Virtual work experience is a hot topic right now thanks to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as students and graduates try to find alternative ways to boost their employability

'Work experience gives you the chance to explore new industries beyond theoretical knowledge, discover roles you never knew existed, and figure out what sort of working environment suits you best,' explains Sophie Phillipson, founder of student and graduate support site HelloGrads.

'But in the current climate, with many workforces now working remotely, it's likely internships may be harder to find, or changed to virtual placements that you do from home through your computer,' adds Sophie.

What is virtual work experience?

Also referred to as online, remote or e-experience, virtual work experience gives students and graduates the opportunity to complete a full internship from home, in most cases using nothing but a laptop. Online work experience is open to all and for the majority of opportunities all you need to get involved is access to a computer and a stable internet connection.

Virtual internships share many similarities with traditional, in-person internships but their online nature allows participants to work with organisations across the country, even the globe. They're particularly relevant in these unprecedented times, as they enable students and graduates to gain invaluable work experience and boost their CV in spite of coronavirus restrictions.

Learn more about work experience and internships.

What do virtual internships involve?

'The application process for virtual internships is the same as when applying for traditional internships but the experience is quite different, depending on the company's technology set up and communication processes,' says Sophie.

As Sophie points out you'll apply for virtual work experience with a CV and cover letter, in some instances an organisation may require you to complete an application form. If you'd like to gain experience with a particular company but can't find any advertised internship vacancies it's worth sending a speculative application, but bear in mind that where virtual experience is concerned an organisation may not always have the necessary technology to grant your request.

Employers are aware that the coronavirus pandemic is robbing students and graduates of the chance to gain face-to-face, real-world work experience and they're working hard to ensure that their virtual opportunities are meaningful and useful for those who take part. On the whole online internships involve:

  • regular online meetings with your supervisor or mentor
  • Individual project work where you'll focus on one larger project instead of helping with lots of small jobs (as you probably would if you were in an office environment)
  • video tutorials and virtual tours
  • virtual networking sessions and online chats with various members of the organisation to give you an insight into what different colleagues do
  • training opportunities generally provided via an e-learning platform
  • online socialising events such as team drinks, coffee breaks and quizzes.

'A virtual intern should be assigned a single point of contact who will act as a mentor, instructor and trainer. That person will set jobs and give you feedback on completed tasks, as well as answering any questions you may have about the industry,' adds Sophie. 'Jot down questions as you think of them, as you may not be in constant contact with your mentor.'

'Some companies will give you access to their e-learning portal, with video tutorials covering soft skills like communication, as well as hard skills, such as how to use Excel to do specific tasks. Watch these carefully and make a note of anything you don't already know.'

Sophie also advises you to jump at the chance to speak to other people in the company. 'You'll get different perspectives and may discover a role that you never knew existed. Plus, it's a chance to make new contacts and expand your professional network.'

Before taking part in virtual work experience make sure that you're fully aware of what's involved and that your duties are clearly defined. Contact the employer or internship provider if you're unsure.

How long do placements last?

This largely depends on the internship you take. Most last between one and three months, although longer six or 12-month opportunities may exist.

The amount of work required will also vary depending on your placement, but as a minimum expect to put in at least 20 to 30 hours per week.

The more time and effort you put in, the more you'll get out of the experience so only apply for opportunities if you're committed to making the most of it.

Which companies offer virtual work experience?

An increasing number of UK employers, from large, multi-national companies to small to medium-sized employers (SMEs) provide virtual work experience opportunities. Placements are available across a number of sectors including:

  • accountancy
  • banking
  • business and consultancy
  • insurance
  • IT
  • law
  • marketing
  • retail.

Companies currently providing virtual work experience include:

This is not an exhaustive list. In light of the COVID-19 crisis an increasing number of employers are realising the benefits of virtual experience and are working to provide these opportunities.

Universities also run their own virtual internship schemes, such as the Virtual Internships Programme at the University of Birmingham. Many institutions are responding to the pandemic by setting up similar programmes, so check with your university to see what's on offer.

