Publication - Research and analysis

Social Security client and experience panels research: effects of the coronavirus pandemic on communication preferences

Published: 23 Aug 2021
Director-General Communities
Social Security Directorate
Part of:
Coronavirus in Scotland

A report of findings from research with client and experience panels about communication preferences.

Social Security client and experience panels research: effects of the coronavirus pandemic on communication preferences
Talking to Social Security Scotland via video call

Talking to Social Security Scotland via video call

The proportion of respondents choosing video call increased during and after the pandemic from three to five percent (Figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1: Preference for video call communication across five reasons for getting in touch with Social Security Scotland (n=approx. 484)

Bar chart showing preference for video call communication across five reasons for getting in touch with Social Security Scotland. Total number approximately 484. Description of chart in text.

Proportionally, more respondents with experience of a disability benefit chose video call than those with experience of other benefits. This remained less than five per cent for any purpose.

When to use a video call

Table 7.1 shows the proportion of respondents choosing video call for each purpose before, during and after the pandemic.

Table 7.1: preference for video call before, during and after the pandemic (n=approx. 484)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 2.5 4.4 4.6
Applying for a benefit 2.9 4.8 4.4
Asking about the progress of your application 2.9 5.1 5.2
An urgent situation relating to your claim 3.2 6.6 5.7
Advising a change in circumstances 1.9 3.2 4.0

The proportion of survey respondents choosing video call during and after the pandemic was fairly consistent across the purposes. Compared to the other purposes, fewer respondents said they preferred video call for advising a change in circumstances. Video call was not the most preferred method for any purpose but was the third most popular option for advice and general information and an urgent situation.

Only 2 of the 65 Client Panel respondents said they would prefer video call for any of the reasons for getting in touch. Proportionally more Experience Panel members were interested in video call. 13 per cent of Experience Panel respondents chose this for at least one purpose. No respondent under the age of 25 or over 80 chose video call.

Participants had different ideas about what purposes were best suited to video call. One interview participant said they would like to use video calls for all interactions. There was a mix of opinions about using a video call for advice and general information. One interview participant said a video call would be a helpful to help understand online information before making an application. Another participant said it was easier to get straightforward information over the phone.

"To be honest, I think all the time. I think I feel better speaking to a person and seeing them rather than speaking to a stranger on the phone and sometimes I think on the phone you don't understand the problems in the same way as seeing somebody." (interview participant)

"Yeah if I was looking for information probably not. If it was a back and forward type of thing, it might be better not just over phone call where you can't see." (interview participant)

"For a first time person, there's so much information it's quite hard to sift through so I think pre-application would be a good starting point [for video calls] to give people good, personalised information….on the website, it's written for everyone to read." (interview participant)

Some participants who were in favour of video calls said they would only consider using this method if it was appropriate to the situation. One participant said she would have been unlikely to use video call when applying for Funeral Support Payment. The participant said she would've been concerned about appearing on screen while upset. Another participant said that they were unlikely to use a video call to challenge a decision. Again, this was to avoid getting upset in front of an adviser.

"Preferred over the phone as my mum had just passed, so with teary-eyes and blurriness you know, I think it would be based on the situation…I wouldn't have wanted to make the person feel awkward. Totally different hearing it but totally different seeing someone upset when you're at the other side of the computer screen." (interview participant with experience of Funeral Support Payment)

"I would prefer an email for the decision, if the decision was against me I wouldn't want someone to see me in tears." (interview participant)

Arranging a video call

Almost all interview participants said they would expect Social Security Scotland to arrange video calls in advance. Participants said they would want to receive an invite to a video call with a link to join the meeting. Participants mentioned a range of ways to receive this information including letters and via phone call. Some said they would prefer an invite via email as it is easy to click a link directly to the meeting. Some also said an email would allow them to directly add the appointment to their online calendar. One participant noted that text messages with reminders about the appointment can also be helpful.

"I prefer email personally…I can then automatically transfer it from the email to my diary and my diary will give me the options to put alarms on." (interview participant)

"Email…looking at it from an older person's point of view, they can see 'oh that's a link, I can click on that'…rather than a letter and trying to copy that into a browser." (interview participant)

There were also a couple of suggestions about other ways video calls could be arranged. One interview participant suggested there could be a permanent video call link which clients could use at any time to connect with an adviser. One participant suggested a 'drop-in' video call service for specific benefits or at routine intervals across the year.

"If it was while applying, I would like a form online that can apply then if it's a video link that would be initiated by Social Security Scotland. I'd also like a video link to a central area if I had a question. Say I was going to make a change, you could either have a form, put it through in a form then video link comes back or have like a call centre that I could call in on in a video." (interview participant)

"You could potentially have a Zoom call for a particular grant where people could drop in and out, as they so wish. We've done a few at nursery where we've been able to drop in and out as we needed to which worked really well so I don't know if that's something Social Security Scotland would look at. Maybe every quarter or half a year, whatever, running like a workshop day." (interview participant)

As well as the time and date of the call, participants said it would be helpful if an invite to a video call included information about what would be discussed and how long the call might last. One participant said it could be helpful to include an indication of whether confidential information would be discussed. This would allow clients to choose an appropriate space at home to have the call. Other information mentioned by participants included a list of documents or information to prepare in advance and information on how to rearrange.

