Experiences of a virtual intern

Jul 27, 2020 | Work experience/internships

Lockdown put the rise of virtual internships on fast forward. Emily Hertzell, Placements Officer at Royal Holloway University of London, shares the experiences of one student to highlight how employers can best support interns remotely.

In some ways employers and students have found themselves in the same boat: trying to navigate remote working. A common assumption is that current students, Generation Z, are naturally tech-savvy, but this is an overly simplistic and generalised view. They may be quick to learn, but many lack experience in a professional environment.

While employers are adjusting to homeworking from an already established role, a virtual internship may be the first professional setting and introduction to the world of work for a student.

Virtual inductions

Royal Holloway student Will Hertzell, who had just accepted a part-time role as an events assistant, suddenly found himself facing an entirely new job – assisting with the operating of events online. Interns like Will have had to learn and adapt quickly.

As well as dealing with a more remote job role, Will also faced new responsibilities. While the employer always made themselves available, it was very difficult to set aside dedicated time for an induction in any similar way to what might have happened in person.

It’s important that employers set realistic and clear directives and expectations from the outset, and make themselves available for questions when interns may feel more hesitant about asking when it involves a call or virtual chat, compared to openly asking in an office.

Employers should consider how they could add value to the virtual induction. As well as introducing interns to the team initially and including them in team meetings going forward, could you offer a regular virtual coffee networking hour to talk about the business and allow them to ask questions?

Our best advice is to try to treat any sort of virtual internship as you would in person: by allotting time for a good induction and preparation of materials. In fact there can be many efficient benefits to inducting students online, such as using services like Dropbox to store and share files, and video calls to share screens for training. Will felt that these tools allowed both him and the employer to utilise their time and resources more effectively.

Reality of a virtual internship

It’s important to ensure the intern has a clear understanding of working hours. Largely due to working remotely, Will initially felt unclear about logging the hours that he’d been asked to be ‘available’ which he found more difficult to define as ‘working’, or if he’d spent an extra 20 minutes later that day responding to emails. These of course need to be counted, and students need to have reassurance and clarity over this.

When making pre-arranged calls to clients, Will felt that this direct method of contact could seem intrusive when professionals have had to turn their homes into their workspace. He also felt there was ambiguity around body language and the smaller social cues one would usually pick up in person. Employers should consider what they could do to better prepare an intern for situations where typical professional markers are lacking.

A brief help sheet for remote working can really help to guide the intern beyond the induction. If you’re unsure where to start or don’t have the resources to create one yourself, ask the student’s university careers service.

Blurred lines

How students distinguish their boundaries is important. Many students have felt challenged by their circumstances when setting up homeworking. Even online we are pushed into ‘structures’ such as virtual conference rooms, waiting rooms, and time blockings. However, when always working from one room, this can make the experience feel “less real”, in Will’s words.

Whereas employers already have established relationships and projects, for an intern diving in, this is very much a virtual reality – they may never even meet the employer in person or see the end result of their work. It’s important to ensure the student has clear instruction and permission on how and when to take breaks and care for their wellbeing.

Nurturing environment

Virtual internships offer students an excellent opportunity for development. Overall, Will feels he has increased his organisational skills by having to be more independent and self-disciplined. Creating a supportive and constructive environment to nurture this has been vital.

The desire for a change of scene and the lack of social interaction can lead to frustration, distraction, and feelings of nonfulfillment, or despondency. Employers can help encourage and motivate interns with regular feedback, including them in debriefs and conversations around the wider context of tasks, even if some appear basic or less demanding.

Develop ways you can demonstrate to the student how they are contributing, and what impacts their work has. Depending on the length of placements, a regular one-to-one or team meeting with other interns and catch-up/round-up emails can greatly boost morale.

Creating a proper ending to the virtual experience is important for both the employer and intern. Agree a handover and allow time for interaction with other team members as well as a review and reflection of the work and skills developed. If possible, follow up the virtual experience with an offer of something tangible such as connect on LinkedIn, offer a CV session to help them talk about the experience to future employers or arrange a coffee networking hour in person when social distancing allows.

Taking on fresh talent and expanding opportunities for students virtually is a win-win. Many employers and students are already working hard to bring the most positive outcomes from a challenging situation.

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