Will I get paid?

Again, this depends on the organisation you work for. Some large companies may pay students for their time, others may pay minimum wage, while some may still honour expenses (although working from home you're unlikely to incur many). A lot of virtual work experience is often unpaid so be aware of this and make sure you do your research before applying or signing up.

What are the benefits?

One of the main benefits to completing an internship from home is the flexibility that the arrangement affords you. You can work hours that suit you and fit the internship around other commitments. Other advantages include:

  • Accessibility - virtual work experience is open to all and location isn't an issue. 'The rise of virtual work experience and internships will work in favour of many young jobseekers, as high-quality roles that were only accessible to those who could live rent-free in London or other major cities will be open to all,' says Sophie.
  • Cost - as you're working from home you're unlikely to incur travel fees meaning you'll save money on the commute, not to mention coffees and lunches.
  • More options - because you're not restricted by cost or location you can apply for an internship anywhere in the world, which dramatically increases your options.
  • Improved technical skills - 'remote working is an important skill for the modern workplace and learning how to be useful and effective from afar is a valuable skill,' adds Sophie.
  • Enhanced soft skills - the self-discipline required to work form home will hone a number of soft skills such as organisation and time management, taking part also demonstrates your initiative and motivation to employers. All great skills for your CV.

What about the drawbacks?

While we've mentioned a number of advantages to completing a virtual internship, it's only fair to acknowledge some of the drawbacks.            

The most obvious disadvantage is a lack of face-to-face interaction. Others include:

  • No experience in an office environment - 'an intern going into a workplace will normally be given exposure to dozens of people doing all sorts of different jobs. They might join their colleagues for coffee breaks and after-work drinks. They might, by simply being in the right place at the right time, be drawn into working on a project where an extra pair of hands is vital,' explains Sophie. 'By contrast, a virtual intern is likely to be more isolated and less exposed. It means being extra proactive - take the chance to make connections, follow up on opportunities to talk to people. Volunteer or ask around for jobs. If companies have team chat channels, get involved . If there's an optional meeting on Zoom, join in. Make it your mission to be visible.'
  • A lack of self-discipline - if you struggle to stay motivated completing online experience may be a challenge.
  • Lack of confidence - because you haven't meet your colleagues in person asking questions and putting yourself forward in meetings may feel a little awkward.
  • Communication issues - the quality of your virtual experience will hinge on how good the organisation is at keeping in touch.
  • False opportunities - as virtual internships are arranged and completed online there’s a risk of being duped by false opportunities. It's therefore essential that you do your research before applying and be especially careful when applying for an overseas internship.

How do I make the most of a virtual internship?

To get the most out of your experience:

  • Set clear boundaries and create a routine - Stick to set hours (regular office hours are best if these suit your circumstances), create a professional space to work from, ideally a desk or table and dress the part every day.
  • Keep in touch - frequently check in with your manager and teammates.
  • Don't be afraid to raise your hand - metaphorically speaking. Ask questions, seek advice and be open to guidance. Also don't shy away from asking for more work to do if you run out.
  • Join in - take part in any networking or social events - the contacts you make now may prove useful in the future.
  • Keep track of your achievements - without the structure of a face-to-face internship it's easy to loose track of the tasks you've completed. Make a note of the things you’ve done and the skills you've developed, these will prove useful for future applications and interviews.
  • Ask for feedback - internships, not matter how they're completed, are learning curves so it's important to ask your employer and colleagues for feedback on your performance, as it'll help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and improve where necessary.

This webinar featured in the Prospects Future You: Live event in November 2020.

What if I can't get a virtual internship?

Don't worry. In these challenging circumstances employers are well aware of the difficulties that students and graduates are facing in trying to obtain relevant work experience. If you struggle to complete an internship this year recruiters are unlikely to hold it against you. However, there are still a number of things that you can do to boost your employability, so don't sit idle.

Find out more

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