Graduate Adam Warburton-Brown’s virtual internship got off to a bad start when he realised he lacked a desk © Charlie Bibby/FT

The summer internship is a rite of passage for many students and graduates. But the pandemic and its global lockdowns have created an unusual set-up, as many start their placements from their bedrooms. 

Adam Warburton-Brown, a 23-year-old graduate from King’s College London, started his fundraising internship at a non-profit environmental organisation in May after moving back to the family home. “They sent me out a laptop — the only problem was I had no desk, so I was working with it propped on a wardrobe shelf for a few weeks.”

When I began my internship at the Financial Times in March, I had the benefit of eight days in the office, meeting my immediate team face-to-face before the switch to working from home. The noisy kitchen table in my six-person shared house in London did not allow for the same levels of concentration as the FT newsroom — let alone the opportunity to set up the coffee meetings I had hoped for. So I moved back to my family home where I could work in a quieter environment. I was determined to make the best of the situation, just thankful that my internship was still going ahead.

A survey by Prospects, a UK graduate jobs website, found 26 per cent of graduates had their internships cancelled this year. Demand for the virtual internships still going ahead is even higher than usual, according to recruiters such as Josie Dobrin, chief executive of Creative Access, a social enterprise that helps candidates from under-represented communities find employment in the creative industries. “We’ve had massively increased levels of applications — for us it’s somewhat unprecedented,” she says.

As employers work out how to keep their existing workforce engaged while working remotely, it requires even more effort to ensure regular communication and feedback with virtual interns. But such interaction can prevent them from feeling out of the loop.

Danielle Koku, a 22-year-old international relations graduate, started her marketing internship at a global tech company in June and found a Zoom self-assessment with her manager gave her a clear target. “I hadn’t realised, but he said I’m shy on calls. I’m much more confident in real life and think Zoom meetings are a completely different skill — so now I know that’s something to work on,” she says.

Rinat Kapev says that regularly checking in with overseas colleagues helped sustain his motivation

For Rinat Kapev, a Washington-based Fulbright scholar interning at a global bank, even more regular progress tracking has helped motivate him when dealing with time differences. “Yesterday I had to speak with Iran and Kazakhstan for a case so was up until 5am. This is hard when you’re working right next to your bed and there’s no one around to push or motivate you, but luckily there was lots of virtual interaction with my team checking in with me.” 

JPMorgan Chase has designed a virtual internship that has enabled its global offices to share the same programme for the first time. “It’s encouraged us to be more globally co-ordinated,” says Robert Walke, global head of corporate and investment bank campus recruiting. “While in a normal year, you’d be able to ask a senior person within your office to meet for a coffee, this year interns have been able to do group Zooms with senior staff all over the world.”

Investment banking interns in the UK, North America and Asia were able to complete the same tasks, get involved with similar live deals, and speak to different offices. This year’s summer scheme, although now “remote”, will still function as their main pipeline for graduate recruitment. 

A significant benefit of the virtual internships has been the chance to break down geographical barriers, thus widening access to the large employers — especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds. “Virtual internships can give us the potential to reach young people in places that don’t normally get reached — inner cities, but also smaller towns and rural coastal areas where opportunities are few and far between,” explains Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, which supports students from low-income backgrounds into internships and work.

Digital platform InsideSherpa has enabled companies, such as Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, White & Case, KPMG, Linklaters and JPMorgan, to design mini virtual internships where young people anywhere in the world can select the programme of their choice, from audit to commercial law. Participants receive a certificate of completion once they have worked through the required tasks. Law firm Clifford Chance is launching a global internship programme with the platform this month, and will use it as a way to widen their talent pipeline in future. “Opening up access to our learning opportunities to everyone was a top priority — people can join for free from any jurisdiction in the world,” says Laura Yeates, head of graduate talent.

But being out of the office means these virtual interns need to think about new ways of networking. Creative Access has been encouraging new techniques. “It’s a bit harder to find out about the rest of a company, as you have to be much more proactive [virtually] if you want to shadow meetings in other departments and ask for the Zoom link,” Ms Dobrin explains.

Engineering intern Petra-Camelia Scutaru finds video meetings can be less intimidating than face-to-face encounters

Some find the virtual approach easier. “In the office, it would be a bit strange to message someone who’s on the other side of the room, but I’m not sure I’d have the courage to walk up to them,” says engineering intern Petra-Camelia Scutaru. When Ms Scutaru sits in on another team’s Zoom meeting, she feels much less intrusive, on mute and part of the grid, than if she were occupying a seat in the meeting room. 

But Ms Atkinson adds that the biggest challenge for virtual interns has been not being able to build confidence in a physical office or see that there are others in an organisation who look like them.

“During normal internships, on the first day you can see students feel they don’t belong, but by the end they’ve mentally gained enormous confidence and have a sense of belonging in the space. This year, they can’t gain this.”

While virtual placements have opened up access to opportunities, students and recruiters say they still want to have an in-person component as soon as possible.

Clifford Chance intends to plug this gap. Students who participated in its July virtual vacation scheme will return in person to the company in December to “top up” their internship with some work shadowing and reflect on the experience in an interview with partners. “We did this mainly because the students wanted it. Once they’ve been in the work environment, they’ll feel like they know they can do it — it gives them that inner confidence,” Ms Yeates says.

This physical sense of belonging is important for interns, so that they know their talent will gain them respect in future work environments, says Ms Atkinson. “We’ve been able to work with employers to do things we didn’t think we could. But being able to operate in person is so important — a hybrid model is absolutely on the cards in future.”

The tech barrier for students in poorer households

© Getty Images

Virtual internships may help to break down geographical barriers but there are still concerns around accessibility for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, write Adam Hewitt and Meron Haile.

These include worries that companies’ progress towards a more diverse and inclusive workforce may backslide as they try to deal with the impact of the pandemic.

Virtual working can lead to additional biases based on an individual’s surroundings. And there may be issues around access to equipment and technology.

Ethnicity and household income can affect living spaces in a way that employers deem “unprofessional”. For example, Bangladeshi homes are 15 times more likely to be crowded than White British ones.

Even in the lowest weekly household income brackets (up to £599 a week), White British households are less likely to be overcrowded than any other ethnic group.

Students in more crowded or poorer homes are more likely to be affected by unstable internet connections, and to have to share a computer, interfering with their ability to engage with online programmes.

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has found that within working-class and or non-working households, 16- to 64-year-olds are three times as likely to miss out on access to the same number of devices as people in higher income brackets. They are also three times as likely to not use the internet at all compared with wealthier peers.

A report from the Sutton Trust in the spring showed that 34 per cent of children aged five to 16 did not have access to their own computer at home.

Those with no, or reduced, access to a computer or laptop, will be hindered in developing technical skills at an early age, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to entering university and the labour market.

Charities such as the Social Mobility Foundation are working with sponsors to provide disadvantaged students with laptops, tablets and computers.

Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article