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THE FUTURE OF WORK?

Wrties Elisha Carey and Eoghan O’Donnell

In 2005, a group of ten-year old children participated in an AOL study about their online worlds. At the time, they predicted that the future would be packed full of hoverboards, jetpacks, robot teachers and alien languages. While there’s no sign of widespread use of hoverboards just yet, 2020 has truly been a year in which technology proved its indispensability to the world. Our lectures take place on Microsoft Teams and your weekly shop from Supervalu can be delivered right to your door with just a few taps of your phone. But it’s fair to say that these transitions were not entirely seamless. Universities and schools were overwhelmed in the face of the difficult decisions brought on by the pandemic. A huge part of the university experience is obtaining work experience such as an internship or work placement. It’s undeniable that students specifically choose courses which enable them to get on-the-job experience during a period of work placement. In competitive fields, evidence of a work placement or an internship is the cherry on top of a student’s CV. But how are companies expected to accommodate students in the midst of a global pandemic?

Eoghan chatted with Aoife and Dylan who recounted their experiences of navigating UCC work placements in the height of the global spread of Covid-19. The coronavirus undoubtedly caused a tectonic shift in societal structure mid-way through last Spring semester: universities – like almost everything else – were shut, causing mass disruption to the expected flow of the normally meticulously planned academic year. With no physical activities for students on campus, many placements were also disrupted. For some, placements were entirely called off, while for others, their placements were migrated online. Aoife was one of the many UCC students whose placement came to an abrupt end in March. She had moved to London in early January, expecting she’d be there for six months while completing her placement in the city. She was unsurprisingly distraught when the virus hit, and she was left without the option to continue her work online. She spoke to Eoghan, expressing her disappointment:

“Placement was something which I was looking forward to – it was a means for me to get hands-on experience in the industry while also a way for me to network and experience a culture beyond my college course. Disappointed is an understatement, and I do feel as if I have lost out on opportunities which may have opened up to me otherwise. Saying this, I am grateful my company understood the need for public health and prioritised our safety.”

Dylan, a third-year Business Information Systems student, was one of the lucky ones whose placement shifted smoothly over to the virtual world in the wake of all the bewilderment. Although disappointed to have his time at the office cut short, Dylan recognised his position as “fortunate” and told Eoghan that he was grateful for the opportunity to continue his work placement from home when so many others could not. Reflecting on his virtual experience he said: “even from home, I learned a vast amount about the company I was placed in.” For Dylan, being able to have that routine of logging into work every day helped him cope with the lonely and oftentimes confusing world of lockdown.

“After now finishing my six months placement, I still strongly stand by my belief that every student who has the opportunity to complete a work placement, whether it be from home or in person, should grab it”

While Aoife and so many students were understandably disappointed by the disruptions to their long-awaited period of placements, the exceptional circumstances of life back in March must be acknowledged. Covid-19 has been a game changer. All parties involved in organising work placements, including the students themselves must be admired for their gargantuan work. While some students may have missed out on their work placements, by virtue of simply having survived these strange times, they have successfully learned to adapt to new situations, to deal with anything that is thrown at them, to be resilient. The team at UCC Career Services will tell you that persistence, flexibility and optimism are hugely important traits to have when embarking on your career journey. Career planning is not one decision or event. It is a rich tapestry of experiences that lead to launching and creating your career path. Your attitude when things aren’t going your way speaks volumes. Interviewers are going to want to hear how you adapted and bounced back from the disappointment. Duke University students, upon losing their internships to Covid-19, launched the Phoenix Project, a programme that matched students from the university or teams of students with tech firms for remote work. The project, born from the initiative of a handful of the university’s engineering students, managed to match 210 students with companies for remote summer work. There is a lot to be learned from last semester’s period of work placement for everyone, one thing is for sure though, remote working, which for many in the past was viewed as a more abstract form of workplace, has suddenly come to the forefront of all of our minds here at UCC.

To learn more about the world of remote working and virtual internships, Elisha contacted Dr. Debora Jeske, an organisational psychologist and adjunct senior lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology in UCC. Dr. Jeske has conducted extensive studies in the area of virtual internships and has many publications on the subject. She explained that while they have only recently been boosted to popularity as a result of the virus, virtual internships (also known as online, remote or e-internships) have been around for well over 10 years.

Dr. Jeske notes that going virtual allows for many employers to source talent globally, from a larger pool of people with more varied skill sets and experience. For students, having the option to complete an internship online allows for flexibility and equal opportunities. For example, it allows students to complete internships in other locations – regardless of the distance, time zone, national borders, or the local rental situation. In addition, it might enable employers to introduce interns to mentors far and wide – going beyond who is currently in the office as is the case with traditional internships. Up until now, it seemed as though Dublin and other urban hubs held the monopoly on student internship provision, with those living rurally confronted with having to pay a small fortune for appropriate accommodation for the duration of an internship, which may even be unpaid. Pushing opportunities online opens up a world of new possibilities. With virtual internships now slowly but surely becoming more mainstream, more and more opportunities are emerging as employers adopt the remote working model and apply it to virtual internships (for example, Matheson in Ireland). Of course, it is worth noting that not all jobs and internships are remote-compatible, yet.

Given the learning curve of 2020, the hope is that more companies in Ireland have had more time to prepare for running virtual internships so that students like Aoife, won’t be left behind again. That said, it is also important to acknowledge that not everyone has access to the facilities to make working from home a viable possibility. The lack of broadband in certain parts of the country, in combination with the expense of laptops and other necessary equipment has made remote working more difficult for some. It will be interesting to see how companies tackle this issue in the future so that all people have the chance to work from home.

The pandemic has increased awareness among employers and potential work placement candidates of the possibilities of remote working, and the prevalence of the virus does not erase the need to continue providing our students with a practical education ahead of their launch into the world of work. Covid-19, in hand with remote employment has entirely reshaped the way we work and did so seemingly overnight. Working from home can prove very fruitful for companies. In 2015, Nicholas Bloom published a study that found that call-centre employees who worked from home were 13 percent more productive than those who didn’t. Many employees working from home also reported being happier and less likely to quit their job. The benefits of remote working for both employers and employees are becoming clearer as we learn more about remote working and virtual internships during our 2020 pandemic experience. The coronavirus outbreak may just be the push workplaces need to make the switch. It seems that long-term strategies incorporating learning and a digital-first approach are at the heart of the future of work.

If you are new to virtual internships and a student, have a look at the following resource: Key tips for students (https://blog.ccwt.wceruw.org/exploring-virtual-internships-key-tips-for-students/).

Dr. Jeske is also happy to advise any students who are interested in virtual internships (contact : d.jeske@ucc.ie).

Have you completed your internship this year remotely? What was your experience? Dr. Debora Jeske is an academic colleague at UCC who is looking for students like you who have completed a virtual internship in Spring and Summer 2020. The plan is to use your insights to produce guidance for students like you, suggestions for managers, employers, as well as educators. Dr. Jeske would love to learn more about the kind of internship you completed, your experience, and any thoughts you would like to share with her. The survey is in English, entirely voluntary, and all information is confidential. To access the link, please click here!