How did you get there? Sinéad Jefferies

Great to hear from Sinéad Jefferies who is the founder of Vela, a consultancy and training business focused on supporting teams and individuals to make the most of remote and flexible working, as well as a freelance strategic insight consultant. She is also a very active participant in the industry in general: being a mentor; speaking at and chairing conferences; and is a Main Board member, and Chair Designate, of the MRS.

Great to catch up again! So cracking right on then, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

I definitely discovered the research industry because of what I didn’t want to do rather than what I did. My degree was in languages (French & Italian) so that didn’t automatically point to a career path. At university there were presentations from lots of companies and sectors such as law, accountancy, consultancy, etc, and none of those appealed. They just didn’t excite me. So I went to a careers fair in London and came across one of the big agencies there, I think it was Nielsen. It sounded interesting so I started researching others to apply to. And then I had the revelation that what my mum had been working on for several years, was actually a long-term research project for BMRB (now part of Kantar). She worked in the admissions office of the local A&E department, and although I knew it was something to do with collecting information about home accidents, I never really thought about it much more than that. But it turns out she was actually one of a team of people in hospitals across the UK gathering data directly from people coming into A&E as a result of home and sports accidents for a project for the Home Office. So she suggested I contact Sue Brooker, who was the Director of Social Research at BMRB, and she passed my application on to someone who was looking for a graduate, and I got the job!

It was such a great place to start my career as I got such a solid grounding and brilliant training to really understand the fundamentals of research.

I worked in the omnibus, social, b2b and consumer research teams so got exposed to a wide range of disciplines. We also did what I call ‘proper’ research training – both theoretical and painfully practical! We did shifts as telephone interviewers and went out on the street doing door to door in-home interviews for random probability samples. Absolutely nothing teaches you about questionnaire design like hearing confusion down the phone line as someone can’t actually answer the question you asked, or sitting in someone’s front room and realising that the show card you’ve designed doesn’t have options for people to give the answer they want to.

After four great years there, I spent a year in the insight team at London Underground (where the team was run by a job-share partnership – my first real exposure to flexible working!) so I got my first taste of client-side.

My next stop was at Post Office and Royal Mail, where I was lucky to be part of a team of absolutely brilliant people, led by Crispin Beale. I was there for six years in total and finished my time at the Royal Mail Group leading the Business Intelligence team for Royal Mail, which incorporated insight, market & competitor intelligence and customer analytics. I think it was during that time that I really learned how to use insight as the basis of telling a story that meant something to senior business decision makers. It was all about being completely on top of the data, understanding the customer perspective, but being able to frame that in issues that were on the strategic and commercial agenda.

From there I joined the Chime Insight & Engagement Group as MD of Opinion Leader. It was a great place with some very talented people, and I learned a lot from the team about high quality social and public sector research, including approaches like deliberative, which I’d never come across before. And in my time there we increasingly expanded the scope to work with more commercial clients as well. I had all kinds of fascinating experiences, ranging from helping host and facilitate a global summit of climate change experts over a 3 day event in Qatar, to helping a bank develop an entirely new proposition for small businesses, to helping BBC understand more about the relationships between production companies and commissioners.

And then, six years ago, we as a family decided to move to France.

So I moved from having an MD role to being a senior consultant, but still worked 4 days a week for Chime, just doing so remotely from home in France and coming to London once a month or so, depending on what was needed. My role was a balance of working on new business and continuing to lead client accounts, and indeed I still work on two of the same accounts today. But when we moved to France we bought a property that had two gites, so we also set up our own business, which was largely managed by my husband, but I was closely involved in that as well. So one day I’d be writing a client debrief, the next running around changing beds and cleaning houses to get ready for new guests! Over four summers we did that, managing two guest properties, two swimming pools, and loved so much about it. Having spent a lot of my life researching customer experiences and customer satisfaction with products and services, it felt good to be personally responsible for it. We loved meeting people and helping them have wonderful holidays. Every single guest got an email after they returned home to ask them about their highlights and also what could be improved. We had some people return back several times, and guests who had come on the recommendations of their friends. But around three years ago – by complete chance – we saw a house for sale in the heart of the village we lived outside, and fell in love with it. So we sold up the previous property, gites and all (to previous guests!) and moved into our current home on the village square. My husband now works remotely as a consultant too and we really feel part of our local community as we’re in and out and around our neighbours and local businesses all the time.

Last year was hard from a work perspective.

