Widening access to the internship landscape, virtual work experience opportunities are increasingly popular. Learn more about what online work experience involves and weigh up its pros and cons
'Work experience gives you the chance to explore new industries beyond theoretical knowledge, discover roles you never knew existed, and figure out what sort of working environment suits you best,' explains Sophie Phillipson, founder of student and graduate support site HelloGrads.
What is virtual work experience?
Also referred to as online, remote or e-experience, virtual work experience gives students and graduates the opportunity to complete a full internship from home. For the majority of online work experience opportunities all you need is access to a laptop/computer and a stable internet connection.
Virtual internships share many similarities with traditional, in-person internships but their online nature allows participants to work with organisations across the country, even the globe.
While traditional, in-person internships often exclude a large number of students and graduates, owing to the limited number of placements available and the practicalities of taking part, the increased accessibility of virtual work experience means that opportunities are open to all.
Learn more about work experience and internships.
What do virtual internships involve?
'The application process for virtual internships is the same as when applying for traditional internships but the experience itself is quite different,' says Sophie.
You’ll typically apply for virtual work experience with a CV and cover letter - alternatively an organisation may require you to complete an application form. If you'd like to gain experience with a particular company but can't find any advertised work experience programmes, it's worth sending a speculative application. Bear in mind that where virtual experience is concerned an organisation may not always have the necessary technology to grant your request. Take a look at our internship and speculative cover letter examples for inspiration.
On the whole, online internships involve:
- regular online meetings with your supervisor or mentor
- Individual project work where you'll focus on one larger project instead of helping with lots of small jobs (as you probably would if you were in an office environment)
- video tutorials and virtual tours
- virtual networking sessions and online chats with various members of the organisation, to give you an insight into what different colleagues do
- training opportunities generally provided via an e-learning platform
- online socialising events such as team drinks, coffee breaks and quizzes.
'A virtual intern should be assigned a single point of contact who will act as a mentor, instructor and trainer. That person will set jobs and give you feedback on completed tasks, as well as answering any questions you may have about the industry,' adds Sophie. 'Jot down questions as you think of them, as you may not be in constant contact with your mentor.'
'Some companies will give you access to their e-learning portal, with video tutorials covering soft skills like communication, as well as hard skills, such as how to use Excel to do specific tasks. Watch these carefully and make a note of anything you don't already know.'
Completing experience remotely can make networking hard, so jump at the chance to speak to other people in the company. 'You'll get different perspectives and may discover a role that you never knew existed. Plus, it's a chance to make new contacts and expand your professional network,' explains Sophie.
Before taking part in virtual work experience make sure that you're fully aware of what's involved and that your duties are clearly defined. Contact the employer or internship provider if you're unsure.
Also make sure that you have the technology you'll need to complete the opportunity. For starters you'll need a laptop or computer with a working camera and microphone and access to the internet. It's likely that you'll also need software such as Skype, Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
How long do placements last?
This largely depends on the internship you take. Most last between one and three months, although longer six or 12-month opportunities also exist.
The amount of work required varies depending on your placement, but as a minimum expect to put in at least 20 to 30 hours per week.
The more time and effort you put in, the more you'll get out of the experience - so only apply for opportunities if you're committed to making the most of it.
Where can I find virtual work experience opportunities?
An increasing number of UK employers, from large, multi-national companies to small and medium-sized employers (SMEs), provide virtual work experience opportunities.
Placements are available across a number of sectors including:
- business and consultancy
Companies currently providing virtual work experience include:
This is not an exhaustive list. An increasing number of employers are realising the benefits of virtual experience and are working to provide these opportunities, so do some research into organisations you'd like to intern with to see what they provide.
Universities also run virtual internship schemes, such as the Virtual Internships Programme at the University of Birmingham, which is open to all University of Birmingham undergraduates and postgraduates, as well as those who've graduated in the last two years.
Look for virtual work experience at:
Will I get paid?