Participants also said instructions about how to join the call would be helpful as well as guidance on what to do if problems occurred. One participant said it could be helpful to know the gender of the adviser who will be on the call. One participant said the invite should ask if the adviser can use the client's first name.

"What we're going to talk about…anything I need specifically like ID." (interview participant)

"Rough length of time to be sitting there is a big one as a disabled person, I think. People can't concentrate for long if it is a long call, need to do the toilet beforehand or make sure medication is beside them, a drink." (interview participant)

"I would expect to see a link showing me exactly what to do as if I was a first-time user." (interview participant)

Using cameras

Many said a key benefit was being able to see the person you're talking to. Participants felt a sense of human connection that could be missing in other forms of communication. Video calls allow both parties to see facial expressions and body language and hear inflections and subtleties in speech. As such, most participants said they would want cameras to be on during a video call with Social Security Scotland. Some participants said that this was the key feature of video calls and would expect to see the adviser they were talking to.

"You can see the reaction…they can see the reaction to [their] questions." (interview participant)

"I love them. We dreamed of having phones that had video in them. We have them. Unfortunately it's not available to everyone but to me is a massive improvement on the communication that is possible. For example, I can't see if you are rolling your eyes, or if you're smiling. In a video call it's all there." (interview participant)

"It's nice to see a face when you are speaking to somebody, it makes it more personal in a way, you are not speaking to a stranger on a phone, you are looking at somebody you are speaking to them, it's more like, you don't know them but it's easier." (interview participant)

A few participants said that not everyone might be comfortable using their camera. Reasons included anxiety around appearance, maintaining privacy at home and potential interruptions from other household members.

"Having both the cameras on but the person having the option to turn it off…some people don't like that. [Someone with] anxiety or body dysmorphia then maybe they don't always want to go in front of a camera." (interview participant)

Video call platforms

People who took part in the research mentioned experience with a variety of different platforms: AttendAnywhere, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Signal, Skype, Teams, Vscene, WebEx, WhatsApp and Zoom. Survey respondents said which video call platform they preferred to use. (Table 7.2).

Table 7.2: Which of these platforms do you prefer to use? (n=53)
I am happy to use any platform 45.3
Zoom 39.6
Microsoft Teams 9.4
Skype 3.8
I have never used a video call platform 1.9
Total 100

Most respondents (45 per cent) said they were happy to use any platform. Two in five (40 per cent) preferred Zoom. One respondent said they would be interested in having a video call but had never done this before.

Respondents were asked what they liked about their preferred platform. Those who preferred Zoom said they found it easy to use. Comments also noted that Zoom was easy to access without the need to download software. Some participants raised concerns about the security of calls made via Zoom.

"Zoom has been simplest, but I've heard it's the least secure. You can do it on the app, or on the webpage. This one seems to be least trouble." (interview participant)

"Zoom is the best. It seems to be the most stable with a clear image." (survey respondent)

"Zoom is probably the easiest because you just get given a username and password and type it in and go bing! Some of them have to download different things and that can be a bit confusing for some people." (interview participant)

Those with experience of both Zoom and Teams sometimes said that they found Teams more complicated to use than Zoom. Others preferred Teams and said they found it easy to use and thought it was more secure.

"Teams is the best, you don't need to have a Microsoft account. I can set one up and invite anyone if I have an email address. You don't have to download anything, the security is also a lot better than Zoom, you can't just walk into that." (interview participant)

As well as being easy to use, there were other video call features that were important to participants. These included a chat function and the ability to share documents. A couple of participants said they might use a function that allowed them to record the call.

Security and technical issues

Interview participants didn't raise specific security concerns about video calls with Social Security Scotland. Some noted that they were aware of potential security issues and mentioned these in relation to specific platforms or apps.

A couple of participants said they would expect Social Security Scotland to consider privacy and security and take the necessary steps to ensure these for clients. One participant said they would search for information and reviews online about any platform Social Security Scotland would use for video calls.

"I wouldn't expect it to be in an office full of other people…it [security] wouldn't really concern me, I know that steps would be taken to ensure your privacy is respected as much as possible." (interview participant)

Some participants said that technical issues can make video call less effective. Some said it would be important that any platform used by Social Security Scotland gives a good quality call experience.[7]

"It [which platform] doesn't matter as long as it works. I had one experience where my sister in law had a Zoom call with her doctor. It wasn't working and we weren't sure what was going on." (interview participant)

Video calls during the pandemic

The preference for video calls increased among respondents who said their preferred way to get in touch would change if they had to contact Social Security Scotland in the next two weeks. This is shown in Table 7.3.

