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Remote work experience might not be the equaliser it seems

Work experience has, for many years, been a staple part of growing up. We are told all the time about the importance of future professions. Around the world, economies are built on people holding employment and developing their knowledge. To understand how industry works, a brief time experiencing work is extremely valuable. There to confirm whether a sector is (or isn’t) right for someone, shadowing a senior employee provides opportunities for knowledge, understanding and enlightenment.  

Obviously, because of the pandemic, this has drastically altered. Much work experience has been cancelled. The Warwick Summer Internship scheme fell victim to this. Often the logistical task of furloughed staff trying to host interns was too much. Opportunities to add something to CVs were lost. For many, their summer contained neither work or holiday. 

That being said, some organisations managed. With their employees working remotely, they provided work experience from home. While the situation was different, lucky candidates will have understood their company’s working policies and how the organisation operated. The working from home revolution was discussed long before the pandemic arose – coronavirus has simply acted as a catalyst for long term changes already taking place. 

This has meant many companies will permanently switch to working from home. Any such work experience will be reliant on individuals having a computer at home with stable internet access  and appropriate software. Though internet access in the home is far more widespread than even ten years ago, this won’t apply for everyone. Even for those with access, the broadband might be  slow or intermittent. On a business Zoom call, where negotiation and communication are essential, that would hardly be beneficial. 

The working from home revolution was discussed long before the pandemic arose – coronavirus has simply acted as a catalyst

Work experience opportunities may, in fact, become more elitist.  Internships were already fairly narrow. Often unpaid, they relied on financial security – you must be able to afford the transport and accommodation costs of the city, and have the appropriate clothing. Though some at university could rely on subsidies, this was often limited and never universal. Fair, it was not.  

Remote work experience might not improve things. For example, work fairs could become things of  the past. With social distancing in place, it’s unlikely that events hosting different companies will return any time soon. Those who didn’t know where to look online were able to access companies right in front of them. Questions were asked, clarifications were made and contacts were created. Online, that same interaction is far harder. Individuals looking for work experience will rely more on family contacts. Websites like LinkedIn provide some opportunities, but the sheer volume of  individuals mean true communication is far harder.  

The cost of commuting will have gone, some argue. Yes, but alongside it, the benefits of learning about a workplace will have vanished. Communicating online can only reveal a fraction about an organisation. Software necessary might be compatible at home, but the workspace of innovation and opportunity that an office provides will have gone. This may lead in-person companies to disregard a CV containing remote work experience, because it lacks credibility within office life.  

In-person experience work experience is far more meritocratic than working remotely

Similarly, there are financial and social costs to remote work experience. Financially, an individual is far more likely to spend more at home on utilities. If they are there all day, the cost will no longer fall on the company but the individual. Similarly, universities or other organisations may be less willing to provide a subsidy if the internship is unpaid. That the individual works from home may provide a justification for companies to stop paying altogether, which could be immensely damaging to families lower down the socioeconomic scale. Receiving no income from work experience could disincentivise students to apply for it.

Socially too, high quality employment require networking. Knowing new people and understanding a company’s development is essential for climbing up the career ladder. The hierarchy in companies remains, regardless of whether individuals work in person or online. In person, it’s far easier to judge prospective employees and understand who should progress. Online, that is far harder. It again means that those in senior positions will most likely recommend individuals they know through friends and family, rather than those best suited.  

Online work experience and employment could be liberating. Escaping a nightmare commute with more time at home could provide opportunities for hobbies, professional productivity and a well rounded life. But for young people in particular, that won’t be true. Reliant on house shares in insecure accommodation, in-person experience is far more meritocratic than working remotely. Sitting at a computer may get the  work done, but it only provides a fraction of the full employment experience.

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