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Research has shown that both undergraduate students and organisations in Hong Kong prefer face-to-face interaction to the working-and-learning-from-home (WLFH) mode of internships. The unpopularity of WLFH is largely due to insufficient preparation from both student interns and employers. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students carried out internship duties either solely or partly in the WLFH mode across a variety of sectors, including environmental protection and conservation, social services and education. They were responsible for tasks such as organising events, video post-production, social media marketing, design, research and afterschool tutorials. 

According to the research from Lingnan University (LU), the vast majority (91%) of respondents’ comments indicated the positive effect of face-to-face during their service-learning internships, while only 29% recalled their WLFH component as positive.

The five main criticism of WLFH were poor communication/interaction (27%), difficulty in organising activities (10%), distractions at home (9%), difficult for employers to monitor (9%) and that it is hard to build relationships (9%). Conversely, the five main positive outcomes of face-to-face were good communication/ interaction (33%), that it helps to build relationships (26%), there is greater variety of tasks (21%), that it supports the learning of organisational cultures (13%) and that it is easy for employers to monitor progress (3%). 

The research team suggested that ineffective communication, as well as a decrease in productivity and quality of work, are the main factors affecting the effectiveness 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 wit hit additional benefits.

Professor May Wong Mei-ling, associate professor of the Department of Management at LU, 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.

She said that the WLFH mode could be a double-edged sword and recommended that any organisation or school 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 WLFH-able.

Examples of WLFH-able jobs for service-learning internships include writing proposals, video post-production, social media marketing, poster/infographic design and research which entail independent work without significant interpersonal interaction.

Results also indicate that student interns who had prior face-to-face work and learning experience adapted the WLFH mode better than those without. This is 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.

Wong concluded that the WLFH mode does bring various benefits when the interns are self-disciplined and it saves interns’ commuting time and costs.

“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,” Wong said.  

“The benefits of the WLFH mode can emerge only with good management practices in place. The human factor, 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,” Wong added. 

The research team was made up of the department of management and office of service-learning at LU. In-depth interviews were conducted with four local SMEs, NGO supervisors and 13 LU undergraduate students who participated in an eight-week service-learning summer internship programme in June and July 2020.