Table 7.3: Increase in preference for video calls among survey respondents who changed preferences during the pandemic (n=approx. 110)
Before the pandemic (%) During the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 1.8 10.4
Applying for a benefit 0 8.3
Asking about the progress of your application 0 9.3
Urgent situation relating to your claim 0 15.0
Advising a change of circumstances 0 5.6

For making contact before the pandemic, almost none of these participants chose video call as their preferred method. For making contact in the next two weeks however, video call increased by at least 5 percentage points for every purpose. The biggest increase was for an urgent situation relating to your claim, which increased from zero to 15 per cent. Increased preference for video call among these respondents was consistent with the shift to online methods discussed in the previous chapter.

For some respondents, their first experience with video call had been during the pandemic. Respondents said video call had become an important way to stay in touch with friends and family. Some also said they had used video call to speak with their GP. Some participants also noted that video call had been a vital tool for children and students while schools, colleges and universities were closed. Many said the use of video calls for these different aspects of daily life during the pandemic had increased awareness of and confidence using the technology.

"And at the very beginning [of the pandemic] I was totally – I hadn't used them before or Microsoft Teams. But I'm kind of a dab hand at it now." (interview participant)

"I've used video calls so much more during the pandemic and find them easy and satisfying to use." (survey respondent)

"I feel more confident using video calls than I did before the pandemic." (survey respondent)

Some survey respondents and interview participants said that video calls could replace in person interactions while restrictions limited meeting people from other households.

"Where I would have preferred in person for something urgent I wouldn't during the pandemic but would like a video call instead. This would be to reduce contact with people." (survey respondent)

"I would prefer face-to-face contact. In the current circumstances video call is the next best thing." (interview participant)

Some respondents said they had changed their preferences to include video calls in place of telephone calls. These respondents said that with staff working from home during the pandemic, they would expect longer wait times to speak to an adviser. Video calls were considered a quicker way to get answers to questions while this was the case.

"Given the current situation I would change to online/video chat as restricted number of staff therefore wait times on telephone would increase." (survey respondent)

"Phone calls take ages to get through. Video calls are by appointment so much more likely to get a resolution fast." (survey respondent)

Using video calls after the pandemic

Video call increased among respondents who said that their preferred way to get in touch would change after the pandemic. This is shown in Table 7.4.

Table 7.4: Increase in preference for video calls among survey respondents who changed preferences after the pandemic (n=approx. 93)
Before the pandemic (%) After the pandemic (%)
Advice and general information 2.2 4.6
Applying for a benefit 2.9 4.4
Asking about the progress of your application 3.0 5.2
Urgent situation relating to your claim 3.2 5.7
Advising a change of circumstances 1.9 10.9

Preference for video call increased for all reasons for getting in touch. The largest increase was for advising a change in circumstances from 2 per cent to 11 per cent. These increases are consistent with the trend for more online communication discussed in the previous chapter.

Some respondents said their experiences during the pandemic meant they now considered it a helpful way to get in touch.

"We have got so used to doing a lot of interviews by Zoom/web chat now." (survey respondent)

"Have realised how useful video calls are." (survey respondent)

Once the pandemic was no longer a serious risk to public health, some participants thought that video call would be a convenient way to have face-to-face interactions. Many of these participants had experience of disability benefits. Participants said that video call replicates the face-to-face experience and was convenient for clients who may face difficulties leaving home to travel to an appointment. One participant said that virtual meetings should replace in-person contact from now on.

"I prefer a face to face option without the need for travelling and trying to find parking and sitting in a waiting room." (survey respondent)

"It's a good alternative to face-to-face without the hassle of organising travel logistically, financially and emotionally while still having a person you can see and who can see you which I think is important for building a rapport and trust." (survey respondent)

"For things such as disability benefits and you would need to do an interview so instead of going and having the assessment in person then doing it via video call would be the next best thing…it means for folk like myself who have some days are worse than others then that would be ideal." (interview participant with experience of Best Start Grant/Foods and Young Carer Grant)

"If technology can support virtual meetings on an ongoing basis, I cannot for see a situation that would require a return to actual physical attendance." (survey participant)

Some suggested that after the pandemic, video calls should become part of a range of options for clients to engage face-to-face with Social Security Scotland. Some comments recognised that not all clients have internet access or feel comfortable using online technology. For these clients, video calls should not replace the offer of in-person meetings or home visits.

"[Video calls have] been a positive change. But I wouldn't like it to permanently replace, face-to-face meetings. Because the dynamics of them, like in face-to-face meetings than online – If I had the choice, I'd have a mix of online meetings or face-to-face meetings." (interview participant)

"I think it would be a bit of both. I think we have to move forward with online. [Video calls] would save both the claimants and the government's office money because it could be done within the home and…it would be better because you then feel more comfortable in that respect." (interview participant)

"Social Security Scotland should consider making full use of the video and chat technologies that many people are used to using now. I appreciate a percentage of the population remain digitally excluded and so there should be provision to support these people running in tandem." (survey respondent)