Many organisations have been considering the possibility of hosting virtual internships, due to the need for social distancing under COVID-19.
This represents uncharted waters for some of the companies, as they have had traditional internship programmes over the years.
With COVID-19 social distancing restrictions preventing many young people from joining traditional onthe-job internships, virtual internships can provide a viable alternative. While professional service providers and international legal firms have been offering virtual internships for some time, moving programmes online can help not only interns, but mentors and HR teams across the wide sweep of industry sectors to adapt to the new world of remote work. However, as MWYO, an independent think tank that focuses on youth issues in Hong Kong, has noted, virtual internships as a mode of training and development have brought new challenges and possibilities for the realm of HR.
Communication is a key challenge and opportunity
Communication is always a challenge when it comes to distance working. It is not easy for interns to ask their colleagues and supervisors for advice and assistance. With communication mostly dependent on instant messaging, colleagues may not respond as quickly as they would if they were at the office. Interns can’t learn by observing their colleagues doing their tasks, which can affect their performance. They may have the tendency to slack off during working hours without direct supervision from their superiors. Supervisors need to follow up on interns’ work more often, to ensure they work diligently.
Communication is also a challenge for employers. They can’t ensure that interns have adequate digital equipment to work from home. Furthermore, they may find it difficult to explain new tasks to interns without face-to-face interaction. Supervisors can only assign tasks which were explained before the distance working arrangement began. These challenges may limit the range of tasks which the participants can learn from throughout the internship.
However, a well-planned virtual internship can overcome these challenges to a certain extent, offer a unique learning opportunity, and train the intern as a potential fulltime staff. Virtual internships, as a new medium, require interns to pick up new skills to excel in. For instance, virtual communication demands a higher level of clarity and conciseness. Self-initiative and independent problem solving skills are equally important, as the intern is under less supervision, and should be more active in reporting to his/ her colleagues, taking up new skills, and improving on completed tasks. The intern should be encouraged to first come up with a solution by him/ herself, and then ask colleagues for guidance and advice for improvement.
How to get the most out of virtual internships
Not all industries and functions are suitable for hosting virtual internships. For instance, front-line service workers can’t accommodate distance working arrangements. Even for industries where virtual internships are technically viable, there are many things to consider, such as the confidentiality of documents, the availability of technical support, the complexity of tasks, and most importantly, how the virtual internship can replicate the working environment and skill requirements of the same role in the office environment.
Based on feedback from employers and interns, the success of virtual internships relies on mutually agreed work arrangements and standards of conduct before their commencement. For instance, supervisors should schedule regular follow-up sessions each week with the intern, and designate tasks which are suitable for working from home. Furthermore, despite the limitations, interns should be provided with opportunities to interact with their colleagues, supervisors and clients, and partake in workplace discussions whenever possible.
A mentor is always the key to good coaching, but in the case of virtual internships, this role has become even more important. The designated mentor guides the intern through the journey of employment, by imparting valuable experience and listening to the intern’s difficulties and feedback. Interns under distance working have limited opportunities to interact and learn from other colleagues, and that is all the more reason to have a mentor regularly check up on the well-being, learning and development of the intern.
To maximise the positive effect that the mentor can have on the intern, they should set up regular online appointments to discuss the intern’s learning and working progress, and even chat on instant messaging apps to efficiently communicate with each other. Meanwhile, if identifying future employees is a key objective of the company, the mentor can provide a critical evaluation of the intern.
The virtual internship is not a
perfect substitute to its traditional
counterpart. However, with proper
preparation and arrangement, a
virtual internship programme can
still serve the objectives of internship
from both the company’s and intern’s
perspectives. While COVID-19 has
disrupted traditional internships,
it has also serendipitously shed
insights on how a virtual internship
arrangement can still succeed.