I was just moving to spend much more of my time on a wider range of freelance assignments, but started doing that just as Covid hit, which was a tough time to do it. But that’s what pushed me into launching my own business, Vela, last year. So now I split my time between insight freelancing, for both clients and agencies, doing everything from running full projects through to helping with analysis and strategic direction, and running this business which is all about remote and flexible working. I help companies (largely in the insight sector) understand how to make remote working work for their people, through doing consultancy to give tailored advice on ways of working, processes, culture. And also doing training on things like remote team management. As we move into this new phase where the ‘hybrid’ workplace is becoming what people expect, it’s actually becoming even more complicated. Hard as it was for everyone to suddenly work remotely, with all the challenges that presented, a mixed approach with a blend of home and office working is even trickier for companies to navigate. So I’m absolutely loving having the opportunity to support individuals and companies to get things right for them – so that the company culture isn’t lost, so that people feel supported, and that everyone feels valued and enriched by what they are doing.

Career paths are rarely without challenges. Resilience is of course mostly forged from tough moments and many lessons are learnt from mistakes, challenging times, and/or failed attempts. So, can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan?

Ooh – tough question. If I’m being entirely honest with you, and with myself, I think probably I could have pushed myself more at some point over the last few years.

I know that if I’d stayed in the UK I would undoubtedly have moved on, found a new job, maybe moved back to client side, or took on a new agency-side challenge. It’s so important in a career to keep learning and I personally feel most rewarded and motivated when I can see that I’m really contributing and doing something that matters. And I think that because I had the flexibility that worked for me and for our family, I allowed myself to keep going at something that was well within my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, I was still working with clients that I loved. But I know that I could have been doing much more. I did have a few conversations with recruiters and companies I was interested in, but at the time, remote was still seen very much as the exception, and people couldn’t always see how to make it work with a senior team member living in France. So I didn’t really push it. But the events of the last year, the combination of wanting to do something more meaningful and rewarding, and the fact that I had skills and experience that were suddenly in demand, is what pushed me to set up and launch Vela. And I’m so pleased that I did.

Not being in the office and around colleagues, it is incredibly challenging, for junior researchers to thrive. What two bits of advice do you have for a junior researcher, working from home in lockdown, on how they can best stand out and impress their teams?

One of the biggest challenges for junior researchers working entirely from home is the lack of structure and network. It can be so hard to motivate yourself to thrive and learn and do new things when you don’t have the moral support of having others around you. Some people are very self-driven and have used the last year to really improve their skills and their experience and do lots of learning, but that’s absolutely not been the case for everyone. And some people have also felt very disconnected from their teams.  There are so many things that can be done – and companies have an important role to play in this too! – but my two pieces of advice would be:

  1. It’s a very tactical and mundane thing, but be clear about what works for you in terms of day-to-day communication and getting the support you need. Would it be helpful to have a daily chat with your line manager? Would it be good for you to send an email at the start/end of each day to outline what you’re doing, what you’ve delivered, what you need support with? Take the initiative in setting out what would work best for you – it helps you make sure you’re supported in the way that you need it and get recognition for what you’re delivering. But it also means that the more senior team members have the reassurance that stuff is happening and that they know whether or not support is needed.
  2. Ask for opportunities and make sure people know what you’re passionate about. When you’re not around people all the time you don’t have the same opportunities to stick your nose in and say ‘ooh, what’s that, I’d love to get involved?’. So keep an eye out for updates on new projects or initiatives that are underway and stick your (virtual) hand up to get involved. Or even just ask people for a chat to tell you about a recent project, or something they’re involved in. We all live in dread of a back-to-back day of video calls, but it doesn’t mean we should shy away from asking for 20 or 30 minutes of someone’s time. You’ll generally find that people love sharing what they’re doing. So drop a note to someone who you know is doing something interesting, ask for some time for them to tell you about it, and use it as the opportunity to ask questions, offer suggestions, volunteer to get involved.

And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

Always make sure you’re doing something that’s either helping you learn and expanding your knowledge, or that is exciting you and makes you feel you’re doing something that is really satisfying and rewarding. Ideally a combination of the two. That doesn’t mean you won’t have times when it doesn’t feel exciting – I know that a lot of the time I spent doing the basics as a junior researcher weren’t always the most thrilling, but it was helping me really get to grips with how to do the job properly. If you’re always ticking at least one of those boxes then you’re on the right path – even if sometimes it’s going sideways or in a direction you didn’t expect.

