Virtual internships require many of the same skills as in-person internships, and some additional ones to address the distance and online format. Of course, all interns can and should brush up on their career-specific technical skills and, if applicable, language skills, in order to best contribute to the work of their host organization. Additionally, it’s important not to overlook the so-called “soft skills”– maturity, adaptability, and cultural competence, for example–that are absolutely essential to navigating cross-cultural professional settings. Virtual interns should keep in mind that in an remote online setting, there will be fewer contextual clues available to them, so these skills are all the more relevant. Here are some of the top skills interns should build when preparing for their internship:
Flexibility. This is one of the most important skills for any international intern. The nature of a project you are working on may need to be adapted to meet the current circumstances at the site or the skill set you bring to the table. Setting up meetings across different time zones can lead to confusion, and unexpected events such as internet outages can mean missed meetings and a need to reschedule. As much as possible, try to adapt a learner’s mindset and go with the flow. Being able to adapt to the realities of your internship experience in real time is the best way to make sure you have an experience that you find to be valuable.
Tech skills. You’ll want to know which tech tools you’ll be using, and they can vary significantly across host sites and career fields. It will be important not only that you have any required apps or tools available to you, but also that you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with them before your internship begins.
Video call etiquette. Beyond that, give some consideration to video calls and your professional presentation. Good lighting, a clean and non-distracting background, minimizing background noise, and professional attire (as appropriate for your field and host culture’s norms) can convey your engagement and commitment to the organization. If you’ll use a profile photo, choose one carefully and be mindful of any messages sends. During calls, avoid multitasking and use nonverbal communication such as nodding, smiling, etc. to communicate that you’re paying attention.
Cultural awareness. Basic knowledge about the host culture, such as proper greetings and ways of addressing someone (for example, you should use your boss’s title?) can go a long way towards helping you build rapport with your colleagues. An understanding of norms in the professional workspace can help you interpret what is going on and which questions to ask (and perhaps how to ask them). For example, is there an unofficial or official dress code? You may be remote, but if you have a meeting, you’ll want to look the part. Is your host culture generally direct with feedback, and do you typically have to request it or is it shared voluntarily? What are the norms around punctuality, and how far in advance are meetings typically scheduled? Is the workplace highly hierarchical, or is it more informal with an “open door” policy and on a first name basis?
Professional writing and communication. Remember that emails are not texts. Be sure you know how to write a professional email, both in terms of salutations, grammar, and punctuation, and also in terms of tone (if you’re unfamiliar with the “communication sandwich technique”, check it out). Learn the organization’s structure and individuals’ roles, so that you understand who should be on an email thread and when it’s appropriate to loop someone else in (in general, tread lightly with “reply all” and adding recipients to an email thread).
Time management. Much like taking online classes, there is an extra level of self-discipline and organization that is required for virtual internships compared with in-person ones. You must know your work style and habits, so you can you carve out adequate and consistent time in your schedule to do your work. There are many online sources for advice on this subject to help you get started. Make sure, too, that you’re aware of the time zone difference, and try to be consistent with using the same time zone (or noting the times in both zones) when you communicate about scheduling.
Ability to work autonomously. You’ll be working in another country from where your host site is located, which can allow you a lot of flexibility in when you sit down to do your work each day. It also requires a lot of trust on the part of your host site that they are willing to accept an intern whose work they cannot monitor directly. Make sure you are accountable by following through in a timely way with deliverables, and communicate your progress and any questions proactively.
Tolerance for ambiguity (give the benefit of the doubt). This goes hand in hand with flexibility, but where we were referring mostly to planning and tasks, now we are talking about interpersonal relationships. Remember, you’ll have fewer contextual clues into what is going on at your host organization simply by virtue of being at a distance. Even in our home cultures, email and video communications have their limitations; add in culture and language differences, there is greater opportunity for misunderstandings to occur. Do your best to give the benefit of the doubt and be gracious, as you’d like your coworkers to do for you.