Again, this depends on the organisation you work for. Some large companies may pay participants for their time, others may pay minimum wage, while some may still honour expenses (although you're unlikely to incur many when working from home).
Be aware that a lot of virtual work experience is unpaid, so make sure you do your research before applying or signing up. Never accept a placement if the duties or tasks seem exploitative.
What are the benefits of online experience?
One of the main benefits to completing an internship from home is the flexibility that the arrangement affords you. You can work hours that suit you and fit the internship around other work or personal commitments. Other advantages include:
- Accessibility - virtual work experience is open to all and location isn't an issue. 'The rise of virtual work experience and internships will work in favour of many young jobseekers, as high-quality roles that were only accessible to those who could live rent-free in London or other major cities will be open to all,' says Sophie.
- Cost - as you're working from home and the experience is online you won't need to temporarily move to the town or city where your internship is based, saving you the cost of accommodation. You're also unlikely to incur travel fees meaning you'll save money on the commute, not to mention coffees and lunches.
- More options - because you're not restricted by cost or location you can apply for an internship anywhere in the world, which dramatically increases your options and potentially the breadth of your experience.
- Improved technical skills - 'remote working is an important skill for the modern workplace and learning how to be useful and effective from afar is a valuable skill,' adds Sophie.
- Enhanced soft skills - the self-discipline required to work from home will hone a number of soft skills, such as organisation, time management and the ability to prioritise. Taking part also demonstrates your initiative and motivation to employers. These are all great skills for your CV.
What about the drawbacks?
It's only fair to acknowledge that virtual work experience does have some drawbacks. The most obvious disadvantage is a lack of face-to-face interaction. Others include:
- No experience in an office environment - 'an intern going into a workplace will normally be given exposure to dozens of people doing all sorts of different jobs. They might join their colleagues for coffee breaks and after-work drinks. They might, by simply being in the right place at the right time, be drawn into working on a project where an extra pair of hands is vital,' explains Sophie. 'By contrast, a virtual intern is likely to be more isolated and less exposed. It means being extra proactive - take the chance to make connections, follow up on opportunities to talk to people. Volunteer or ask around for jobs. If companies have team chat channels, get involved. If there's an optional meeting on Zoom, join in. Make it your mission to be visible.'
- A lack of self-discipline - if you struggle to stay motivated completing online experience may be a challenge.
- Lack of confidence - because you haven't met your colleagues in person, asking questions and putting yourself forward in meetings may feel awkward. This can also make it harder to ask for help if you're struggling.
- Communication issues - the quality of your virtual experience will hinge on how good the organisation is at keeping in touch.
- False opportunities - as virtual internships are arranged and completed online there's a risk of being duped by false opportunities. It's therefore essential that you do your research before applying and be especially careful when applying for an overseas internship.
How do I make the most of a virtual internship?
To get the most out of your experience:
- Set clear boundaries and create a routine - stick to set hours (regular office hours are best if these suit your circumstances), create a professional space to work from, ideally a desk or table and dress the part every day.
- Keep in touch - frequently check in with your manager and teammates.
- Don't be afraid to raise your hand - metaphorically speaking. Ask questions, seek advice and be open to guidance. Also, don't shy away from asking for more work to do if you run out.
- Join in - take part in any networking or social events, as the contacts you make now may prove useful in the future.
- Keep track of your achievements - without the structure of a face-to-face internship it's easy to lose track of the tasks you've completed. Make a note of the things you've done and the skills you've developed, as these will prove useful for future applications and interviews.
- Ask for feedback - internships, not matter how they're completed, are learning curves so it's important to ask your employer and colleagues for feedback on your performance. It'll help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and improve where necessary.
What if I can't get online experience?
Don't worry. In light of the pandemic, employers are well aware of the difficulties that students and graduates are facing in trying to obtain relevant work experience. If you struggle to complete an internship, recruiters are unlikely to hold it against you. However, there are still a number of things that you can do to boost your employability, so don't sit idle.
Anyone can volunteer and this is often a great way to gain work experience if you're struggling to get a place on a formal internship programme.