What it’s like to be on a micro-placement in the Virtual World

I had my routine all planned out. I’d wake up at half six (much to the despair of my university-influenced body clock), get dressed, eat a bowl of unbranded breakfast cereal and aim to get to Eastcote station by about quarter past seven. An hour or so later I’d arrive at Great Portland Street, undoubtedly knackered and inexplicably windswept from the preceding tube journey, before making my way to the Babel offices.

That’s what I thought my Summer university micro-placement commute would look like at the start of the year. However, what I hadn’t considered was the possibility of a global pandemic. Until this year, viral catastrophes had always felt like a threat of the past, only really existing in modern life through sci-fi films starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. But alas, 2020 has turned out to be an unforgiving wake-up call for us all. One of the consequences of dealing with a virus like this one is that plans have been cancelled left, right and centre, so I’m lucky to have been offered the alternate arrangement of a virtual internship instead. As such, there has been no early morning rush into central London, and instead of worrying about whether my handshake is firm enough, I’m left worrying about whether I’m fully in frame on a remote Zoom call. Instead of working in an office, I find myself typing away on my laptop behind a desk in my childhood bedroom, having moved back in with my parents when COVID-19 arrived.

All things considered, this is a pretty novel situation to be in, so there’s plenty to reflect upon as I enter my fourth week ‘with’ the Babel team. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned:

How to get the most out of your work placement

There’s plenty of things that people should look to do when joining an agency on a micro-placement, but for me, proactivity has been key. Being able to show a good work ethic from the outset will not only help with how you’re perceived by colleagues, but it’ll allow you to develop as many skills as possible during your placement. Ultimately, internships are all about learning, so I’ve made sure to try as many different tasks as possible. From social media and administration work, to drafting pitches and conducting research – even writing blogs like this one. The more you can experience during your placement, the more you will gain from it.

Then there’s the social aspect. One of the best ways to have a successful internship is to build a good rapport with your colleagues. This was something that I had worried about prior to joining, as I’m quite a shy person by nature. I feared that being behind a screen, without that natural interaction, would only make it harder for me to come out of my shell. Luckily though, Babel’s working atmosphere offers a wonderful blend of friendliness and professionalism, symbolised nicely by little initiatives such as their regular virtual socials. Things like that make it easier to connect with colleagues without seeing them in person, which in turn boosts morale. And this isn’t just me paying lip service either. Just a few days ago, the team made the shortlist for ‘Best Agency Culture’ in the annual UK Agency Awards. So, while I’m still no social butterfly, I certainly feel like part of the team and that honestly makes a huge difference.

One final point would be to make sure to look after yourself mentally and physically. Sitting at a desk, looking at a screen all day can become draining. Luckily, the management team here recognise that, so each afternoon employees are encouraged to take a 15-20 minute ‘Babel Break’, where they can get up and leave the stress of work behind. Plus, once you’ve given your legs a stretch, it’s important to remain engaged when you return to your workstation. That might mean listening to a podcast when working to keep your spirits up (nothing too distracting though of course), or just simply making sure to switch off from work completely during your lunch break in order to return in the afternoon feeling refreshed and ready to go again.

How to avoid common pitfalls

As much as some try, nobody can be perfect all the time, and mistakes are likely to happen when you’re new to a certain environment. Micro-placements are no different, and while it can be frustrating as you’ll want to leave as good an impression as possible, it’s okay to acknowledge when something goes wrong.

Everybody is likely to face different struggles, depending on their personality or skill set. For me, the main point for improvement has been time management. In my first few weeks, I was keen to take on everything that was asked of me in order to not disappoint. But very quickly, I began to lose my grip on my own time and schedule, which had knock-on effects for the people who set me those tasks. There are two main take-away points from that; firstly, that it’s okay to say ‘no’ or renegotiate deadlines to accommodate higher priority work, and secondly that a well-thought-out daily schedule is integral.

Whatever problems you may come across, the key factors required to overcome them are – in my opinion, at least – the ability to communicate well and some personal resilience. When things go wrong, you can sense your designated tasks beginning to slip through your fingers. Stress like that can be enraging, but instead of flipping mental tables, I have found that the best response is to take a step back. With a clear mind, you can seek advice from colleagues who will be more than happy to provide it. Ultimately, people won’t expect you to get absolutely everything correct first time, so don’t give up. After all, an important part of development is the ability to learn from your mistakes, and it’ll be a much easier thing to do if you look for help from people who have been there, done that and worn the t-shirt.

How a virtual internship differs to a traditional one

Other than the obvious difference in surroundings, communication is one of the biggest oddities about taking part in a virtual micro-placement. Whereas normally you could ask a question to the nearest colleague in the office, that’s not something that can happen when everybody is scattered across the city, or country even. As such, you shouldn’t be afraid to send a message or give somebody a call if there’s something you’re unsure about. That said, it’s probably not advised to remain a permanent fixture in their inbox, as it’ll be a distraction for them to have to constantly keep checking Slack, the messaging platform that we use. To minimise this problem, writing down notes from group Zoom calls or from task briefs will help to keep you as well-informed as you can be from afar.

The surroundings themselves do of course have a significant effect too. In fact, working from home has in some ways made life easier as well as more difficult. For example, it’s much less daunting being in familiar surroundings rather than an office which is totally new, and I can’t say I’ve rued the absence of a commute either.

All in all, a virtual internship has allowed me to focus purely on the work, rather than on other factors like travelling or getting used to a new environment. That has taken away a large chunk of pressure from the experience as a whole, and while I – like everyone else – would love for the world to be back to normal, this virtual alternative has still been a truly valuable experience. So, if you’re interested in a career in PR but have reservations about micro-placements of the virtual kind, I hope that this blog has helped. It may feel as though COVID-19 has put the future on hold, but with virtual placements like this one, it doesn’t have to be that way.

James Bowers

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