Interning During a Pandemic
Mika Byar, Former User Experience Design Intern
Navigating a new internship is always difficult, but even more so during a pandemic that forces the internship online. To help ease the transition, two Viget interns share best practices for a successful remote internship.
Sometimes the quickest way to learn is by just jumping in the deep end. Viget’s 2020 internship class didn’t have much of a choice in this when it came to learning how to effectively work from home. Since the initial pandemic lockdown hit in March 2020, each Viget intern has had the chance to both be a full time student and complete an 8-week internship while completely remote. Although they may not be experts, they each have their own unique set of remote work experiences and practices. Two of those interns, Liam and Mika, took the time to interview each other and share some of their experiences and advice on how to make the most of a remote internship.
How do you socialize and get to know people you’ve never met in person?
One of the biggest difficulties of remote work is that you don’t have the opportunity to see your new coworkers’ faces each day in the office -- meaning no water cooler chats, no spontaneous lunch outings -- which can make it hard to get to know them. Video chats are going to be your best friend in combating this issue, since those are the closest things to face-to-face interactions that you’ll find. It can be awkward at first to ask someone you don’t know to hop on a video call, but over time it starts to feel natural; like you’re walking over to their desk to have a chat.
But you don’t always have to make the effort to reach out to people, since that can be exhausting to do too often! If your company hosts social events, go! That might seem obvious, but it has to be done. There’s no better way to get to know everyone than to go to social situations where people are there for the expressed purpose of getting to know you!
As an introvert, I’ve never considered myself an adept socializer. Thus, getting to know new people remotely sounded incredibly daunting. I pictured lifeless Zoom calls with no social cues and no time for casual conversations. Now that we only see each other for virtual meetings, we miss out on those small office chats which happen in-person and can slowly build relationships over time. However, the team at Viget has facilitated social interaction very well, for example, setting up remote happy hours or getting everyone to battle it out in a serious game of “Vingo” during lunch. Surrounding yourself with great people who are always willing to chat definitely makes socializing a lot easier. Setting aside the time to talk about non-work related things, whether it be for a few minutes during a meeting, on slack, or even having a dedicated meeting just to hang out, all add up to make a huge difference.
We can’t naturally fall into social situations anymore, so it’s just about taking the small steps. Reaching out to schedule a 1-on-1 with someone, joining in on a fun bracket challenge, or sharing and talking about your hobbies in a specific slack channel. As long as you put in a little effort and you’re surrounded by the right people, it’ll all work out!
How do you prevent burnout while working remotely?
There are two all-important factors that have helped me prevent burnout during my remote internship: physical separation and outdoor time.
First off, it’s really important for me to separate my work space from my living space. Even if that just means having a table that I only use for work, having that physical separation of space helps me feel like I’ve “left” work for the day. Otherwise, I might spend all evening stressing about work that needs to be done. I might even feel pressured to work through the night. Best not do that; create some physical separation!
Second, please go outside! I didn’t set aside time to go outside for the first couple weeks of my remote internship, and I found myself unusually foggy during the day. That fogginess made me less sharp and less productive, leading me to be more stressed. After a while, I realized that I just needed some sun and fresh air! Even if I can only manage to get outside for a few minutes each day, that little bit of outdoors time does wonders for my productivity and mental health.
It’s easy to get burnt out when you’re working remotely and due to a global pandemic, trapped to the confinements of your bedroom every day. To combat this I like to be structured and set small goals. Sure, I like to let loose and go with the flow sometimes, but getting into a routine and setting small milestones for yourself is important, especially at a time like this. Instead of aiming to get something done in a week or even a day, I like to break it up into bite size actionable steps. For example, a goal for the week might be to get a better understanding of a project through diagramming, which I could break up into concept modeling for one day and developing user flows on another. Lastly, I could split these days up further, for example, developing a first draft of a concept model from 10am to noon, eating lunch, then coming back to reflect and reiterate on the draft. I find it much easier and more efficient to work in these smaller time increments.
What I do outside of work is just as important when it comes to burnout prevention. I follow a routine that mostly focuses on scheduled times to eat and exercise. Every morning I have coffee, a light breakfast, and do a strength workout, then after work I head outside for a run or a bike ride, followed by dinner. In a time when days, weeks, and months can feel meshed together, my routine grounds me and exercising helps me clear my head before and after the work day.
Do you think you get less out of a remote internship?
