What does the future hold for virtual internships?

Oct 12, 2020 | Work experience/internships

What does the future hold for virtual internships?

Oct 12, 2020 | Work experience/internships

The practical nature of placements challenged many student employers as they worked hard to adapt during Covid-19, so what does the future hold for virtual internships?

A recent ISE webinar with Ashurst, HSBC, RMP and Forage (formerly InsideSherpa) reflected on the past few months of virtual internships and looked ahead to future plans.

While ISE research showed that the number of internships and placements available this year would fall by 40% due to Covid-19, HSBC and Ashurst are among those employers that continued to offer opportunities to students.

One of the first decisions HSBC made was to honour all existing offers. While work placements went ahead, they were shortened to five weeks rather than eight. Graduate and intern development lead, Laura Anderson explains:

“Initially we thought this would just be a blip and it would go away, but we got to the point quite quickly that that wasn’t going to be the case and we realised that we would have to do something a little bit different from the norm. We ended up running all of our inductions virtually, our whole internship programme has been virtual – our placements, projects etc.”

Like HSBC, Ashurst didn’t anticipate how long lockdown would be, but quickly adapted to the new environment. HR manager for early careers, Carolyn O’Connor said:

“We had worked through the global financial crash and saw a real issue with trying to get talent where firms had completely frozen recruitment. We wanted to learn from that, so the business was committed to going ahead with our plans…How is this going to look, how can we replicate the experience as best as we can to ensure it’s interactive and students get the best experience they can?”


Virtual internships in practice

While adapting general induction material to online learning was an easy fix for Ashurst, re-creating work shadowing in a virtual environment was a much bigger challenge.

“We put together a content creation team. We got stakeholders within the business and current graduates to assist and started to pull together materials that we could use, so that candidates coming on would still be able to get an understanding of what the job would entail”, said Carolyn.

“It’s not the same as job shadowing, but it would still allow them to get an understanding of the work that they would normally be part of and they would still be able to engage with stakeholders.”

HSBC continued to integrate interns with people in the business, focusing on three core areas:

  1. Line manager education
  2. How to be successful in a virtual office
  3. How to build connections remotely

Laura commented, “we had a celebration event and feedback is that they couldn’t have imagined it being any better in person than what they were able to achieve virtually. In part this was down to them…they really made the most of every single opportunity we gave them.”


Virtual success

Forage has been providing technology infrastructure to help companies facilitate virtual internships throughout the pandemic. From the 5,500 students who have used the platform, feedback has been positive.

Students felt that virtual internships were more inclusive and the environment less clicky. Forage also saw more interaction between students who were interning in different cities for the same company and found that students appreciated the effort companies were making.

Founder Tom Brunskill said, “we genuinely see UK employers leading the way with being adaptable, picking up technology and doing things differently.”

RMP, a platform that allows students to rate their placement, enabled students to review virtual internships.

The company received positive feedback with 92% of students saying that they would recommend their experience to a friend and employers scored highly on company culture. The average review rating on RMP is 7.8/10, virtual internships gained a higher rating at 8.2.

However, social and networking experiences were among the lowest scores. All of those taking part in the ISE webinar highlighted the importance of a creative approach to ensure interns didn’t miss out on the social side of work.

Among virtual drinks and networking, we heard about virtual scavenger hunts, yoga sessions and painting as well as Michelin chefs offering virtual cookery classes.

Laura offered some advice, “social networking has to be using small rooms, so it feels easier and not too intimidating. Let interns run with it, leave it up to them as they know what will be fun.”


The future of virtual internships

Carolyn has relished the opportunity that virtual internships has delivered and is looking ahead to the next season, “we moved to amazing new offices in London last year but we don’t have as much space, so we had to limit how many could come onto our vacation scheme.

“Offering it on a virtual platform allows us to offer more spaces and in terms of diversity and inclusion we know that some people financially can’t afford to relocate to London for a few weeks.

“To ensure we get the best talent I think we will take a blended approach in the future, where we will still have some face-to-face, but we will be doing a lot of activity on a virtual platform including vacation schemes but also our campus activity and attraction events.”

RMP founder Oliver Sidwell advocates shorter virtual internships, “Whether it’s 8-12 week summer internships or year-long summer placements it will be very difficult to get the level of content to keep quality and engagement high.

“I certainly see it (virtual internships) being used more efficiently and effectively for shorter term schemes, so running one day insight schemes, up to a week. I think they will be the ones that will continue to be virtual either in one year or five years’ time.”

A possible solution for employers looking to run longer-term virtual internships is a hybrid approach. “While students loved the virtual experience, ultimately it can’t replace physical human connection,” said Tom.

“This idea of adopting a hybrid model, and we’re seeing more chatter about that in the UK than in other regions, I think is a really exciting path for companies to be going down. I don’t think the virtual internship is going to replace the physical experience, but I think that the hybrid model could be really interesting going forward.”

Laura is taking a reflective approach to next season, “I think we need a period of reflection to understand from the interns’ perspective and from the business what value they have been able to gain and add to HSBC.

“I’m really open to exploring things…. It has prompted us to be more creative about how we’ve done things. Just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way.”

Watch ISE webinar – the future of internship and placement programmes

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