July 21, 2020
Avi Criden is the director of Academic Internship Programs at The Washington Center
Think how much your work has changed in the last several months. For those of us fortunate enough to keep our jobs amid this pandemic, work has morphed from a communal endeavor, set at defined times and spaces, to an increasingly solitary practice, unbound by location. We’re literally re-imagining the rules of work as we go along. In a matter of months we’ve adapted our communication strategies and supervision techniques, set new norms for organizational engagements and interactions with colleagues, and are discovering new formats for institutional learning, training, and professional development. We’re moving fast, even if the destination isn’t quite clear yet!
It seems that for many organizations, regardless of industry or size, the foundations of work have proven malleable, negotiable, and at times even arbitrary. Companies like Twitter and Square have embraced a 100 percent remote work option moving forward, and it is likely that many will follow suit. In fact, once the floodgates are opened it’s plausible that other “staples” of work such as the standard 9-to-5 workday, the role of HR in sustaining remote cultures, management techniques, and performance evaluations will also evolve to adapt to the times.
Considering this, quality virtual internships should be designed with intention, maximizing interns’ ability to learn and thrive amid ambiguity, and launch their careers in a rapidly changing marketplace. Yet to properly prepare the next wave of young professionals we must incorporate new performance evaluation models that factor-in the monumental (and possibly permanent) changes we’re presently experiencing.
Below are four key skills/aptitudes critical for employees to thrive in an increasingly virtual world. Understanding these skills will allow managers to offer more relevant performance evaluations to their interns and direct reports, and help career advisors support and coach students as they prepare for, and reflect upon, their internships.
As work spaces migrate to the home front, the manager-employee dynamic is changing, increasingly relying on planned, less frequent touch-points aimed at delivering feedback, clarifying tasks, and evaluating performance. This new reality, devoid of real-time observation and learning for employees (as well as the ability to spontaneously collaborate with peers) will require a new generation of employees to gain comfort with autonomous work at a relatively early stage in their career.
Definition: Autonomous work is defined as the intern’s ability to perform their duties with limited or relatively infrequent supervision (in comparison to in-person internships) while staying on task, solving small-scale problems as they emerge, meeting deadlines, producing timely deliverables, and avoiding procrastination.
Virtual Communications Skills
It’s difficult to gauge how employees will end up communicating with each other in five years but at the moment a few trends seem clear. Without ongoing face-to-face interactions to transmit/interpret non-verbal cues, observe and respond to misunderstandings, and diffuse conflicts in real-time, the great communicators of the future will be those who adopt a highly proactive, contextual, and descriptive communication style. All employees, regardless of experience level, will have to initiate their communication, offering information rather than solely reacting to inquiry, ask poignant, interrogative questions, break down complex issues in a clear and digestible manner, and always always always provide context!
Definition: Virtual communication skills are defined as the intern’s ability to leverage existing technology to best initiate connections with, and relay information to, peers and supervisors. These skills reflect the intern’s capability to breakdown and explain complex ideas, convey their own needs and challenges, and generate knowledge in a proactive, descriptive, and contextual manner.
The Engagement Quotient
It’s likely that this massive transition to remote work will have direct implications on organizational culture, camaraderie among colleagues, and the intangible thread connecting peers at work. For the majority of us, the connections we forge at work still matter; we want to feel a belonging to a community, mission, and place. Yet with the absence of place as a tenet of work that ties us to one another, companies and employees will put a high premium on engagement. To assure that interns learn from their peers and fully engage with the organization, they will have to actively initiate connections, seek out opportunities to interact with their colleagues, and find new ways to join with co-workers.
Definition: The Engagement Quotient is defined at the intern’s ability to relate to, and connect with, members of the organization on a range of topics throughout the internship experience. This might include participation in social events, seeking out mentorship, scheduling information interviews, and connecting with other interns.
** it is important that one’s engagement quotient is not influenced by an intern’s gregariousness, extroversion, or the sheer quantity of connections they foster. This would favor more extroverted students. Instead, an intern’s engagement should be measured by their involvement in an array of initiatives, individuals, and programs throughout the organization.
Self-Awareness & Initiative.
Designing quality remote professional experiences is a work in progress. For some of us, remote work will be marked by unavoidable and sometimes unexpected lulls, periods of inconsistent communication between manager and employee, and plenty of misjudgments and miscues. To account for these “growing pains,” individuals will need to exercise an assertive, value-adding approach to work that is inquisitive and analytical. More specifically, great virtual employees will foresee areas of need and offer solutions that align with their unique skills and strengths, keep close tabs on their own workload and bandwidth, and invest in a more assertive communication style that emphasizes connectivity with their peers and supervisor.
Definition: within the context of remote work, Self-Awareness & Initiative operate in tandem. These are defined as the intern’s ability to adhere to their job description, volunteer for specific tasks and responsibilities, identify small-scale areas of improvement, and offer viable solutions that leverage their own strengths, expertise, or personal interests.
As work continues to evolve so will the models we use to effectively evaluate performance. The ideas above offer a reasonable starting point but they should not be considered final in any way. I am looking forward to seeing what the upcoming months will bring and hope to continue the conversation with you all.