This semester, many students discovered a new type of college experience after their campuses shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. As one of those students, my commute has been reduced to the time it takes for me to boot up my laptop, my classrooms have transformed into Zoom calls and many class conversations now take place on discussion boards.
Tackling internships has also become a new kind of challenge in this virtual era.
For many students, myself included, internships are a vital way to learn and gain experience outside of the classroom in the fields they're studying. This semester, I'm interning at CNBC Make It as an editorial intern. It's a position I started in person, and though I'm typing from home today, the work itself is largely unchanged. I still check my emails daily, research topics and reach out to sources from home.
Despite not working in a traditional office environment, I still wanted to make the most of the experience.
I also spoke with Barbara Safani, owner of Career Solvers, a career management firm based in New York City, about how students can make the most of any virtual internship experience.
Some tasks are easier to complete from home than others, Safani told me. Work that requires analysis, research, communication or preparation of documents can be well-suited for a remote internship. But ultimately, "really any internship can work at home, as long as the person doing the internship is receiving some sort of consistent guidance and feedback from somebody on staff," she says.
I have found this to be true during my experience at CNBC Make It. The work challenges are the same regardless of whether I'm at home or in the office. Two things that have made a huge difference for me while working from home are transparency from my supervisor and helpful feedback on my ideas and work. Even across a significantly longer distance, I haven't struggled with miscommunication.
Here's what it's been like to transition to a virtual internship and tips for how to be a great intern, even from a distance.
When I think about the time I spent in office, I always go back to the first day of my internship. I'd been surprised to feel my ears pop in the elevator as it climbed up some thirty stories high and still recall the feeling of trepidation that set in as it halted abruptly for me to exit.
My new desk was adorned with a welcome sign and offered a view of the surrounding skyscrapers. The day started with an office tour that turned into a blur of warm welcomes and introductions. I did my best to memorize the many names I heard and chart a map of the office layout in my mind.
But it wasn't long until I adjusted to office life. I checked in with the coworkers who who sat closest to me and slowly learned about how they each contribute to Make It. When I compare the experience of working in an office versus working remotely, what I miss the most is all the little incidental conversations I had: small talk by the coffee machine and by-the-way questions that don't happen as frequently now.
Today, my desk is a dining room table and my cats have become my coworkers. But I've still learned a lot and found advantages to working remotely. I'm able to focus on the digital aspects of my work with fewer distractions, and I've become a more effective communicator during non-visual interactions. I word my questions carefully and really think about how they will be perceived before I ask them.
Safani agrees that there are a number of advantages to virtual internships. For tech-savvy students, this is a great opportunity to showcase your technological skills and provide support for your coworkers, she says. Shy or introverted students might benefit from working remotely because you won't face "all of the same kind of visual representation of office life and power."
"It creates a very even playing field," Safani says. "In some ways, it might help somebody who is somewhat introverted or shy because it might be less intimidating. If they're comfortable with the virtual environment, that's going work to their advantage."
Transitioning from working in a traditional office environment to working remotely wasn't easy, but I was able to problem solve and adapt along the way. Soon, this new type of work setting started to feel abundantly more natural to me.
This summer, many students will be embarking on virtual internship experiences. Here are three tips for making the most of your program, regardless of what field you will be working in.
1. Show that you already know how to work remotely
If you are applying to virtual internships right now, a remote interview is the perfect opportunity to showcase how you've adapted to a virtual learning environment at school, since many of the skills you've gained studying remotely will be transferable to a remote professional experience, Safani says.
"In any interview, it's all about showing what experience the candidate has in the past that will help benefit them when they go to a new company," Safani says. "The twist on it now is that people applying for internships need to view it from the lens of, How do I prove to an employer that I can work remotely and be successful? What are the examples I have to prove that?"
2. Focus on communication
It might be easy to feel discouraged if you didn't anticipate this type of internship experience when you applied. But it doesn't have to be any less exciting just because it's online, Safani says.
Focus on making the most of the learning experiences available and communicate clearly with your new team members, she says. Even though you aren't working together in person, interns can prove themselves as valuable team members by thinking proactively about how they can approach tasks and problems and by showing that they are able to take on additional responsibilities and challenges.
Students should "think about how they can be a contributor given these are different circumstances and how they can help that team accomplish whatever their goals are," Safani says. That may include utilizing their internet skills to conduct research or organizing information online. If you see a way you can help, don't be afraid to speak up.
This was a crucial lesson for me when I started working from home. Before that, I'd just gotten comfortable walking around a large office and taking the initiative to reach out to my coworkers. I didn't know if I'd still be able to contribute as well from far away. But luckily, the distance didn't end up being a problem.
To make sure nothing falls through the cracks, I make notes for the weekly phone "meetings" I have with my supervisor to ensure that I don't leave out any important points. Throughout the rest of the week, I always keep clear lines of communication going with my supervisor and other coworkers through Slack. It took some getting used to, but I quickly became comfortable relaying ideas and receiving feedback on them digitally.
3. Don't overthink it
My biggest piece of advice to students entering virtual internship experiences is to not overthink things. It's easy to focus on the finer details of remote work and get tripped up on the little mistakes and inconveniences you may encounter along the way: Did I word that message poorly? Did I sound prepared enough during our conversation? Would I have done better if I was working in an office setting? While it's always good to evaluate and improve upon your skills, it's also important not to get too caught up in the nuances of working from home.
You can always send a follow-up message to clarify your statements or ask questions if you're confused about what is being asked of you. Try to remember that your internship is meant to be a learning experience and utilize it as such, rather than being critical of any hiccups that arise as you adjust to working in a virtual workspace.
Overall, I've found that a virtual internship can be just as helpful as an onsite experience if you focus on the tasks you're assigned and communicate openly, rather than perfectly.
My virtual internship has made me a stronger communicator, a better problem solver and a more efficient worker. And as I reflect on my experience of working remotely, I'd say it's one that I can recommend it to any student considering it.