Working Alone, Together

Arts interns face challenges, find opportunity in remote work environments

Brooke MacCallum - 25 June 2020

With universities transitioning to online delivery during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have been navigating their courses through self-directed learning. These changes have also had an impact on the delivery of internships and co-op placements for students seeking work experience. For the first time, many students have started their internship roles from home,  myself included.

A New Transition

Starting an internship online is daunting. As the Marketing & Communications intern for the Faculty of Arts, I’ve been working from home since my position began just four weeks ago. I was pretty anxious to start my internship, especially since I had never experienced working remotely prior to the pandemic. But while the experience has been an adjustment, it has also been incredibly rewarding. I sat down (over a Google Hangouts call, of course) with three other Arts interns at the University of Alberta to talk about how we are managing working from home. Getting to know these interns showed just how similar our situations are, and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Hopefully our experiences will relate to other students and provide some useful advice for anyone facing challenges while working remotely.

Working Alone, Together

Even though we’re working from home, we still have teams and supervisors who we need to meet and collaborate with on a regular basis. However, getting to know our teams over video calls and emails without in-person interaction has been an adjustment. My position began in early May, after universities everywhere had already transitioned online. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet my supervisor or team face to face before my internship began, which is something I had never experienced before coming into a new position. Even my interview was over a Zoom call!

My biggest concern going into the internship was that I wouldn’t gain the same practical experience as I would have in person. Although the delivery is very different, working from home has provided me with a lot of valuable learning opportunities that I know will stay with me long after my internship is over.

“The largest impact that the pandemic had on this role for me was having my first day at home which wasn't terrible, but it's not the same as being face to face with your supervisors,” says Nathaniel Haile, Student Engagement, Recruitment and Communications intern for the Faculty of Arts. “As far as accessibility, it's not the same as being in the office. I'm pretty confident in what I do, but it’s a challenge right now to not be present with supervisors all of the time, especially being new.”

Sydney Henderson, the Arts Work Experience (AWE) Communications and Program Support Intern, compares video calls to in-person communication. “I think I would know the people that I work with a lot better if we had those personal interactions. We can only rely on facial expressions over video calls rather than being able to communicate through body language, which is what you would get in real life. I'm really missing out on that because there’s some interactions online where I can't really get a feel for what the other person is thinking. Having the camera there adds extra pressure. It feels like it matters more, and that's tiring.”

Attending multiple video calls each work day to discuss projects can be mentally draining, especially if you feel the need to overcompensate for the lack of in-person contact by looking as alert and engaged as possible. Having to see how you appear on camera to your supervisor and teammates is more stressful, especially when you’re in a new position and want to make a good impression. There’s already a ton of articles on this new phenomenon called ‘Zoom fatigue’ which can be great resources for anyone who feels like their energy has shifted since working from home. An obvious but effective way to manage Zoom fatigue is to take as many short breaks as needed. I have found that going outside, taking a walk around the neighbourhood and getting fresh air has been the most helpful for a boost of energy.

Managing Yourself

Another challenge for someone new to working from home has been managing my work schedule entirely on my own. While I’ve learned time management and balancing projects as a student, it’s another thing to be accountable for your entire work day at home without others to help keep you accountable. Thankfully, my supervisor and I have scheduled daily check-in meetings to keep in touch and make up for those lost office interactions. Managing myself a bit more is still something that has taken adjustment.

“I've learned how to really separate my work life and my home life as best as I can when it's all in one place. Balancing a structure where it's entirely self-directed is important because there's no one to really check in on me to see if I'm doing my work,” says Sharon Gong, the International Student Engagement intern. “I think that the biggest thing is setting a strict schedule for yourself and following through.”

“I would probably be a lot more focused if I was in the same room with my supervisors. Obviously right now, if I'm working on a project I'll get it done and I'll get it done quickly. But I might not focus on it as much as I would have worked thinking that my manager could pop in at any second to check in on how I'm doing,” says Sydney.

Having a set routine has been essential to my productivity while working from home. We’re so used to having our schedules laid out for us, whether it’s with a job or attending classes, that having free reign over our work day can be overwhelming. I have found that having a routine provides a sense of normalcy, something that has been lacking since social distancing began. Getting up in the morning around the same time, having a coffee and setting up an organized work space gets me in the right mindset, as well as taking short breaks throughout the day.

“My main bit of advice is to distance yourself away from distractions as much as you can. If that means putting up a curtain around your desk area, good. If that means putting headphones in, do that,” says Sydney. “Take advantage of tools like Google calendars and other organizational habits, like checklists. I didn't realize how amazing checklists were until I started using an online software to really organize myself. I'm turning into that person where it's like ‘ha, I completed this, another win for me.’”

Moving Forward

Even though our remote internships have been drastically different than in person, our experiences still hold a ton of learning opportunities that are unique to us. How many other students in history have started their internship entirely online due to a pandemic? I would argue that we’re some of the first.

Despite its challenges, working from home has shown new possibilities and how workplaces may shift in the future. “Working at home wasn't something that I thought would be possible long term, especially when there's a lot of meetings,” says Nathaniel. “Being in the situation that we're in now, I think it's proved to us that it's not the easiest, but it's possible.”

“I think it's really beneficial not only to have this sort of internship experience, but also to do it in the middle of a pandemic where everything is changing. That really shows how adaptable we are to all the different things that are going on,” says Sharon on how the current times have an impact on internship roles. “It’s shown how adaptable student employees are and how willing they are to learn and work around any sort of challenge.”

Sydney points out the importance of taking care of yourself, and setting realistic expectations. “I think that the main thing that people kind of are forgetting with this whole emphasis on productivity is that things are crazy right now. Take care of yourself. I felt irritated by posts that I saw going around on social media saying things like ‘Shakespeare wrote a play during his quarantine.’ You can be Shakespeare if you want, but you don't have to do that. Don't feel pressured into maintaining that high level of work all the time.”

While I’m still learning practical skills in my communications internship, doing it remotely has proven that I’m capable of more than I thought. I’ve been able to focus my schedule solely on my work and improving my skills without the hassle of outside obligations. Don’t get me wrong, social distancing is hard. Feeling isolated from friends and family who I haven’t seen in months is hard. But working remotely has given us the opportunity to recognize what is important. I value in-person interactions, and being close to the people I work with. I value work/life separation. I value my free time, my hobbies, my personal goals. From my remote internship I have learned useful methods, strategy and tools for my future career, but I have also learned so much more