06/11/2020 - 08:00

Virtual familiarity works for interns

06/11/2020 - 08:00

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In the latest instalment of our WFH series, Business News examines whether remote working could create more opportunities for corporate interns and graduates.

Virtual familiarity works for interns
Virtual interns will need a mentor. Photo: Stockphoto

Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey expected remote working would be part of their post-COVID-19 future, rather than a full-time return to the office.

The research from communications agency McCrindle looked at people’s changing attitudes and behaviours as a result of the virus.

Of the 1,000 Australians surveyed, 61 per cent said they wanted to mix their working week between home and the office.

Of that cohort, 34 per cent said they would prefer to spend most of their time at home and only come into the office for meetings and project collaboration, while 28 per cent would like to work remotely one to two days each week.

By contrast, a quarter of respondents said they would prefer all staff to work in the office full time, while 14 per cent would rather work from home full time.

Although some may believe any discussion about the value of WFH is now moot, given Western Australia has arguably led the nation in its containment of the virus and economic recovery, the survey results suggest there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.

Employees’ views on the positive aspects of WFH are clear, according to the McCrindle survey, but there also may be flow-on benefits and opportunities for interns and graduates.

While traditional in-office internships remain the go-to for employers, even after pandemic restrictions have eased, some organisations recognise the value in continuing virtual internships, either on their own or as a hybrid-style internship model.

Both types of internships should not be compared, but rather seen as separate experiences, according to Australian Institute of Management WA chief executive officer Gary Martin.

“Each experience offers its own strengths,” Professor Martin told Business News.

“Sometimes internships in person can be relatively unstructured and ‘go with the flow’, but the virtual ones have a different way of working and are more structured, usually by a set of projects.”

Professor Martin said virtual internships required creativity from employers with respect to simulating a face-to-face experience.

Examples included allocating bite-size projects to interns to measure their progress and build their skills, and assigning a mentor to conduct virtual daily check-ins over Zoom or other video communication platforms.

Professor Martin said it was important for a virtual intern to have a workplace mentor, and one who would check-in regularly.

“That person will be the glue, helping a home-based intern connect with an office, factory, restaurant or retail outlet, for example,” he said.

“You need to have regular contact, a daily check-in, setting specific projects and giving feedback on those, making time for discussion and reflection when a project’s complete.

“That’s how you facilitate the learning in a virtual type of internship.

“They’re not necessarily the second-class citizen some people would believe.”

Virtual internships worked better with more, rather than less structure, Professor Martin said.

They could also limit competition for the experience, with the number of ‘spaces’ not fixed or required to adhere to the capacity of an office.

Further, students could be faced with more opportunities to work internationally.

“It’s possible that, with greater acceptance of doing things virtually, we could see more and more virtual internships on offer,” Professor Martin said.

“They can also be done anywhere in the world.

“Imagine if you’re a university student or just out of university – and you have done a two-week internship in New York and another two weeks in Beijing – what your career opportunities might be like.

“There’s a lot to be said for virtual internships, both from an employer’s point of view and an intern’s point of view.”

Interpersonal skills

Research of some major businesses during the height of the pandemic found many employees experienced social isolation when working from home and missed the face-to-face interaction with others.

Workplace design firm Unispace surveyed 1,500 employees across a number of organisations, including Woodside, ANZ Banking Corporation and Optus, and found more than half felt socially disconnected from their colleagues when working from home.

Further, 40 per cent said they felt a lack of team connection.

Whether today’s student interns and graduates, for whom online social interaction is a way of life, would feel that same sense of disconnect is unclear.

Even in a virtual environment, student interns and graduates would still develop some workplace interpersonal skills, Professor Martin said.

And those could be enhanced with a hybrid-style internship model of remote and office work.

“Interns will get the experience of actually being in a workplace, as well as the experience that goes with a virtual internship; bite-size projects, structure, and some great learning outcomes,” Professor Martin said.

One business to have implemented a model of that nature is Perth-based consulting and software company Illuminance Solutions, which recruited four interns at the height of lockdown in WA: two international students based in Melbourne and two in Perth.

The Perth interns worked from home and also visited the office.

Chief executive Nilesh Makwana said the model had worked effectively and provided the interns with greater flexibility, given that many students would be studying or working part-time.

“Because they [interns] grew up in an online environment, it gives them familiarity,” Mr Makwana told Business News.

“And when they come to the office, they also enjoy meeting people.

“It’s a bit of flexibility for them.”

Mr Makwana, a 2020 40nder40 award winner, said Illuminance held online meetings daily with in-office and remote employees, as well as virtual interns.

He said his clients, which included many non-for-profit organisations, had also become more accepting of virtual meetings and project management delivery, making it easier for employees and interns to work remotely.

One of the Illuminance interns provided remote technical support to UPShift Solutions communication expert Maree Wrack.

Ms Wrack told Business News she and the intern held meetings over Zoom, with mentoring a regular part of their conversations.

The pair met virtually when required, rather than at scheduled times.

That could also be a key benefit of a virtual internship, Ms Wrack said.

“Showing up for a job five days a week, you’re showing up for the time, and inside that you might not be productive all the time,” she said.

“We only work when there’s a need.”

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