Virtual Work Experience Programmes – Getting it Right!

As part of our recent SAGEA Awards process, three organisations submitted Virtual Work Experience programmes in contention for the SAGEA 2021 Best Work Experience Award. The programmes come from different sectors, lending valuable variety to what we can learn from them. We used this opportunity to chat to the programme sponsors and learn more about best practice and lessons learned in delivering virtual work experience for students.

The three programmes are as follows:

  1. Bowman’s Virtual Vacation Programme – a week-long vacation employment programme, run for two different cohorts split across 81 students.
  2. Nedbank’s #BeTheDifference Virtual Work Experience Programme – a 3-day programme with a day of induction and a pre-work element before the programme. Run over three full days with two audiences of 20 students each – the Nedbank CA Training Programme and the Nedbank Quants Graduate Programme.
  3. Zutari’s Virtual Vacation Programme – A three-week programme run for 43 Engineering and Marketing students.

Programme objectives and duration

All three programmes had the objective of exposing students to the real-life experience of their respective sectors and imparting professional and work-readiness skills that would build muscle and soften the landing when students enter the world of work.  A simulated work experience that gave students insight into a potential career and the culture of each organisation was a further objective. Whilst not necessarily a primary goal, there was naturally some talent spotting going on across all three programmes!

Engineering students normally require 6 weeks of practical exposure before they can graduate, though the requirement has been reduced to 3 weeks because of Covid. Zutari’s objectives were to help students fulfil the requirement and promote their new employer brand, having recently re-branded from Aurecon to Zutari.

When asked about the ideal duration of a virtual programme, responses varied depending on the nature of the programme. Zutari’s was the longest and most intense programme given that there were external requirements that had to be met and students were online for the equivalent of three full workweeks. Admittedly strenuous, there was a lot to be covered and, in some instances, students felt the programme was too short! The Bowman’s programme was run over five days and Nedbank programmes required three days of full immersion, keeping to normal office hours – with additional time spent on pre-work or assignments outside of that. All agreed that the length of the programme was less important than achieving the intended objectives, though engagement is a critical element – but more about that later.

Programme design, content and structure

All three programmes were adapted from previously run in-person programmes with the intention of creating a virtual experience that would mirror the world of work as closely as possible. The Zutari programme focused on holistic skills that would equip future Engineers with technical and soft skills capabilities whilst driving home the importance of life-long and self-directed learning.

Bowmans had not run a programme in 2020 and were keen to get something virtual off the ground but without rushing the conversion. Being the first African corporate to work with Forage (a platform that hosts interactive virtual work experience events) was a bold step, and they worked in close collaboration with Forage on the design of their programme. Collaboration was a key ingredient of the programme, together with simulated tasks across the firm’s different practice areas.

Nedbank made use of the Hopin platform to facilitate their programme and they designed pre-work as well as an induction to Hopin that took place before the full programme.

A common theme across all three programmes was the use of project teams to stimulate interaction, networking and real work experience. The Bowmans programme included two presentations from Directors on each day as well as daily team meetings per business area (students had a choice of their top three practice areas). Nedbank ensured that each student group had a faculty member who could provide support and guidance.

In terms of the use of different platforms – Bowman’s had an excellent experience using Forage, and similarly Nedbank found Hopin of great value. They did, however, mention that the use of these platforms can be expensive.  Going forward, Bowman’s plan to stick with Forage, supplementing the programme with interactive sessions over Zoom.  Nedbank will explore different options, using Teams and/or Zoom but incorporating different layers as new tools emerge. Zutari did not make use of a specific platform and their experience using Teams was a good one.

Equipment and data and remuneration

Bowmans conducted a survey with students to establish what devices they had, and they then ensured that students who made use of a mobile device would not be compromised. In addition, they took a decision to keep the Forage platform open after hours in case students were using a shared device to which they only had access in the evenings.

Students who attended the Nedbank programme were given the option of a loan machine if they required one. The Zutari programme stated upfront that students who attended would need to have access to their own device and data and students were paid a small stipend to attend the programme. Students had network accounts created so that they could access Zutari’s programmes.  In hindsight, however, there were data and connectivity issues and Zutari would approach this differently in the future.

