Virtual Internships Replacing Live Projects: Boon or Bane?

Virtual internships are an unavoidable reality in 2021. While hands-on internship programs are stepping stone towards attractive, enriching, and lucrative career trajectories, being present on-site and collaborating face-to-face with senior team members are no longer feasible. That’s why companies of every size have turned to virtual internship programs, hoping to maintain business continuity and fulfil their obligations to the student community. It has been incredibly heartening to see how flexible and accommodating internship hosts have been, continuing to support and offer valuable opportunities to student interns. It has also been a chance to understand how remote internships can benefit students and hosts and what lessons students take away from experience. Recent surveys and feedback have found that Virtual or Remote Internship has advantages and disadvantages as under:

But how does this play out in the real world? Is remote collaboration sufficient for young professionals who are almost entirely unfamiliar with the business, or does this imply a long-term problem for upskilling?

The answer is complex.

Students Are Happy with Virtual Internships (for Now)

A recent survey revealed that sentiment towards virtual internships is mainly optimistic. 51% of students were just happy that their internships were not deffered, thus delaying their entry into the working world. Another survey indicated a lot of interest among current students to participate in virtual internship programs, with 18% being extraordinarily interested and 38% being somewhat interested. It can be attributed to the overall atmosphere of anxiety and fears around job insecurity in 2020–21, making students feel grateful that their opportunities are intact in whatever form.

As I have been part of a company delivering Virtual, Remote and Physical Internships to students, the early adopter has been students in Science and Technology subjects. However, recently I have noticed the pickup in other topics like marketing, legal etc. The requirements for cases to succeed is the availability of course & work materials online and counsellors who then can guide students. It gives students in a prime position not only to take advantage of the increase in remote-working internship opportunities but be prepared to do remote work subsequently,

But it remains to be seen whether the same trend will continue to play out in the long term and if the absence of in-person learning during these formative months will impact students’ long-term skill levels.

For now, organisations should convert their internship strategies into a remote-ready format to not lose out on top talent and stay engaged with the student community. After all, cancelling internships altogether would raise questions around organisational resilience and deter students from returning to these employers in a post-pandemic world.

Virtual internships also promise unexpected benefits.

Virtual Internship Programs Are a Boon for Many

The biggest beneficiaries of virtual internship programs are students from remote regions, who now enjoy a level playing field. Expensive relocations and lengthy commutes are no longer required, as students can log in from an intelligent networked system to start working. In many ways, this is a meritocracy in its most accurate form, where top talent has the highest chances of getting matched with top employers without physical barriers.

For example, Claire Jeantheau, a classics & education major from Dickinson College and living in Central Virginia, obtained a virtual internship in Washington D.C. and saved significantly in housing, transportation, and F&B costs.

Many students have acknowledged that a remote internship has undoubtedly been a different experience than working on-site. The new skills required to do an internship are time management, research-backed by self-reliance, problem solving and collaboration. However, many students working-from-home experience while it made it easier to Zoom. Still, the scheduling with busy mentors remained a challenge the only way to overcome this was for students who had better communications skills.

An essential element of Virtual Internship has been building confidence in students, which starts with self-reliance, improving their ability to problem-solve independently. This uptick in skills also will stand in good stead throughout a student’s professional career. While working remotely and collectively with other interns, I have noticed that some unexpected benefits of Virtual Internship are the ability of the students to work collectively and thus reduce dependence on supervisors. This independence has helped them to a better understanding of the work.

The implications for a country like India, with its segregated job opportunities and clear urban hubs of job saturation, are incredible.

The Way Forward

It doesn’t take away from the structural challenges of virtual internships and the need for in-person learning, networking, and collaboration. Few pointers are below:

1. Develop motivation: Remote internships provide a great platform in times of pandemic to develop professionally and make connections. So how do we hold this motivation up and persevere in it? In case of weaker moments, try to remember why you, i.e. the company and the intern, have started the remote internship. The company has to set aside resources as interns are their future employees, and they can also participate in expanding the digital brand. Do not give up; keep up the momentum! While the interns need to remember to gain job experience, learn digital or soft skills, practise languages, meet new people etc.

2. Scheduling and organising work events: It might become harder for any professional to organise work when working from home and for interns even more challenging when they are studying simultaneously. Need to have a strict work schedule and thank god for their no supervisor behind your back. Virtual internships are a great way to develop time management and work organisation skills to reconcile all duties. Interns need to leverage plenty of online or traditional tools that you can use for free to organise your schedule. In terms of online tools, you might use Google calendar, Microsoft Teams tasks, Doodle or Sticky Notes etc.

3. Improve self-management: Interning remotely from home can be very comfortable as you are in your familiar surroundings. Self-management is going by the watch for every task you do but consists of various elements, including interpersonal skills, confidence, flexibility, etc. You need to set boundaries and stay professional and disciplined. If you feel tired while performing some task, take a break. It is scientifically proven that frequent, short breaks increase productivity than in the long and single ones.

4. Adopt formal remote inductions: A virtual internship needs to be supported by training and a new challenge of working remotely on a project. While there are common elements in the onboarding experience for every new hire, to prepare them for their new job, you need to offer customised learning paths that provide information and support for each role and their learning needs and speed. It is essential to provide a digital employee handbook and as well details around company culture. It is necessary to create a sense of belonging and allow interns to introduce themselves through a Video blog, and create collaborative learning to improve belonging.

After all, this period is key to imbibing many hard, soft, and life skills that shape our professional tenure. However, until a return to in-person workplaces and on-site programs is possible, companies must amplify the benefits of virtual internships and reimagine their strategy for now normal.

You can email me <<arvind@am-pmassociates.com>> to continue the conversation. And watch this space for the next instalment, where I discuss my recommendations for maximising virtual internships.

Board Advisor, Growth Enabler, Strategy & Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor

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Arvind Mehrotra

Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Growth Enabler, Strategy & Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor

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