August 26, 2021

The Benefits, Challenges, and Ambiguities of Interning Online 

Online intern working at their laptop

I’m an intern, a work-hungry college sophomore, and a proud member of the “Zoomer” generation. If you had asked me a year ago whether I would get the opportunity to work this summer, my answer (along with many of my fellow prospects) would have been “probably not.” The reason for such pessimism has nothing to do with us, our attitudes, or our desire to work – internships are just as important now as ever, and we know it. In reality, we were being pragmatic. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of the internship postings on Glassdoor have closed.  Beyond Glassdoor, internship opportunities across the board have been shortened, delayed or altogether rescinded because of economic uncertainty. 

However, interns are still being hired. Just as nearly 3/4 of Americans transitioned to remote work during the pandemican estimated 40% of companies have introduced “virtual internships.” 

As one of those fabled “remote interns,” I’ve asked — and have been asked — during my first month at UKG: How is my experience different from onsite interns? Does my work give me the same experience theirs gives them? And am I better or worse off moving forward?  

Thankfully, now is the perfect moment where just enough data has come out about remote internships for conclusions to be drawn, yet the phenomenon is still new enough for there to be ongoing case studies to learn from. So, I’ve done the research, crunched the numbers, consulted the experts, and arrived at a few different prognoses — all to selfishly answer the question: “Is my remote internship still valuable?” 

Do Interns Want to Be Remote?

One of the least-asked questions surrounding remote internships is whether interns want to go remote in the first place. The answer, it seems, is a conflicted “yes.” A survey conducted among almost 1,000 U.S. college students reveals some of these attitudes.  

When asked “How do you feel about moving to a virtual internship?”, 49% of respondents gave answers like “It might be pretty strange,” “I worry that the experience won’t be as good,” and “I was hoping to meet new people in person.” The remaining 51% just responded with “I’m glad it’s not cancelled.” This culminates in a reported 84% of students who would be willing to consider a virtual internship

Despite their possible anxieties, interns would rather be online than not be interns at all.  

What Does a Remote Internship Look Like?

That question may seem easy to answer. Odds are you went online during the pandemic. In fact, odds are you still are online. In theory, remote interns should do the same thing you do every day, the only difference being that you don’t call your boss “professor” by mistake. 

However, “remote-ifying” internships is a process laden with logistical hurdles. The hallmark of most internships is an introduction to business culture. Interns form nurturing, instructional relationships with other employees as part of their learning process. That can’t happen as easily when interaction is restricted to meetings, emails, and the occasional ping.  

Deciphering what it means to give interns a fulfilling experience isn’t easy. The interns themselves can’t even answer that. That same study found that a remarkably equal proportion of interns wanted to meet with their manager either (a) “daily for 5-10 minutes,” (b) “daily plus once a week for an hour,” or (c) “weekly for 30-60 minutes.” The same proportions held for how often interns wanted to meet with each other — roughly the same percent wanted to meet (a) “weekly,” (b) “occasionally throughout the program,” or (c) “2-3 times a week”. Not to mention that the rest of the respondents said either “daily” or “never.” 

So, what remote internships actually look like is somewhere on a fluid and ranging spectrum. And what they should look like is something no one can seem to agree on. 

It Can’t Be All Bad, Right? 

Don’t worry! It’s not.  

Though the benefits of remote internships are tough to gauge right now, the takeaways from any educational or work experience often manifest after the fact. They manifest in the relationships we form, lessons we learn, and “coffee-making” skills we hone. So, I’m speaking entirely from personal experience when I say that these are just a few of the chief benefits of interning online: 

Overcoming Barriers

Having an internship is a privilege many of us take for granted. In-person internships can require any number and combination of recruiting trips, off-campus interviews, and networking events, not to mention the burden of living wherever your internship may be once you accept the job. Transitioning the process to a remote forum eliminates some of those barriers to access and levels the playing field. 

Ease of Opportunity

The stereotype is always the same. The intern clocks in, finds the back of a meeting room, grabs their stapler, and works on autopilot for the rest of the summer. Thanks to being online, however, interns can more easily network across branches. They can more easily sit in on meetings for projects they find interesting. They can more easily ask the quick questions that would otherwise go unanswered.  

Education

It may seem obvious, but it’s a lot easier to look things up when you’re always at a computer. Having the ability to quickly open a new tab during a meeting and have any acronym spelled out, or any word defined, is invaluable. One of the biggest barriers I’ve found to engaging with coworkers is the gaps in my knowledge about industry speak, so being able to define “glocal” on a moment’s notice is huge. 

Discipline

I’ll be honest. Being in the office would make it a lot tougher to get distracted. However, having supervisors on site to hold interns accountable deprives us of the opportunity to form self-accountability and discipline. Being able to excel without the pressure of reminders will serve successful interns better in the future, as those that learn motivation and independence will carry those skills into the workforce. 

The Answer You've Been Waiting For

So, back to the original question: “Is my remote internship still valuable?” From the vantage point of this college intern who has learned much from my virtual colleagues, manager, and corporation, the answer is: Definitely. At least I sincerely hope so.

Now more than ever, interns can decide whether their experience will be a worthwhile one. While not being in the office limits their exposure to a “real office culture,” interns are no longer shackled by geographic barriers to opportunity. They also can make their own schedules (within reason, of course) and experiment with new and different projects. 

Remote internships don’t have to signal the end of educational employment. So long as employers and interns alike keep an open mind, the online internship can offer distinct benefits that go beyond the watercooler and cut to the heart of interns becoming part of the newest evolution to the way we all work. 


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