None of the programmes provided remuneration, however, they did ensure that students were not out of pocket.  Both Bowmans and Nedbank provided students with data, snacks, food vouchers etc.

A key lesson learned is that, even with the necessary devices and data, some students are not in an ideal environment where they have adequate power, lighting, connectivity or their own room or space to use when attending a virtual programme. With fewer Covid restrictions, employers might consider providing access to a nearby office or AirBnB accommodation as a possible way around this.

Engagement, networking, social interaction and meaningful learning

There were many ways in which our programme hosts ensured that students were engaged, had fun and learned in a manner that would stick. Engagement via virtual events can be challenging – both from a presenter’s and a participant’s point of view! So, how was engagement and interaction encouraged?

  • Constantly changing the mix of students for group work sessions meant that participants could meet students from different disciplines and/or different Universities.
  • Most made use of presentations, followed by practical group-work assignments or exercises, that students had to present back or report on.
  • Daily check-ins with students are of great value in establishing the “mood” or identifying issues.  On longer programmes it is important to offer some flexibility around starting and finishing times if these are requested by students.
  • Zutari introduced the students to their team of young professionals and the students then had to choose one person they would reach out to and arrange to connect with via coffee sessions.
  • All three programmes incorporated fun social activities including a pop quiz facilitated by a professional quiz master, a PJ quiz night, speed dating sessions, desk yoga, a race around the world and use of cool service providers to facilitate some of these virtual experiences.
  • STUFF! Students were sent all manner of goody bags and surprises – from non-perishable foods to headsets, power banks and survival kits containing food delivery vouchers, stationery, healthy snacks etc.  
  • Requiring students to have their cameras switched on and to show up smartly dressed was important for Bowmans and students enjoyed “suiting up” and being the Lawyer!
  • Nedbank ensured that their recent graduates were involved in the design and execution of the programme – not only did this stretch them and present a valuable learning opportunity, but interaction with similar aged young talent also increased student engagement.
  • Sessions or presentations run by senior staff and executive-level staff are equally important and well-received by a student audience.

Measuring success

As all the programmes involved assignments or presentations that students were required to complete, these served as a yardstick for learning success. In addition, use was made of rubrics to evaluate project work, surveys at the end of programmes and ratings provided by staff who interacted with the students. The Engineering students on the Zutari programme were required to present a portfolio of evidence to their Universities and positive feedback from one of the UCT lecturers provided further endorsement.

Key lessons and the way forward

So, what were the take-aways from the three programmes? What would each sponsor retain going forward and what would they change?

  • Virtual is not all bad! It is possible to build a rapport with students via this type of work experience programme – students are adaptable, and they have an appetite for digital learning.
  • If device and data are catered for, virtual programmes remove geographical boundaries and allow for greater accessibility and diversity.
  • As many students are completing virtual programmes from their home environment, it is important to question what that environment might look like and whether it is conducive to learning and working. We also need to be mindful of the impact the programme might have on family time and the impression it makes on the family members who share the home with the student.
  • Trust your young talent to take a big and a strong lead in putting together and helping to facilitate this type of programme. They can learn a huge amount, too.
  • The absence of geographical boundaries allows for greater student diversity and inclusion as well as larger numbers on virtual programmes. Similarly, interaction with staff from offices around the country is easily facilitated which means excellent exposure for students.
  • The way forward for all three programmes is some sort of hybrid model that allows for a combination of virtual learning, coupled with in-person interaction. Zutari are determined to be able to include site work and more engagement with their Engineers, as this is of critical value to students. Nedbank’s view is that the world of work itself is going to move forward on a hybrid basis and that their work experience programme should reflect whatever that ends up looking like. Their current vision is to retain virtual elements but offer in-person congregation across different geographical locations.

SAGEA are grateful to Modlay Davids of Zutari, Kasheer Singh of Bowmans and Lerato Mathibela of Nedbank for sharing these insights with us. To view their Award entries and learn more about their programmes, please follow this link. All three are excellent programmes and we look forward to revealing our Award winner on 23 November at the SAGEA conference.