The importance of being proactive at the start of your career when remote working

Socio-Technical Centre
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Helen Hughes is an Associate Professor at Leeds University Business School, and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. She has expertise in workplace collaboration, studying the social dynamics of workplace relationships and the ways that these can be harnessed by organizations to improve both their performance and efficiency, and the wellbeing and satisfaction of their employees. Currently, she is a Co-Investigator on an ESRC funded project: “Adapting Offices for the Future of Work”, which is looking to support economic recovery by identifying effective office design and work practice adaptations that also support remote and hybrid working.

Person sat at desk, waving at laptop screen

This is the fourth blog post in a series exploring the experience of remote and hybrid working for those starting their careers during the pandemic. The other blog posts are:

The pandemic has led to dramatic changes in working patterns and practices, with one of the most significant being the shift towards employees working from home, or in a combination of working from both home and in the office. Proponents of home working have argued for of the productivity gains that can be achieved by a move to remote working, but studies of remote working have repeatedly shown that that these productivity gains are not universally experienced. 

Remote working brings with it distinct challenges for those at the start of their careers. For them to be productive they not only need to learn how to do their jobs, they need to be able to more generally navigate the culture and norms of the workplace. Knowing how and when to ask the right questions, to showcase work you have been doing, and to challenge the status quo are all essential components that are needed to maximise your productivity. But, like all workplace skills, these can take time and practice to finesse. 

Since June 2020, I have been working with colleagues to research students undertaking paid 9-12 month internships, to understand the specific barriers and opportunities they have experienced while remote and hybrid working. We conducted interviews with 25 interns and analysed questionnaires and essays written by 182 interns. A recurring theme across the experiences of participants was the importance of behaving proactively. However, they frequently also spoke of the challenges of being proactive at the start of your career, and the added challenge of demonstrating proactivity when working remotely.

The importance of being proactive when starting out

Interns frequently gave examples of proactive initiatives and actions that had helped them to manage a difficult or uncomfortable situation, or to get more from the placement. And, it is probably of little surprise to many, that where they reported such proactivity, they also reported positive outcomes for their wellbeing, work task variety, professional development, and productivity. Interns gave examples of them progressing to new tasks much more quickly and being invited to additional projects and meetings because a colleague had noticed them showing an interest in something related.

Other interns recognised that they had been more passive in their accepting of instructions and working conditions, and often describing feelings of frustration and low work satisfaction about this, as they recognised that with some simple proactive behaviours they could have avoided their work being overlooked: 

I need to be more active in sharing my projects with the team so they can see the work that I have done.

However, some interns were much more resigned to “nothing changing” in their internship, with several noting that their focus had become “getting through the year”. Not all of these interns were concerned that they lacked opportunities within their placement, and several interns reported taking proactive steps to make more of their home life to compensate for what they felt they were ‘missing’ in their work. 

In some of these cases though, the reason for accepting their current situation was simply to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or confrontation. A couple of interns gave examples of a colleague or university tutor helping to intervene or advocate on their behalf, which had helped them overcome the situation. These findings suggest that some interns might benefit from some focussed guidance on how to proactively tackle uncomfortable situations and deal with conflict. With just a little more guidance or support from colleagues, mentors or tutors, it seems that some interns could much better maximise their internship opportunities.

The additional challenge of remote working

Some interns reported finding it hard to be proactive due to the remote work environment. For example, a number reported having too little or too much work to do early in their placement, but often found it difficult to know who to approach about this, and how to do so. Some had therefore accepted a low workload and taken advantage of the free time by using it to develop hobbies. Others reported continuing to buckle down at their work tasks, but feeling miserable in doing so. 

These interns generally assumed that this must just be ‘the way things are’, and in a work environment where they might only see their line manager or close colleagues a couple of times a week, they did not want to use their platform for ‘complaining’. In other cases, interns explained that they simply did not have the skills to be able to address the challenges they were facing, or were waiting for a face-to-face moment to have such a conversation.

However, some gave examples about how they had confidently approached such matters within the organisation, to proactively try and improve their internship experience. They often credited the organisation with encouraging aspects such as working autonomously and independently, and asking questions – so, it is possible that some organisational cultures are more welcoming of proactive behaviours than others.

A few interns noted that their proactivity had developed as they had become more confident in the placement over time. Others recommended taking small, proactive steps to help them get more from the placement. Crucially, several interns noted that it had taken real courage to take such action, and that they had felt anxious doing so, at least initially:

Despite often being held back by my anxiety, overthinking social situations, I took it upon myself to arrange 1-2-1 catch ups with those I worked with closely, to engage in conversations unrelated to work I was proud of challenging myself and being proactive, as it benefitted me in the long run.

Is a remote internship worth it?

Despite the challenges that interns have faced working remotely (the effect on workplace learningnot realising the benefits of the built work environmentthe challenges of the technology, and the need to be proactive) the vast majority of those we spoke to considered their remote internship to have been a positive learning experience and well worth the effort.

Interns felt learning how to work remotely was a crucial skill that would be advantageous in future employment. They believed remote working had reshaped their understanding of what it means to communicate and work with others, and had helped them develop resilience, flexibility, and adaptability. For others, a remote internship helped them refine work values and work out their expectations and needs for a future workplace.

For further information and our recommendations for employers, universities, and interns, view the infographic.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.