While quarantine was one of the most challenging experiences in my life, it was a remote internship that kept me on track.
The defining experience of much of this year for me, like so many others, has been isolation.
I had flown from San Francisco to Melbourne, leaving everything behind in the process, and there were five months to wait before I could even think about returning. I was living by myself in a national park two hours drive from Sydney, the nearest supermarket across three kilometres of water. As I would find out, when you’re alone, on the other side of the world, and counting down each day, five months is a very, very long time.
During those five months, I had planned to work in New Zealand for Education Perfect – an education technology company whose software helps students and employees learn more effectively.
Despite the disruption caused by coronavirus, I decided to continue the internship, albeit remotely. Despite concerns about how well I could complete it, it turned out to be the best decision I could have made.
The challenges of working through the pandemic as an intern
Working through quarantine was one of the most challenging professional experiences of my life.
This wasn’t because of the company I was working for – in fact, everyone at Education Perfect was friendly and helpful, and their vision of humanising education is incredibly inspiring. Instead, the most significant challenge was that isolation seemed to erode the personal qualities I had relied on for my entire life. Motivation, passion, resilience, determination… all seemingly all dried up overnight. The easiest of tasks required herculean efforts; the smallest of roadblocks were insurmountable barriers.
I learned a lot over those five months, almost always inadvertently, but the most valuable lessons centred around three key concepts: the value of relationships; the importance of learning from feedback; and the necessity of accountability and structure. Each of these lessons kept me sane and working effectively amid near-total isolation.
Be a people person, even from a distance
My first, and most important realisation was the importance of my working relationship with my manager and immediate team. Effectively supporting them and collaborating were, by far, my strongest motivators.
Of course, interacting with others is easier said than done when you’ve only ever seen your colleagues through a 14-inch laptop screen. Here, my manager was incredible. We would speak almost every day, talking through different issues and initiatives. This was useful for completing tasks, but it also served the greater purpose of developing our connection. If I faced issues, she was always there to talk things through, and to help figure out how to manage my time. Her guidance showed me first-hand how, even if we are kept apart by circumstances beyond our control, honest and effective communication is incredibly important for job satisfaction and professional success.
A constant learning opportunity
These working relationships also made it easier to receive feedback, which was far more impactful than I first thought it would be. Feedback became an indispensable tool for maintaining productivity. When it was positive, the satisfaction boosted my motivation. When it was negative, it was presented as a learning opportunity and allowed me to identify and improve my ways of working. No matter the type of feedback, it functioned as a sort of ‘reset’ button, clearing away feelings of self-doubt while empowering me to address whatever problems I had.
Accountability and structure
The most important change I implemented as a result of feedback came after my first employee review process: small tasks were slipping through without being completed, and it turned out that my manager didn’t have enough knowledge of what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. My response was to bring about workflow systemisation, which was an effective motivator.
My tasks were all assigned a start and end date, had a way of tracking progress, a section for breaking down next steps, and another where my notes were written down and issues were flagged. I used spreadsheets to keep on top of the workflow process, and created collaborative documents to allow my colleagues and manager to see the status of various tasks and projects so feedback could be given in real-time.
Looking back now…
As I write this, I’m back at my college in San Francisco. The five months spent alone did, in fact, have an end, and this summer turned out to be one of the most formative periods of my life.
It’s easy to make it seem as if the whole time away was a process of discovery, of fighting back against the malaise caused by the pandemic. The truth is, it was a process which involved a lot of stumbling around; sometimes, miraculously, in the right direction.
And yet, despite all of that, despite my initial lack of motivation, the mental weight of isolation, despite the whole thing being far more challenging than I anticipated, working for EP was the best decision I could have made, and I am so pleased that I was able to give back to the company in some way.
My time there taught me that the personal drivers I had taken for granted were sometimes situationally dependent, and that I could still work without them. It taught me how useful accountability, feedback and task management are in achieving my goals.
Above all, it taught me how important people are, and how the relationships forged in service of a shared vision can be so impactful.
My advice to would-be interns is to treat the hardships of remote working as a learning process. Accept that you will make mistakes, that the pandemic has a way of making the simplest tasks difficult. Forgive yourself when you don’t measure up to your expectations, engage as fully as you can with the opportunities that present themselves, and reach out to your colleagues if you feel that it’s too difficult to continue.
These are difficult times, and it’s easy to lose hope, to become disillusioned as the days stretch out endlessly ahead of us. In facing the challenges posed by the pandemic, however, we are also presented with a unique opportunity to reflect on all that we have taken for granted, to develop new habits and workflows, and above all else, to grow as individuals.