How Remote Internships Prepare Participants For Remote Work

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By Dr. Debora Jeske

Dr. Debora Jeske

Dr. Debora Jeske

Guest Contributor: Work Psychologist & Adjunct Senior Lecturer

Successful internship experiences – featuring challenges, opportunities, and support to grow as professionals – can prepare interns in several ways for remote work in the future. Of course, a great deal will depend on the extent to which the internship features complex projects, teamwork, various roles and responsibilities.

Not all remote internships will feature the same room for learning, experimentation, and self-reflection. Furthermore, many internships vary in terms of the amount of autonomy, supervision and developmental support (Hora and colleagues, 2020). These circumstances have therefore implications for how ready interns will be to take on new and more demanding roles. This blog post outlines some of the ways in which remote internships – when they feature room for development – can prepare interns for remote work. 

Critical insights for better performance 

1. Communicating and explaining strategic decision-making

Remote internships are – for many future employees – their first foray into remote working. Many interns will have gathered significant experience on how to best communicate information (including the who, the what, when and where) in their verbal and electronic communication. And given that many internships require proactive problem-solving and interdependent action at times, having a clear sense of what needs to be done is essential. Since remote internships also often provide new opportunities to meet team members from different regions, cultures, and backgrounds, learning to communicate one’s plans effectively to a diverse audience will be an important skill for the future of remote work. 

2. Being flexible and adapting to circumstances

 While some interns will be ready to adopt agile working practices, many will find this a new experience when they start their remote internships. Being able to adjust to changing requirements, deadlines and tasks during an internship will be useful experiences to prepare for remote working. The chaos in the modern workplace can be, at least to some degree, also experienced during remote internships. What is more, learning to embrace change is not just relevant for work but also for how one deals with sudden changes when it comes to one’s career plans. 

3. Taking responsibility for projects

 Depending on the nature of the remote internship, some remote interns will be able to take responsibility for their own projects. This also requires them to become effective time and task managers. In addition, learning to keep track of milestones, responding to feedback, and tackling barriers are all aspects that will increase the ability of these interns to take on projects on their own later in remote work situations. Internships are therefore a great testing ground for interns to find out if they are ready to take responsibility and manage their own projects.

4. Learning to support others

While most internships tend to focus on tasks and projects, a few internships require interns to take on the role of mentors, trainers, and managers. Especially when organizations employ numerous remote interns it can be worthwhile to recruit interns that have the skills and background in human resource management to support the organization by taking on the responsibility for how interns are onboarded, trained, supported, and off-boarded. Appropriate advice on mentoring, and peer-to-peer mentoring, is available online (Landry and Lewiss, 2020).  In short, learning to support others, managing expectations, knowledge and transitions effectively are important experiences that these remote interns will gain. This experience may also prepare them to apply themselves effectively to similar roles when they work remotely in the future. 

Personal insights that shape employee behavior

5. Learning to speak up

One of the key aspects of remote internships is that you are not “seen” as you might be otherwise in traditional on-site internships. If an intern is in doubt or stuck on a task, nobody will readily identify their confusion – unless they learn to speak up and become proactive. As a result, many remote interns learn early that it is up to them to speak up if they want support, after trying to solve a problem themselves. And this encourages a more proactive approach to seeking assistance and giving feedback: important behaviors in remote work settings. Working out a learning agreement during a remote internship (see also Jeske, 2020a,b) will encourage interns to become owners of their learning journey, and will hopefully empower them to seek out developmental and growth opportunities once they transition into remote working roles.

6. Identifying one’s preferences

People differ in terms of many characteristics. When it comes to work, some individuals prefer more structure, less uncertainty, and predictability. In contrast, others will thrive if they are able to make their own plans, have freedom to make their own decisions, and go with the flow. Remote internships are a great experience to find out how much uncertainty and autonomy interns need or want in order to be creative, productive and effective. This means remote internships enable interns to identify their own preferences for the kind of workplace and structure they prefer – and if remote working is for them in the long run (Jeske and Axtell, 2018). These insights can be very helpful when they interview for new full-time remote roles that may offer them different kinds of work environments, different professional roles, each with unique implications for their work-life-balance and working experience.

7. Testing one’s skills and expertise

For many interns, the need to work with various technological tools in remote internships presents a first real test of one’s understanding of tech. Working with such tools during a remote internship will provide many interns with a realistic understanding of their digital skills. In addition, for many, it will be their first experience of learning to adhere to company guidelines on data security, privacy, and employer branding. Representing an organization requires interns – like regular employees – to pay special attention to how they use technology effectively, which skills and insights they could share with others, and how to develop one’s skill set and knowledge base continuously to match changing job requirements.

And lastly, today’s workplaces – like many internships – require a commitment to continuous learning. Experiencing this firsthand will remind interns that finishing their education will not be the end of the learning journey – and hopefully encourage them to proactively engage in continuous professional development once they start working as an employee. In addition, internships are likely to introduce interns to cross-functional teams and projects. This again will be a good way for interns to become familiar with the challenges that may arise at work. As demonstrated in research on traditional, on-site internships (see also work by Zehr and Korte, 2020), remote internship experiences can help to prepare participants for various challenges once they transition into employment.

Want to read more? Here are some useful resources

Matthew T. Hora, Matthew Wolfgram, Zi Chen, Jiahong Zhang, and Jacklyn John Fischer (2020). A Sociocultural Analysis of Internship Supervision: Insights from a Mixed-Methods Study of Interns at Five Postsecondary Institutions. WCER Working Paper No. 2020-8, University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/abstract/wcer-working-paper-no.-2020-8

Debora Jeske (2020a). Exploring Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Students. Guest contribution published by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://blog.ccwt.wceruw.org/exploring-virtual-internships-key-tips-for-students/  

Debora Jeske (2020b). Running Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Employers. Guest contribution published by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://blog.ccwt.wceruw.org/running-virtual-internships-key-tips-for-employers/

Debora Jeske and Carolyn M. Axtell (2018). Virtuality in e-internships: A descriptive account. In A. Lazazzara, R. C. D. Nacamulli, C. Rossignoli, & S. Za, Organizing in the digital economy. At the interface between social media, human behaviour and inclusion. Springer: Lecture Notes in Information Systems and Organisation (LNISO). https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-90500-6_17

Adaira Landry and Resa E. Lewiss (2020, August 25). What Efficient Mentorship Looks Like. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2020/08/what-efficient-mentorship-looks-like

Sarah M. Zehr and Russell Korte (2020). Student internship experiences: Learning about the workplace. Education + Training, 62(1), pp. 311-324. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/ET-11-2018-0236/full/html

About Dr. Debora Jeske

Dr. Jeske is a work psychologist in Berlin, Germany, and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland. She has written a number of practitioner-oriented articles and blog posts about virtual internships.

By Dr. Debora Jeske

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