Not at all. But I admit that my experience may be very unique to Viget. You see, Viget’s labs were already spread across four different offices when the pandemic hit, meaning our full-time employees were already accustomed to collaborating with people in different locations. Because of that, I feel like this internship hardly suffered at all from being remote. If you work for a company that isn’t as prepared as Viget, you may not have the same experience. But for me, I can’t imagine a more rewarding experience than I’ve had during these eight weeks at Viget. Not only do I feel I’ve gained a whole new technical understanding, but I’ve met so many amazing people with whom I hope to stay in touch for years to come.
I initially feared that a remote internship wouldn’t be near as valuable as an in-person internship. I assumed communication would be much worse and that I’d be stuck working solo with little collaboration or supervision, however, I’ve come to realize that’s simply not true. You can get just as much out of a remote internship as you can in-person, you just have to take initiative and be willing to put in the work. While I’d love to be working in-person and be able to stroll into the Viget office every morning, I find it’s best to embrace working remotely. I see it as an opportunity to grow and practice my work from home and digital communication skills. Whenever I face a hardship, I just have to remind myself that working through it will make me a stronger, smarter, and more capable individual in the end. If you look at the experience through this lens and stay disciplined, I suppose you’re getting more than an in-person internship!
What’s the hardest thing about remote work?
The hardest part of remote work for me was dealing with imposter syndrome. Now, you may be thinking to yourself “is that specific to remote work?” Well, not exactly, but it certainly doesn’t help! How do I convince myself that I belong here if I’m not really “here” at Viget? How do I convince myself that I’m an important part of a group when I’m the only one they’ve never met in person? These are the kinds of questions to which I’ve had a really hard time finding an answer.
How have you addressed it?
Most importantly, I’ve tried to get to know the people around me. One of my biggest blockers here was that I assumed my interest in getting to know my coworkers was a one-way street. That is 100%, unequivocally false -- Vigets love meeting each and every one of the interns over the course of the summer. They want to get to know you just as much as you want to get to know them! The sooner you can convince yourself of that, the sooner you will be able to embrace the fact that these connections are part of what makes Viget so great.
Also, I don’t compare myself to where other Vigets are now. I wish I could tell you that I don’t compare myself to them at all, but that would be nothing but hogwash. The people with whom I’ve worked at Viget are incredibly talented and have been honing their craft for years, so it doesn’t make any sense for me to compare myself to the product of all those years of hard work! I have grown so much over the course of this internship - I can’t help but imagine what I’ll be able to accomplish if I keep at it for years to come.
I still have a lot of work to do if I ever want to overcome imposter syndrome, so these certainly aren’t a foolproof set of tips for dealing with it! If you find yourself in a similar situation, I'd recommend checking out this article that was written a few years back with some interesting perspectives to keep in mind.
I think there are many challenges that arise from working remotely. Something I haven’t touched on yet is natural collaboration, which in my opinion, remote work has completely hindered. I can no longer spin my chair around to quickly ask a coworker for their opinion on a wireframe or drop by my advisor's desk to ask for help understanding an unfamiliar concept. For the most part, speaking about things is restricted to scheduled meetings with a predetermined agenda. Some consequences of not having this natural collaboration available are feeling a lack of understanding of how my coworkers feel about certain aspects of a project and a large rise in the time needed to ask and answer questions.
How Have you Addressed it?
If we once again put on our learning perspective lenses you’ll quickly see this is another chance to grow a skill! Without the typical forms of collaboration available, I’ve had to learn and practice being more resourceful. One thing I’ve found quite helpful is when one of my fellow interns started scheduling “focus time” video calls for us. Focus time typically spans a few hours and can have a general topic to focus on, but we’ll typically just work on whatever we need to individually. This replicates an office environment to a certain extent by allowing us to bounce ideas off each other, discuss things, and test opinions without having to schedule a dedicated meeting or send messages back and forth on slack. Keeping a short list of non-urgent questions and things you’d like to discuss has been helpful too. I can hold on to my list and bring up what I need to at the next appropriate meeting.
While being able to chat over video is the closest thing to remote natural collaboration, tools like slack are also essential when it comes to collaborating remotely. I’ve had my fair share of issues with Slack, for example, missing messages or getting myself too stressed out about perfecting what I write. Slack is great for sharing things out and asking small questions, thus, maximizing its use means being efficient and being able to respond quickly. Some strategies I’ve incorporated are turning my notifications on, keeping my slack window pinned on my screen, and trying to be as concise as possible with my messages.