learn something new from short lectures. Though we only saw each other once a week, these interactions were essential to our functions and our sanity.

In March 2020, the pandemic was declared, and we united with the rest of the world in asking, “What now? How do we keep going and survive?”. EpiMetrics was in the middle of a research project involving primary data collection from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao and writing 7 research proposals for the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development. Our status in the near future looked pretty uncertain.

Through a retrospective lens, it is clear that EpiMetrics persisted and managed to thrive amidst the challenges. It’s 2021. We are alive and still kicking hard for health equity. It was not an easy transition however. We went through some hectic months of reformatting and finding opportunities buried in the disaster. We held a company-wide (remote) brainstorming session to outline research implementation problems and research avenues opened up by the pandemic.

One of our key priorities as a company was to remain connected and safe. EWoK evolved into Tel-EWoK. Our creativity rose to the occasion allowing us to socialize through our online meetings, play games, and participate in photo and dress up contests, all from the comforts of our own homes. The company also created protocols for working from home, highlighting respect for work hours and making clear deadlines on deliverables. We set up channels of communication to allow the management to check in on the health and wellbeing of each of our full-time and part-time employees.

What then happened to research, the main function of EpiMetrics? How did we create quality research without in-person interactions? Again, the preeminent concern was safety, safety, safety. We created a small team to generate a manual called “Research in the New Normal”. (“New Normal” was the trending term at the time, but it really is our current normal now.) This manual is a compilation of resources and guides for doing research, more specifically data collection, remotely. It also includes a risk assessment table to determine which risks are necessary or not worth taking for every research task. Using this manual, we reformatted the research methodologies of our ongoing projects and those of the proposals we submitted.

The next step was putting the manual into action. First up was maintaining our relationships with our clients and doing that remotely. Time was also an obstacle, as many of our clients are at the forefront of addressing and managing the pandemic. What worked was maintaining communication through calls, keeping them short, and modifying our methods such that our partners could work with us in their own time. For example, instead of conducting focus group discussions and key informant interviews, we modified to doing limited interviews and incorporated online tools, such as Google Forms and online whiteboards to obtain the information we needed to fulfill our objectives.

Traveling to data collection sites was also eliminated because of safety risks, policy restrictions, and the increased cost of travel. In response to this, we prioritized hiring teams local to the primary data collection sites and really mastered online coordination, communications, and monitoring.

As a company, we also expanded our portfolio to include lower risk but high impact initiatives such as education and communication campaigns. This built on our advocacy for providing solid evidence to support action and policy for health. Realizing that it is not only policy makers and healthcare workers that have a role in public health, we rolled out education campaigns for communicators and the general public. In order to reach our audiences, EpiMetrics partnered with organizations and used a gamut of platforms. This ranged from live webinars and workshops, harnessing social media infographics, broadcasting a podcast, and more.

As a result of all these adaptations, EpiMetrics was able to produce: a number of COVID-19 rapid reviews and policy briefs, an online COVID-19 monitoring application for local government units, at least two ongoing research projects, a workshop and webinar for communicators, and a recently concluded health communication project. We even managed to win several project grants from the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, the Department of Health, the World Health Organization, and other private organizations.

All-in-all, the uncertainty of the pandemic pushed us to move onto unexplored paths. We managed to turn great challenges into opportunities, accelerating our growth as individuals and as a company. As public health has been placed under the spotlight of the world stage, we are ever more inspired to push forward in the pursuit of health equity through research.