A brief guide to virtual internships

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The Covid-19 pandemic has not only forced many to work remotely from home, but it has also disrupted the plans of those hoping to do internships, with many programmes either cancelled or moving online.

Recruitment platform Yello’s Virtual Internship Statistics and Trends: A 2020 COVID-19 Impact Report found that when asked how college students feel about their internships going virtual, 51% were simply happy their internships weren’t cancelled, while others were worried the experience wouldn’t be good or that they’d be unable to convince they merit a full-time role.

In this brief guide we’ll look at virtual internships, differences to in-person programmes and how to make the most of one.

What are virtual internships?

Internships are work experience placements in which people intern at an organisation to gain valuable employability skills and potentially a permanent placement. Virtual internships are conducted entirely remotely, using software and applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, Slack, email, telephones and webinars.

More often than not, remote internships are taken by students and graduates to develop skills in a chosen sector, or to explore an industry or role they might not yet be 100% committed to. They provide first-hand experience with companies, often on a global scale, while participants work from the comfort of home or wherever they feel comfortable, eg a library or a coworking space. 

Virtual internships look great on a CV, conveying not only the skills and experience you’ve gained, but also that you had the determination to do it remotely – which in itself is a valuable skillset – at a time when companies have been cancelling face-to-face internships.

How long do virtual internships last?

According to Virtual Internships, a good remote work experience programme should consist of around 120 hours, requiring 20-30 hours per week over a four, eight or 12 week period. The projects you’d be involved with will likely run over such timeframes.

Which industries are offering them?

Virtual Internships are being run by both entrepreneurial startups to large well-known companies. Examples of sectors offering virtual internships include green technology, software engineering, fashion, sports management and professional services, like the Big 4.

The war for talent is only getting stronger, with more roles advertised than available candidates, so expect to see virtual internship schemes grow.

Are virtual internships as respected as in-person?

Yes. Employers increasingly recognise that virtual internships prepare students for a new normal of remote and flexible working.

Will you get paid?

This depends on the company. Many larger firms will pay, while NGOs, start-ups and smaller companies may not be able to afford it. Though it’s worth noting that virtual internships are cheaper, given less money spent on travel, food and, in some cases, accommodation.


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The similarities and differences between in-person and virtual

It’s completely understandable to think that in-person experience is far more valuable and rewarding than remote, but in an increasingly virtual working environment, especially for finance professionals, you’d be surprised.

Similarities

You’re part of a team: Both involve being integrated into a team that you can turn to for support and answers, it’s just that you’ll be doing it via Slack, Zoom, Teams or Google Chat, instead of by the water cooler.

You’ll be in constant communication with your team: True in both scenarios, but communication and knowledge transfer are arguably better working remotely, thanks to online resources and communication apps. Working remotely also provides a balance between being independent and using your initiative with leaning on supervisors or teammates for direction and support.

You’ll have a supervisor/manager you report to: A supervisor will work closely with you to develop a good working relationship, resulting in new skills and understanding of your progress.

Project-based work: There is a stereotype of interns being overlooked and ignored or tasked with menial jobs. However, good internships can lead to being entrusted with important tasks on a project.

Differences

Transport: There is no travel with online internships, giving you more time to focus on the programme, while enjoying good work-life balance.

Cost: Virtual internships are cheaper, saving you money on travel and food, as well as time lost to travel.

Relationship building: This can be easier online, with people given more time to gather their thoughts before expressing themselves, they see their confidence growing. Nevertheless, there is still the need to develop in-person people skills, especially to develop longer-lasting relationships.

Communication: Virtual internships offer a wider range of multichannel communications, including email, video conferencing, instant messaging, telephone, email, project management tools and instant messaging. Understanding and harnessing new communication tools is a huge upside of a virtual internship, a skill you will undoubtedly use throughout your working life. 

Flexibility: Remote internships allow for flexible schedules, given the project-based nature. All meetings are held online and assignments completed online. You can plan meetings around your time and finish tasks at your own pace.

How to make the most of a virtual internship

Largely similar to how you would do so in a real-world setting but with the twist of doing everything online.

  1. Learn about the organisation: Understand its expectations, culture and communication style.
  2. Be prepared: Have your physical workspace ready - a comfortable, quiet home space, for example, with a tidy background for video calls. Have your digital working environment ready too – have downloaded and be familiar with the apps and resources you’ll be using; be logged in to relevant platforms (request these credentials ahead of your first day).
  3. Company culture: This can be a challenge when working remotely, given you can’t share lunch or coffee breaks. So it’s advisable to engage with colleagues, leaders and fellow interns through resource groups, virtual events and other company offerings. These might include book clubs, quizzes, virtual exercise or digital coffee breaks, or as simple as signing digital birthday, congratulations or anniversary cards.
  4. Get close with fellow interns: This is important for building camaraderie, gaining and providing support for people who know your situation, as well as growing your network.
  5. Know what’s expected and set goals: Connect with your internship leader to outline expectations, goals and the feedback process. Offer or ask for scheduled check-ins to track your progress. Share your personal goals with leaders so they’re aware of your ambitions and can help you achieve them. Make note of your accomplishments throughout the internship, this will help you update your CV and LinkedIn.
  6. Communicate well: Navigating the many communication channels in a virtual setting and how people prefer to be contacted is important. A programme leader might like a weekly email roundup, while project colleagues might make themselves available via instant messaging for ad hoc queries. Starting with your supervisor ask them for the best way to stay in communication.
  7. Managing a flexible schedule: Flexibility is all good and well, but it requires self-motivation and good time management. You might not keep 9-5 hours, so if it’s even more important to hold yourself and your time accountable; stay on top of deadlines, calendar invites and meetings and try to limit distractions during your workday.
  8. Patience: Virtual internships often involve working with people in different timezones or shift patterns, so be patient when waiting for replies.
  9. Networking: Get your LinkedIn profile looking smart and make sure you connect with as many people as possible during your internship.
  10. Share ideas: Given there are more communication channels that are less demanding than face-to-face interactions, don’t be shy in putting forward your ideas and input during an internship. You might also have more exposure to projects given that remote internships generally involve far less administrative tasks and errands, so be bold, creative and enthusiastic.
  11. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: A virtual internship will likely be a very new experience, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and for help so that you can do the best you can.
  12. Meet in person: When there’s a chance, try to meet up with your new contacts in person to cement the relationships you’ve built online.

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