The excitement of winning a high profile internship has always been matched by a wave of first-day nerves: What if I get lost, will I arrive on time and what should I wear?
But coronavirus has replaced that with a more basic worry — will the internship go ahead at all?
For a lucky few, locked-down media groups, top financial institutions and technology firms have plowed ahead, offering something different they have not tried before — virtual internships.
But it presents a host of new challenges, leaving some interns worried about thriving in a virtual workplace with an unfamiliar and detached team.
Michael Okwilagwe is an incoming sales intern at Amazon. He was relieved his internship will go online, having seen many of his friends’ programs canceled outright, but fears part of the experience will be missing.
“You’re losing a lot, because what makes the experience is actually connecting with people face to face, making those connections. But now all that’s taken away from us,” he told MarketWatch.
On top of this, he will work from his family home in Georgia, three hours ahead of Amazon’s headquarters.
“We’re not supposed to be virtual. We’re supposed to be in Seattle,” he said, “I’m working from 12 to 8 or 12 to 9 every day, or maybe 12 to 12, just because I’m based out in Atlanta. So that right there is gonna be a really big challenge.”
But Tsedal Neeley, a professor in Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, says 2020 interns have the opportunity to gain a head start in adapting to the virtualization of workplaces around the world.
Professor Neeley has been studying remote working for 18 years and sees the tools only getting better. “People are not going to go back,” she says, and interns are blessed to be able to practice virtual work in a low-risk environment.
“Listen, virtual work has been around. What COVID-19 has done is it has accelerated its adoption for companies and for individuals,” she said. “I think it’s very lucky in that [interns are] going to learn skills that will transcend COVID-19.”
With internships at companies from Disney DIS, +0.44% to Airbnb being canceled, demand for those remaining is high. So Wade Fletcher, a first-year computer science and finance student at Indiana University, created a database of remote internships, called Covintern.
Looking for an internship of his own, he saw the need for an easy way to browse opportunities. The site, showcasing good internships and substitutes unaffected by the crisis, has seen over 60,000 users in the three weeks since he shared it with his LinkedIn network. “My post has like 150,000 views or something ridiculous,” he said.
To meet the challenge, Okwilagwe has created an office space in his room and Amazon will soon send a computer and other essentials. “Before all this has happened, I didn’t have a keyboard or a monitor, I didn’t have any of that in my room,” he said.
Other young interns are more cautious. Yi Xu is an incoming analyst intern at Goldman Sachs in New York. The program has been pushed back by a month to begin in July, and if things haven’t cleared up significantly, the internship will take place online.
Her main concern is that she will struggle to connect with her mentor, co-workers, and even fellow interns in different departments. This might make it more difficult to secure a job at the end.
“What I consider most is the return offer. And if I have to work from home, and I cannot be efficient talking or connecting with my mentor and other people in the team, then I think it will be pretty hard for me,” she said.
Neeley thinks online interns should consider the upside. “I’ve never seen companies, leaders, managers, even CEOs, as accessible as they are right now. The goodwill is extraordinary and people are experimenting, so I would say don’t worry,” she said.
She urges 2020’s interns to learn as much as possible. Remote working skills will only increase in value, with no route back to past levels of on-site work, as COVID-19 has opened the eyes of managers and bosses around the world to virtual opportunities.