Are virtual internships the way ahead?
Covid-19 has done a real number on the economy, hasn’t it? With high streets closed and everyone holed up in their homes, the economy contracted 20.4% between April and June this year – the first time there’s been a recession since the crash of 2008.1 Recent graduates face a brick wall where a road should have been, with internship opportunities dropping by almost a third.2 Many companies are having to switch things up and change in-house internships with virtual ones to comply with social distancing. But are they still worth it for someone trying to get their first taste of industry experience?
I’m about four weeks into my internship with Montpellier PR. The first two spent, in an unusually empty office, learning the ropes, always stood two meters away from other staff members. The second two weeks has been spent at home, utilising a provided work laptop, to undertake projects and communicate. This has put me in the position to be able to compare the two experiences, the good, the bad and the Covid-19 rules compliant.
Like many, jarring early alarms and rushing off to catch the nearest train or bus has been a significant feature of my working life. Interning at home, I can simply roll out of bed and grab a cup of coffee before starting work. There’s no need to search for misplaced keys or hoof it to the bus. It’s less stressful, and frees up the time that would be spent commuting each day.
For those with wheelchairs and mobility difficulties, this could be a game changer. No longer would there be a requirement to navigate buses, stairs or narrow pathways to get to the office. For many, provided they have a computer and internet access, identical work can be done at home.
My work has remained the same; taking on projects and receiving feedback. If I have a question, I can send an email. It’s not as immediate as face to face contact, but it gets the job done. Meetings and social events, like our weekly scheduled Coffee and Chat breaks, are done by video call. You still get to learn and get to know your co-workers, even if they’re not right in front of you.
Without the strictures of office life there’s a great deal of flexibility when you work from home. You can work earlier or later if that’s what you need. Commitments can be prioritised around your schedule, as long as the work is done and deadlines are met. Eating a sandwich at your desk is no longer the only thing you’re able to do during lunchbreak. The kitchen is just around the corner. You can work, without worrying about all the things that surround going to work, in the comfort of your own home.
This makes life cheaper, particularly for already indebted graduates, who can’t afford to live where the biggest employers are located. Approximately 1/5th of the Fortune Global 500 companies have their headquarters in London.3 But the housing cost in London is also double the national average 4. Virtual internships open up positions to more than just those who can afford to live near the office.
Ultimately, a virtual internship still nets you many of the vital benefits of a traditional one. It gets you accustomed to how the business works, you can meet co-workers, establish contacts and build a body of work that you can show to future employers. But there are some things a virtual internship can’t replicate.
Being on your own removes the opportunity to learn on the fly. A lot can go on in an office that doesn’t strictly fall under formal training. You could be pulled into an unexpected meeting, be introduced to a colleague from another department or have a casual conversation about work with the people nearest to you. These are all learning opportunities you can’t get whilst stuck inside on your own.
Which brings us to the fact that it’s isolating, just you and a laptop, in a room. For some, this arrangement works, happy to squirrel away at assignments without much contact. Others need the positive vibes of social interaction to get motivated. Often larger companies hire interns as a group, together you get to know one another and get introduced to the company culture. This gets you used to working as part of a team in a way that only seeing others in the occasional video call simply doesn’t.
Working alone it can be difficult to resist the siren song of social media. There’s nobody there to catch you absent-mindedly browsing Facebook or Twitter. Keeping your personal phone out of arms reach, or even giving it to someone else to take care of helps. But ultimately, you have to be much more responsible with organising your own time. Home can be full of distractions, family members, pets, noises, things to do, that make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.
Home also does not have the plethora of resources that an office has. Working while lying on the sofa may be tempting, but your back will not be happy with you in the long run. Not everyone has the luxury or space for a proper desk and chair. You might not have a table at all. Being in an office comes with stationary, desks, chairs, computers, software, printers and other equipment that you are free to use. I often need to print articles for research, but no piddly at home printer could possibly do the job of the industrial printing machines in offices.
A pre-supposition I’ve made throughout these pros and cons is that your work is doable from a computer, or at least in isolation. Much of my work as a PR intern can be done this way. But this will not be the case for everyone. For some occupations, working from home simply isn’t viable. In these cases, to get experience in your field of choice in these difficult times, will need to do some out-of-the-box thinking. Look at who is still hiring and consider roles adjacent to the one you’re after.
The Covid-19 rules compliant.
Virtual internships aren’t perfect, but at the end of the day, for a fresh graduate taking their first steps into the world of work, it is a step in the right direction. Each industry has different limitations on how accommodating it can be to working from home. When Covid-19 eventually recedes, some industries may return to the way things were, others may mold to the remote working patterns Covid-19 has induced. For now, moving the training of new interns online is a necessary reaction to the pandemic, an extension of the virtual training that companies already engage in 5. But in the long run, the benefits of hands on, in person training, cannot easily be replaced; particularly for those brand new to a company such as interns.
By Pete Workman