The Hybrid Future of In-Person and Remote Work and a Refugee Case Study

Remote Work-Based Learning 

In 2018, the founders of Virtual Internships saw a trend in the future of work and a gap in the student employability puzzle, as undergraduates readied themselves for heading into the workforce, and recent graduates struggled to demonstrate any hands-on experience. 

As vast numbers of students signed up for internships either in their home country or abroad, the team at Virtual Internships recognized that there was an access issue for a large segment of the student population. It was apparent that not everyone was in a position to undertake a regular internship. Underrepresented students formed a large part of that group, but it also included students with disabilities, students with family responsibilities that could not leave home to intern, international students who were not permitted to work in the country of their studies, or students who just needed to be on campus for whatever reason: finishing academic requirements, student athletes, or students with on-campus responsibilities, like resident assistants etc. As Dan Nivern, the CEO of Virtual Internships stated in an interview with the PIE News, an international higher education news outlet in May 2020: 

“The great thing, which is part of why we started it in the first place, is the accessibility of it. Underrepresented groups can do a virtual internship. It can be done alongside your studies. It can be done alongside a job. It can be done if you have a family or if you have commitments at home. It’s more sustainable from an environmental perspective and it has a lower cost.”  

An Innovation: An Option 

With a remote internship, as it turned out, all of these students could have the opportunity to level the work experience playing field before graduation. They could work for a multinational company, learn about a new industry, build new skills, meet new colleagues, make new connections. They could fill their resumes with hands-on work experience, get letters of recommendation, and have stories to tell at their job interviews. 

Early student adopters of remote internships were enthusiastic about their experiences, recognizing the value of remote interning even before the pandemic. For example, Karina Kapina, then a student at Aston University in the UK completed an online marketing internship with a company located in China. After her internship, she wrote: 

“It’s an amazing experience because you can do it from home, so it’s not going to take up as much time from your studies as an in-person internship. Also, there are so many more opportunities because the companies can be anywhere in the world!”

The New Next 

Fast forward to spring 2020 and the devastation felt by the majority of prospective interns as they learned that their summer internship was not going to take place. As The New York Times pointed out, hundreds of companies cancelled internships and rescinded offers. 

“Students who had locked down internships as early as September are now jobless. Others who had hoped to experience an office setting for the first time are instead looking for work at fast-food restaurants. Many low-income undergraduates, already saddled with student loans, are concerned that a jobless summer could put them at a disadvantage in future application cycles, making it harder to find full-time work after graduation.” David Yaffy-Bellany, New York Times, May 2020 

Given their previous two years of experience with remote internships, Virtual Internships was well-positioned to help disappointed interns find remote summer placements and ended up placing over 1000 remote interns by the end of summer 2020. With staff dedicated to place, support and coach interns, deliver an online support course, and offer micro-credentialing, VI helped and nurtured these students as they gained work experience in their chosen industries and built new skill sets to help bolster their resumes and CVs. 

The Future of Work 

With the looming uncertainty of 2021 and unanswered questions about the continuing effects of the pandemic, we look ahead to what the new future of work might be. Most agree it will almost certainly include a large amount of remote work and probably a large number of remote internships. Some are chomping at the bit to “get back to normal” and others embrace this new shift in work culture. After surveying 317 CFOs, the Gartner survey group found that 74% of them will shift at least a portion of their workforce to remote work in the future.

Like it or not, remote work is probably here to stay at least to some degree. Given that, and given that students need to gain work experience before they graduate, we can begin to consider the differing learning outcomes for students depending on if they intern in person or do it remotely. Can they be as well prepared if they intern online? Section Two takes a deep dive into some data collected from both in-person and remote interns and attempts to offer some preliminary answers to this question. 

“(Our) data is an example of the lasting impact the current coronavirus crisis will have on the way companies do business…CFOs, already under pressure to tightly manage costs, clearly sense an opportunity to realize the cost benefits of a remote workforce. In fact, nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions.”  Alexander Bant, Gartner Finance Practice

Case Study: Harnessing the Accessibility Benefits of Remote Internships for Refugees 

Accessibility to online work experience for communities furthest from stable and safe employment can have excellent outcomes. And, this type of program is eminently impactful, scalable and affordable.   

Since 2020, Virtual Internships has worked with Kiron Open Education to deliver work experience to refugee learners.  Such opportunities are particularly relevant for this community, despite the challenges of the situation on the ground in Lebanon. But, we see enormous long-term benefits for the refugees themselves and the companies they work for.   The combined expertise, experience, and passion of VI and Kiron targeted refugees from key backgrounds that would especially benefit from remote internships. And, here are some of the principal reasons:

  • Refugees often find themselves in areas with high unemployment levels and a shortage of relevant institutions or companies to offer work experience.
  • Their visa status frequently means they are unable to work in paid or stable roles.
  • Short notice relocations, or worse, can interrupt local in-person employment.
  • Qualifications and work experience from war-torn, disputed or stateless countries may be held in lower regard by future employers.
  • The impact of remote work experience can be strengthened because of ties with a “going-concern” entity registered in a recognized geography.

A pilot program was undertaken in late 2020, during which five refugee candidates were matched with host companies in the UK, Singapore, China and Nigeria.  Outcomes were measured on NACE competency skills gain (surveyed pre- and post- program, self-rated and rated by host company supervisors), and in all cases matched or exceeded outcomes of our regular program participants.  Qualitative outcomes were also encouraging.  One participant noted:

“On my CV I now have an internship with an international company outside Lebanon, and I’m also planning on asking my supervisor to write me a LinkedIn recommendation which I think will definitely have a positive effect. This internship gave me an idea about how start-ups go through their phases of improving their product and getting investors, and this was very motivating for me because I learned that even if I don’t have the resources or money, I can actually do a lot of things – like opening a business.“ 

Following the success of this program in 2020, a joint Kiron – VI application was submitted for funding through the SPARK foundation*, which was ultimately successful for 50 candidates.   The cohort of interns are now midway through their two-month internships and already some extremely positive feedback is being received from the host organizations (which cover 20 countries over the 50 internships).   

“Ayat is doing a fantastic job and being very proactive. Please keep up the good work.” 

“Hana has demonstrated a vast knowledge in dashboard and general front-end application. She has been collaborating in the definition of the dashboard scene and aesthetics.” 

Without doubt there have been challenges specific to this program not normally experienced with university partnerships in the Americas, Europe or Australasia.  In the week prior to program start dates, alongside rolling blackouts, lack of fuel and internet disruptions, financial institutions were closed in Lebanon for several days following a threat on the family of the Minister of Finance. Our host companies have generally been very understanding of connection and scheduling issues and we are proud of our own teams ensuring all parties can get the most out of the experience despite such difficulties.  Kiron has been incredible as a local partner, managing initial assessments of candidate suitability and providing infrastructure solutions (ensuring access to laptops, internet data cards, locations to work in relative peace and quiet). 

As some parts of the world return to a semblance of normality post-Covid, with students from developed nations jumping back on planes to gain life-changing work experience, it is important to remember the communities who may have a far harder return to normality and what can be done to support them. 2020 showed that this is possible, and we as educators should not forget the progress that was made. 

Any parties interested in seeing outcomes from this program, discussing potential collaboration or identifying funding for additional participants is welcome to get in touch here.

Written for OEB21 by By Rachael Criso PhD and Ed Holroyd-Pearce. Make sure meet with Virtual Internships and hear more from Rachael at their session on Friday, Dec 3 at 11:15: Virtual Internships: Comparing the Experiential Learning Results for In-person versus Remote Internships

*Funding provided by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development (ISFD) – The Tadamon Programme.

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