Interning in lockdown: lessons in adapting placements for the hybrid environment

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Person working on desktop computer © Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There is growing evidence that the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are particularly negative for young people. At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, workers aged below 25 were more likely than older workers to be employed in sectors that were effectively shut down as part of the UK lockdown and they are more likely to have lost their jobs since then. Recent graduates have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with unemployment reaching a peak of 12.0% in the third quarter of 2020, the period immediately after graduation.

It is clear, therefore, that one of the key challenges as we recover from the pandemic will be supporting young people into the labour market and into better jobs.

Evidence shows that internships and work placements positively enhance the employability of graduates, but research from the Sutton Trust has found that opportunities for young people to get experience of the workplace have been impacted considerably by the Covid-19 crisis. Over three fifths (61%) of firms who previously offered internships or work experience placements surveyed cancelled some or all of their placements. Only about a third of firms (30%) continued to run the same number of placements (either in person or remotely). The impact on internships and other placements is set to last beyond the immediate crisis. Almost half (48%) of organisations surveyed think there will be fewer internship opportunities in their businesses over the next year.

This broadly aligns with findings from interviews we recently conducted with placement and internship managers across Higher Education institutions in Scotland and the North of England. Many internships and work placements were cancelled or postponed, and while some continued remotely throughout the pandemic several employers reported challenges in training and onboarding new starters through the shift to remote work.

While the impact of missing out on these opportunities is yet to be seen, negative effects could be compounded, as evidence from previous recessions makes clear that graduating and entering the labour market when the economy is weakened can have a negative effect on earnings for years afterwards.

While some senior executives remain sceptical, remote working has brought benefits to some interns and employers

The experiences of students who completed an internship or placement remotely during the pandemic has generated lively debate. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that working from home is not nearly as ‘valuable’ for young people’s career progression as going into the office. He said he still talks to his early mentors, stating that ‘I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my summer internship or my first bit of my career over Teams and Zoom.’ David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs also expressed concern about the impact of remote working on new recruits, who wouldn’t get the ‘direct mentorship’ they need, highlighting that ‘I am very focused on the fact that I don’t want another class of young people arriving at Goldman Sachs in the summer remotely.’

However, our interviews with placement and internship managers suggest that it’s much more of a mixed picture for both students and employers than you might initially assume. Desk-based roles in areas including financial services, marketing and management consulting were able to transition to remote working relatively easily. Additionally, many employers who did not cancel their internships successfully pivoted their offering, with one interviewee highlighting that the need to innovate in the context of the pandemic had created opportunities for interns to work on new and interesting projects. Indeed, while there were fewer internships last year and fewer this year, ‘those internships have probably been more meaningful and more fruitful for the companies.’

Interviewees also highlighted that remote working had a positive impact for some students in allowing them to broaden their network beyond their immediate team. Working online meant that they got to take part in more meetings with people that they perhaps wouldn't have met had they been working exclusively on site.

One of the biggest positive impacts of remote internships and placements has been that of inclusivity. Interviewees highlighted that students benefitted from increased flexibility, and for the first time, many students who might struggle to relocate or commute into a workplace every day, such as those who are disabled, were able to access these opportunities. One interviewee spoke of a student who was a carer for a member of her family, ‘she wouldn't have been able to do an internship if it wasn't virtual.’ Other barriers experienced prior to the pandemic were also lifted by the shift to remote working. No longer did interns and placement students from the North of England and further afield have to relocate to London, levelling the playing field for those from less affluent socioeconomic backgrounds in particular.

Some interns have faced challenges, and might need support in key skill areas when they enter the graduate labour market

However, remote placements and internships haven’t worked for everyone. Some students reported feeling isolated, with an interviewee telling us that ‘those close bonds that you build by having that physical interaction weren’t so readily available online. Motivation as well was an issue for some.’ Furthermore, some students reported feeling that they'd missed out on networking opportunities.

The shift to hybrid working was harder for positions in sectors such as science, technology and engineering, where a main component of the day job involves spending time in the lab or doing hands-on work. One interviewee said noted ‘that hands-on, immersive experience can't be done from a laptop, and so I think that from that perspective, virtual students have really missed out.’

Furthermore, almost all interviewees had concerns that interns may not have sufficiently developed soft skills, which are harder to teach remotely. However, one interviewee made the case that the pandemic cohorts of interns and placement students would undoubtedly have increased their resilience and adaptability, and certainly improved their written communication skills due to the nature of working remotely. Conversely, confidence and presentation skills may not have been developed to the extent that they would have been if students had been working on site. One interviewee made the case that ‘I'm not sure that the last year and a half would necessarily equip our students for the graduate labour market as it was. But the graduate labour market might look very different.’

The future of internships and placements will be hybrid

The future of the workplace is likely to look and operate differently post-pandemic. The most recent ONS data suggests that while 18% of businesses are still unsure about their future working patterns, around 16% of all businesses intend to use increased remote working going forward.

Figure 1: Businesses planning to increase remote working

Source: Work Foundation calculations based on Business insights and impact on the UK economy, BICS Wave 39: 23 September 2021

Furthermore, 85% of workers currently working remotely expect to share their time between their usual place of work and remote working in the future.

Figure 2: Employees expectations for their future location of work

Source: Work Foundation calculations based on Attitudes towards the future of homeworking: 11 June 2021, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module), 21 April to 16 May 2021.

It is no surprise then, that insights from interviews suggest that many employers plan to take a hybrid approach to future internships and placements, with students splitting their time between working remotely and being in the workplace, in line with many of their colleagues. However, each sector and organisation will interpret this differently according to their needs.

It is also likely that some employers will continue offering fully remote internships and placements in place of, or alongside, hybrid ones. Interviewees highlighted that maintaining access to remote work experience is a priority to maximise recruitment of under-represented groups.

Recommendations for employers

Although many news reports have focused on issues regarding the workload and treatment of junior analysts in the financial services sector during the pandemic, findings from our interviews make clear that there has also been widespread good practice among employers across various industries. An interviewee said that ‘there was a lot of recognition from the companies about their role in ensuring that virtual internships were just as successful as in person ones.’

While the recruitment and selection process remained rigorous in the move online, organisations appreciated that onboarding new starters remotely is particularly challenging, and many began laying the groundwork for this at the application and interview stage. They took part in virtual careers fairs, hosted online Q&A sessions to give a glimpse into working life at their organisation, and in some cases facilitated site visits when government restrictions allowed.

In terms of managing students remotely, insights from interviews underline that the most successful internships and placements had a clear communication plan, including regular check-ins with their line manager, and set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals and targets. It was highlighted that ‘it is easier for students to take initiative in their role if they've got a clear work objective about what they need to achieve week by week.’

Going forward, internships and placements in the hybrid working environment will require careful planning and a commitment to providing a high-quality experience from employers:

  • Good practice should be consistently applied in internships and placements. Prior to onboarding, an internship/placement plan should be drawn up with clear objectives and planned learning outcomes. Where possible, this plan should also consider the preferences of the student in terms of flexibility in where they work, but also how and when they work.
  • Employers should ensure that managers assigned to oversee interns and placement students are sufficiently trained in managing staff in a hybrid environment.
  • Managers should take a purposeful approach to using time at the office, in particular for young people or those in the early stages of their career. This should focus on supporting the development of soft skills via collaboration with colleagues, such as teamwork, interpersonal and presentation skills.
  • Communication should be a priority for managers, with communication tools used to offer support and guidance rather than monitoring attendance and performance.


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