Afterword by Paul Roeland

A changing landscape

The last few years have seen dramatic changes, some of which are still playing out. A global pandemic plunged much of the world into working and learning from home, without good preparations in many cases. At the same time, important social movements found their voices, from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter. 

The turmoil is far from over. Supply chains remain unpredictable, record numbers of people are displaced by war and other causes. Economies that are on the rebound see themselves confronted by personnel shortages. All against a backdrop of an intensifying climate crisis that requires fundamental changes in how society is organized.

While all of that may seem a bit ambitious to reflect upon in a study on how to better organize blended internships for IT firms, I firmly believe that ignoring these wider aspects would be a mistake. Being a successful undertaking is more and more defined by how employees feel about working there, and the values of an organization play a direct role in attracting and retaining talent.

Basic plumbing

The sudden move to remote learning and working from home worked out differently for different people, and it also laid bare that without proper care some people are at a disadvantage. For example, some school students found it difficult to find a quiet place to work, as they were living in cramped conditions with their families, had to share laptops and a shaky internet connection with their siblings, or had to take care of relatives. For a blended internship to work, it is important to realize these differences in circumstances and to take action where necessary. That may mean lending a laptop, camera and headset, or even making sure that an appropriate working place is available either at school or at a co-working facility if one cannot be found in the intern’s home situation.

Diversity is… diverse

We have also learned that diversity is much more than a tick box on gender in a report. Some people that didn’t do very well in a traditional office or school setting flourished; most notably for various forms of neuro-diversity. They could concentrate better, be less overwhelmed by noise and other distractions and therefore both performed and felt better. On the other hand, video-conferencing proved harder for some people who, for cultural or other reasons, relied much more on non-verbal communication. Just “doing a round” on a conference call does not ensure that those people will voice their concerns or bright ideas; one should have alternative means of engagement available. As our societies become more culturally diverse, sensitivity to these issues is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s vital to the long term viability of a company.

Social bonds, but with boundaries

Most organizations have settled on more than one form of communication. For onboarding, but also for maintaining team cohesiveness, standard meetings are not enough. It is also important to have one-on-one conversations with mentors, co-workers and managers. And a social ‘watercooler’ or ‘coffee-machine’ replacement, where people can exchange freely. Yet all these forms of communication can also lead to extra pressure, the feeling that you have to be available and reachable 24/7. So setting and respecting boundaries is just as important; stepping outside and taking a walk can be a really productive thing to do.

Make the most of shared time

When it is time to meet face to face, it should be used as effectively as possible. Hybrid forms where a majority of the participants are in the same room, but a few are online, have shown to be less effective for the online ones. So, try to bring everyone together face to face, and if that is not possible split the time in real face to face time, and an online meet-up where everyone (including the ones on location) is behind a laptop, to maintain an equal footing.

Trust and engage

Especially in IT, we rely on people that can think creatively and can self-motivate. Or, in other words, people that we can trust to do their job. Now, of course that does not mean a hands-off approach; internships are meant to build up that capacity in young people, and should not assume that they already fully developed it. Regular check-ins are essential; they should focus on identifying obstacles and offering ways to overcome them rather than as a means of control.

Embrace different experiences

From medical sensors that don’t deal with different skin tones to NASA having no clue how many tampons women astronauts would need for a three day trip, the history of technology and design is littered with cases that show how a team composed of only able-bodied white men does not lead to solutions that work for everyone. Multiple viewpoints lead to better solutions, and companies that manage to leverage these viewpoints will have a competitive advantage.

Enjoy the ride

While we all still have to learn how to embrace new ways of working, going on that journey can be really rewarding in and of itself. Engaging with young people may involve you realizing that “we’ve always done it like that” isn’t the best justification for continuing certain practices - explaining the reasoning behind them may actually lead to productive changes. Circumstances may have changed, so use it as an opportunity to take a systematic look at how you do things and how they can be improved.

Most of all, in a future filled with challenges, we as IT firms, open source communities but also as humans, just cannot afford to let any talent go to waste. While establishing an internship programme may not have a 1:1 correspondence towards you hiring those exact interns, it will help in bringing about a culture that has better onboarding, better communications and a stronger team.

About the person

Paul Roeland is a longtime activist working on the intersection of human rights, technology, and social change.

He is working as the Transparency Lead for the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries.

He is also on the Board of the Open Apparel Registry, which aims to map every facility in those industries.

Paul is also a long-time board member of the Plone Foundation, and is active in various Open Data and Open Source communities. He also trains worker rights activists in digital security and privacy.

He is known to strike up a conversation with almost every cat he meets on the street.