July 25, 2023

What Pandemic Interns Want You to Know About ‘the New Normal’

Starting their careers during lockdown turned young professionals into experts at connecting with colleagues.

Illustration of people connecting during remote work

Everyone with a job had to adjust when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.   
Where we worked, when we worked, how we worked — balancing that with changes at home and in our communities as well. 
The lockdown also created a micro-generation of young people who spent several years making additional pivots. They changed from attending college classes in person to finishing their educations online. They did internships remotely. Then they started their first jobs out of school in workplaces that were evolving rapidly, on teams still figuring out how to perform amid so much uncertainty and upheaval. 
It was a lot to navigate. 
It also forced this group to get good at forming connections with colleagues. Exact Sciences professionals who started as interns during the pandemic approach the world of work using lessons learned during an unprecedented time. Anyone looking to improve connections at work can follow their lead. 

Advice: Connect at the team level.

 From Tia Parisi, Clinical Research Associate

In January 2020, Parisi was in her junior year of college and had just arrived in Sweden for a semester of international study. When the world began to shut down in March, she caught the last flight home and worked to complete her semester abroad from her home in Madison, Wisconsin, taking classes at odd hours from professors still in Sweden. 
Her senior year — at Villanova University in Philadelphia — included hybrid studies, with lab courses requiring in-person attendance. Parisi graduated, moved to Chicago, and began a remote internship with Exact Sciences. A few months later, she came aboard full-time, working remotely for the clinical affairs department. 
“The biggest struggle we were having was our department had a number of people who had known each other for a while from working in person. And then this new group of people came in who were majority-remote employees. We had huge growth in the department and no way of really integrating those people. We were struggling with it. So we did a couple things. 
“For my intern project, I created what we call profile slides. I reached out to each person in the department and collected pictures and fun facts and made slides for them. And then put them together as a slide deck, which we now use in our onboarding. So when someone starts, we send them that slide deck and it helps them get to know the names and faces they see on the screen. 
“We also made our smaller team meetings more robust. We included some games, some updates, some get-to-know-you things in our meetings. One of those that has been working well for our team is Hot Seat. One person goes on the ‘hot seat’ and for 60 seconds talks about themselves and their interests. Then the team has four minutes to type questions to them in the chat, and they answer them as fast as they can. That’s a good little five-minute activity to get to know each other. Even for more introverted employees, it’s a promise that your time on the stage will end after five minutes. You don’t even have to turn your camera on if you don’t feel comfortable.  
Providing ideas and encouraging connection should come at a company level, but I think it is up to the team and to the individual to make those things happen. The company should encourage connection, but a team needs to find an activity or a technique that fits its personality. My team’s work depends on conversation and fleshing out ideas, so our way of connecting works for us. If you take what you do in your job and consider people’s strengths and then try to apply that to an activity, that’s where you’ll find the best way to connect.”  

Advice: Reach out like an intern. 

From Breana Carlino, Communications Coordinator 

A sophomore at UW-Madison in 2020, Carlino had a summer internship in communications lined up at Exact Sciences, but the pandemic got in the way. The internship was canceled, so she went home to the Chicago area for the summer and worked locally. She later reconnected with the company and secured the same internship for summer 2021 instead. 
Most staff at Exact Sciences’ Madison headquarters were still working remotely, so Carlino often found herself masked and nearly alone in the building. She had envisioned an open, collegial workplace where people met in person, talked through strategies, grabbed lunch together and built relationships. The reality was video meetings and endless email, which continued after she went back to school in the fall, staying at her internship remotely before being hired at the end of the year.  
“The intern class that I was in, we took it upon ourselves to make connections. We were so used to doing it through school. One intern found everybody who worked at the same building as him and sent out an email and said, ‘If you want to get lunch, if you want to get together away from work, send your number and I’ll make a group chat.’ The interns were working amongst themselves to build those relationships. 
“And my team was great. When I was an intern, people were like, ‘What are you interested in? What can we get you involved with?’ That’s our team’s culture. But when I was working remote, I had a feeling of, if I don’t connect with people, it's not their priority to always be emailing me.  
“If I was in my apartment and I didn’t reach out, it could be that I wouldn’t talk to anyone all day. I think the biggest lesson I learned was to not be afraid to reach out to people, to ask questions, or just to learn more. I had to take on more ownership than I think would have been necessary if everybody was in the office and it was easier to just have organic conversations during lunch or at our desks.  
“Knowing myself, if I was in-person with people every day, I think I would have been less inclined to reach out on my own because I would have been so used to seeing everyone. But being remote, I would never get to know my team unless they emailed me or I emailed them. And I want to learn, so I’m going to reach out and ask a question: ‘What are you up to?’ And ‘How can I help?’”     

Advice: Start with fun. 

From Tony Hildebrandt, Quality Data Engineer

Hildebrandt was in his senior year at UW-Madison in spring 2020 and planning for a summer internship at Exact Sciences. Trouble was, the tasks he was brought on to do didn’t translate to remote work. Eventually, the company mined his resume for other skills and placed him in a different program that summer, on a three-person team working remotely. 
It marked a sharp shift from his previous internship at a different company, working on-site with a bustling team of engineers. His pandemic internship involved coding — quiet, solitary work that didn’t require much interaction with others. It wasn’t until he was hired full-time and began coming into the office that he began meeting people in earnest and figuring out how to go about building work relationships.  
“What’s probably surprised me most is the flexibility of work. When I was a child, even a teenager, I thought when you went to work, it’s very strict. No small talk. No fun. Everything is very straightforward and serious. Maybe it’s just at Exact, or maybe it’s corporate life in general, but it’s more relaxed. As long as you get done what you’re required to, a lot of the other time you can make it more fun and exciting and build those relationships. That’s probably the most surprising thing to me: Work doesn’t suck as much as I thought it would. 
“It comes down to your own personal idea of what you want your workplace to look like. If you want it to be more professional and like, ‘Let’s get this done. Let’s not chitchat.’ Or if you want it to be more fun and playful. After talking to somebody, you can quickly realize how social somebody wants to be. It’s pretty easy to fish that out and then go from there.  
“Even if people approach things differently, most everyone is looking for connection. Extroverts I know have struggled a lot during the pandemic since they haven’t been able to go to the office regularly to be around people. And it might even be easier now for those people who avoided social interactions to just kind of fall in the background and put themselves out there even less.  
I think it’s always the best kind of plan to start with very playful energy to gain those connections, versus sticking right away to work. You never know who might be looking for that connection out there, who hasn’t been able to find it yet.”