LU study reveals student interns and employers prefer face-to-face interaction to work-from-home internships

The COVID-19 outbreak has created upheavals for everyone. Working from home (WFH) has become a new normal and is not expected to end even after the pandemic. Teaching and learning are no exceptions, although a recent study conducted by Lingnan University (LU) shows that both undergraduate students and community partner organisations generally prefer face-to-face interaction to the working-and-learning-from-home (WLFH) mode of internships.

The research team suggests that ineffective communication, as well as a decrease in productivity and quality of work, are the main factors affecting the efficacy of WLFH. However, the WLFH mode can work both ways for student interns and organisations as this new method of teaching and learning can function strategically alongside face-to-face mode and bring everyone additional benefits.

The research team was made up of the Department of Management and Office of Service-Learning of LU. In-depth interviews were conducted with four local small and medium-sized social enterprises, NGOs’ supervisors and 13 LU undergraduate students who participated in an eight-week service-learning summer internship programme in June and July 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students carried out internship duties either solely or partly in the WLFH mode for organisations in environmental protection and conservation, social services and education, and were responsible for tasks such as organising events, video post-production, social media marketing, design, research, and afterschool tutorials. After completing the internship programme, each respondent reported on the effects of the WLFH mode on learning outcome and work performance, as well as the key factors in favour of WLFH.

Results show that over 90 per cent (90.7%) of respondents’ comments indicated the positive effect of face-to-face during their service-learning internships, compared with only 29 per cent (28.9%) in WLFH. The five main criticism of WLFH were poor communication/interaction (27.4%), difficulty in organising activities (10.4%), distractions at home (9.4%), that it is hard for employers to monitor (9.4%) and that it is hard to build relationships (8.5%). The five main positive outcomes of face-to-face were good communication/ interaction (33.3%), that it helps to build relationships (25.6%), there is greater variety of tasks (20.5%), that it supports the learning of organisational cultures (12.8%), and that it is easy for employers to monitor (2.6%).

Prof May Wong Mei-ling, Associate Professor of the Department of Management of LU who led the study, said the survey shows that some student interns and community partner organisations were unprepared for the WLFH mode in summer 2020, which hampered students’ learning outcomes and their contributions to both the organisations and the community. Prof Wong said that the WLFH mode could be a double-edged sword and recommended that any organisations and schools adopting this mode should have sufficient preparation and support, including prior contingency planning, a two-way communication mechanism, regular meetings to monitor progress, agreements regarding work rules and expectations set in advance, and ensuring that internship programmes are WLFHable. Examples of WLFHable jobs for service-learning internships include writing proposal, video post-production, social media marketing, poster/infographic design and research which entail independent work without much interpersonal interaction.

“It is worth noting that home can be either a conducive environment or a distraction for student interns, depending on factors including presence/absence of disturbances such as noise or family duties, self-discipline, concentration and motivation in communicating with colleagues. Results also indicate that student interns who had prior face-to-face work and learning experience adapted the WLFH mode better than those without, because experience in building up interpersonal relationships during face-to-face mode helped students strengthen mutual understanding and trust with supervisors adopting the WLFH mode,” said Prof Wong.

She concluded that the WLFH mode does bring various benefits when the interns are self-disciplined and it saves interns’ commuting time and costs. Prof Wong predicted “working and learning from home will become a major part of internships in the future, and encourage students to become independent, innovative learners and problem solvers as they will not be able to rely on their supervisors, which means they need to manage their own time and tasks better. Supervisors can save time, too.” 

Prof Wong emphasised “the benefits of the WLFH mode can emerge only with good management practices in place. The human factors, such as self-discipline, self-management, communication, mutual understanding and trust will not be replaced by machines and will continue to affect student interns’ learning outcomes and work performance in the future.”

Note: LU has received funding from the Fung Foundation (经纶慈善基金) in support of the service-learning summer internship programme for enabling students to actively participate in service leadership development and establish their goals in life.