Placement X Pandemic: The collaboration no student asked for

Almost 70% of Bath students spend time on placement throughout the course of their degree, gaining valuable experience in the professional world. It is a major selling point of the Bath experience for many prospective students.

“It has been hard to gather statistics,” said one representative of the University, “but we estimate around two thirds of students have experienced some interruption or cancellation on placement this year, however you choose to define it.” Whether furloughed, working remotely, or ending early, this has not been the placement year any of us expected.

In the transition from office to working from home, the experiences of Bath Students have varied massively. One intern at an international tech firm had already been working from home every Friday, so found that the culture and practicalities of working remotely were already well-established. However, another student working in banking faced hurdle after hurdle, being told it was impossible for interns to work from home for security reasons, until the company was finally forced, by law, to send all its employees home for three months. Miraculously, they then found a way to keep the interns working anyway.

For those of us fortunate enough to keep our jobs, many were delighted at first at the thought of working from home in pyjama bottoms, with constant access to snacks, and crucially, no early morning commute. However, the students we spoke to all reported that this novelty soon wore off.

“Flexibility is key.”

“Although for the first week it was great to finish work to a home-cooked meal by my parents, and I’m very grateful, I soon started to miss that therapeutic moment of making my own dinner at the end of the day and my independent life I’d carved out on placement. And while I thought no commute and working in pyjamas would be fantastic, I actually feel pretty lazy and end up working longer hours than I did in the office, as I can’t get up and leave in the same way as before.”

The most commonly-cited element of normal working life that Bath students are missing is the “watercooler moment”– the everyday, personal interactions with colleagues at the water cooler, in the office kitchen, or over lunch, which just can’t be replicated over video-call. This has had particular ramifications when it comes to feedback, which is particularly vital as students use this time as an opportunity to learn how to navigate the professional world for the first time. Without in-person interactions – and, subsequently, the ability to infer tone of voice or body language – it is hard to interpret feedback from a supervisor, and to assess how personally to take their comments.

One student I spoke to remarked that these kinds of interactions, particularly check-ins with mentors at work, have become more “transactional” since working from home. With the added difficulties of creating an open, personable moment over video call, regular pastoral check-ins and reviews have become devalued, or even cancelled in favour of work deemed as more “urgent.”

As students, it’s challenging to value your own mental health and personal development as “urgent”, when supervisors are telling you it’s no longer a priority for them. Despite promising dialogue from managers to “ask for whatever you need in these challenging times”, more than one student reported that despite the surface-level promises, when it came to crunch time, and they needed that supportive check-in more than ever, colleagues were either too busy or not there to chat through any difficulties. Some found valuable help via their placements officers instead.

“I’d urge incoming placement students to make an active effort to pursue those personal interactions, even when it feels awkward or annoying.”

The financial implications of this pandemic have been as varied as our working experiences. Many placement students have returned home to live with family while working remotely, but continue to pay rent on a now-empty flat, house, or room near their placement. This effect was further amplified for those on placement abroad: “Work was letting people go and reducing hours left and right. I was offered to give up my flat in France and go home, but I didn’t want to do that and lose my job. However, I was terrified I’d lose my job anyway and then have to pay for my flat and be stuck in lockdown in France with no income. Fortunately they kept me on at full hours, but the entire two months of lockdown they were threatening every day to reduce my hours.”

And of course, it’s not just the placement cohort of 2019-2020 who will be affected. “Looking ahead to the next academic year, the situation is really challenging,” said a member of the placements support team. “At this stage, yes, we have far higher numbers of students who haven’t yet secured a placement than in typical years. But we’re encouraging students to have an open mind, and to take their time while employers recover confidence, as many may still recruit placement students in the next few months. Other universities, many with smaller programmes than us at Bath, have already cancelled all work opportunities, particularly internationally, for next year, but we’re supporting students on an individual basis.”

“We’re working with students to find the best possible outcome for them, whether that’s returning to Bath for final year instead of placement, pushing back start dates as far as January 2021, or waiting a bit longer to see what the next few weeks bring. Flexibility is the key for students on placement both this year and next, and that’s an asset for anybody in the workplace.”

“There is still lots to learn, and plenty of fun to be had too on placement, despite the circumstances.”

The 2019-2020 cohort of placement students had some advice for those starting placements in the coming weeks and months:

“It’s so normal to feel like a spare part, disconnected and impersonal when meeting a new team via videocall or by email. The corporate world is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced at school or university, and it takes some time to get used to the nuances of online communication. However I’d urge incoming placement students to make an active effort to pursue those personal interactions, even when it feels awkward or annoying. Keep in touch with your friends, look out for one another, and don’t be at all afraid to tell someone if you’re struggling. The University’s support this year on placement has been fantastic. There is still lots to learn, and plenty of fun to be had too on placement, despite the circumstances”.

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