Have confidence in what you have to offer.

I did a talk at the MRS &More conference a couple of years ago and spoke about how much impact it can have to bring something of yourself to your work. Who cares if you’ve got one year’s experience and not twenty? That doesn’t mean that your point of view, your experience, isn’t valuable. Having a diverse industry is so critical to who we are and the value we bring, and that means taking on board the perspectives of all sorts of people – whether that’s in terms of ethnic background, gender or sexual preference, class, age, experience, etc. So give of yourself and don’t be afraid to share your opinions and interpretations.

And can I sneak in a third?? Look after yourself. Your career is important, yes. But so are you and your wellbeing – physical and mental. Thankfully companies are becoming so much more tuned into this now, but make sure you’re not overdoing things, get time away from your desk to be outside and active, and talk to someone if things are getting too much.

Do you have any advice for our sector as we emerge from the pandemic?

Please, please, please use this as an opportunity to embrace new ways of working. Yes, lots of people are really looking forward to getting back to the office, but let’s not default back to how things were.

A lot of people have massively benefited from the ability to work remotely, and actually we know now that a lot of what we do can be delivered perfectly well from anywhere.

When you’re thinking about what your workplace is going to be like post-Covid, think about what works for individuals as well as for the company. Your best asset is going to be people who are happy, healthy and thriving in what they do – and for some people that’s going to be the flexibility to work from home a lot more than they did before. For some it’s going to be able to be back in the office a lot more. Consult your people and listen to what they say. Think about how you use the office and what that space could and should be for. If people come back into the office, even for two or three days a week, is it worth it for them to just sit and spend that time working individually at their desks??

A hybrid workplace is going to be complicated, so be purposeful in how you think about what people’s jobs involve, how processes can be broken down and re-engineered, and how everything you do can be made to work and to support your people – and your business – regardless of where people are. I worked with a company recently where I was able to help them give much better definition to how they worked where. By talking to the team members and understanding their frustrations about working from home, and also what the benefits have been, I was able to make recommendations about what was likely to help them maximise their time in the office and think differently about some key tasks so they worked better for a mix of home and office working. Ensure that thinking about your workplace (whether that’s in the office or home or anywhere) is a core part of your business priorities and planning.

How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?

Let’s be honest, we have been talking about this, and the perceptions of our sector generally, for such a long time. I’m not sure I want to listen to any more conference panel discussions about how we’re thought of as people standing on street corners with clipboards. But the reason we’re still talking about it is because, despite lots of effort around university presentations and things like that, it’s still a really unknown profession. So maybe we need to think much more radically. Maybe we need a must-see Netflix series that’s set in a strategic insight consultancy? I’m imagining Call My Agent without the film stars!! Or viral TikToks about… hmm.. I might need some help in thinking how we could bring the sector to life in a TikTok. Maybe that’s a challenge for someone much younger than me?!!

But the other thing that could make a difference, although it’s a massive ask, is to look at the national curriculum.

This shouldn’t be a career that’s just for university graduates.

It’s definitely not helping our diversity as a sector that this, largely, continues to be the case. What if there was an A’ level in Research & Insight covering not just statistics and methods but the applications of research and strategic thinking? What if children in primary schools were running little research projects as part of work on citizenship, or humanities, or maths? Maybe we should be engaging with the teachers we know – anyone with a partner or close family member who’s a teacher – to see how we might be able to get that started.  

People understand careers because they grow up knowing about them. This sector is an absolutely wonderful place to be. And it doesn’t deserve to be a secret that’s only for those who are lucky enough to uncover it.

And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout out to?

So many people that if I started to list them I’d probably cause offence by leaving someone out! One of the things I love most about this sector is how strong the networks are and how small a world it is. You get to see people and cross paths with them in so many different situations, and there are so many people who’ve been supportive and generous with their time and advice over the years. And particularly over the last year there have been some key people (they know who they are!) who have given me advice and support as I’ve been setting up and launching my own business and it is hugely appreciated.

But – probably the people who’ve had most impact on my career are my family. Family was the reason we decided to move to France six years ago and that’s had a big impact on all of our lives. My husband took the decision to step back from his career to run the gites business we bought, in order to let me continue with my work. And the whole area around flexible and remote working is something I’ve got more and more involved in since our move, to the extent that last year I was able to launch my own business specifically focused on helping people in that area. So, our decision to prioritise family life has ultimately had the biggest impact on how my career has evolved and been shaped. So thank you to them.