Microsoft's largest intern cohort to-date worked remotely as the coronavirus closed down the firm's headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
Four summer interns described how they adjusted — including buying desks to accommodate Microsoft-deliver computer equipment, to receiving the swag and gifts that their teams sent to their doors.
Interns also described challenges collaborating virtually with teams they've never met, feeling intimidated by coworkers, understanding different work styles of their colleagues, and replacing water-cooler chats with messaging over Teams and email.
The interns also grappled with their work as George Floyd's murder and Big Tech antitrust hearings to Congress sparked conversations across the country.
As the first intern class to experience a completely virtual internship, the cohort gave advice for future interns who might work from home at the pandemic drags on.
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As with all firms, Microsoft's 30-year internship program had a big shake up this year when the coronavirus crisis shuttered its headquarters in Redmond, Washington and the company had to inform its more than 4,000 interns across the country they would be working from home for the summer.
Jose Herrera Sebastian, an Arizona State University student who had sealed his summer plans as a Microsoft intern way back in November, told Business Insider that he had been hyper-prepared for his months-away internship months.
"I planned out my routes to go to the office and the grocery stores," said he said. Those well-laid plans did not, unfortunately, come in handy.
The company sent out frequent emails to students as it monitored the situation. In February, it sent out an email about housing. Then, shortly after, it sent out another email assuring students that the internship would not be cancelled. Finally, the company announced that the program would be virtual for its duration, including with a public blog post on April 6th.
"It was sort of a bummer," said Herrera Sebastian, who interned with Microsoft's chat app, Teams. "But then I was like, my main focus was I'm still able to work with the team."
While the inability to have an in-person experience was disappointing, the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis trumped all individual concerns.
"It's just better to make everything online because there are people out here with health issues and it's really selfish wanting to force everywhere to open just because you want the experience," MS Sales intern Zikora Anyaoku said.
Business Insider chatted with Herrera Sebastian, Anyaoku, and two other students who were part of Microsoft's first-ever totally virtual internship about their experience. Here's what they told us:
On adjusting to working from home:
To help its intern class work from home, Microsoft shipped a computer, monitor, laptop, and keyboard to students, and walked them through accessing the company's virtual private networks.
Interns, meanwhile, got to work setting up their makeshift offices. Herrera Sebastian, who was living in an apartment in Phoenix, bought an L-shaped desk from Walmart and snatched his brother's old office chair. Connor Richards, a cloud and AI intern, replaced the small desk provided by his student apartment with a much bigger workspace before the internship started.
The company sent the interns copious amounts of swag, too, though its care packages varied between teams. Marketing intern Eileen Toh, for example, received a paint set and bottle of wine for a paint-and-sip activity. Anyaoku received a hoodie and a couple shirts. Herrera Sebastian got a giftbag of trail mix, hot cocoa, and candy, as well as Surface headphones.
"This is the most Amazon packages I think I've ever received in a year," Herrera Sebastian said.
Still, even new gear couldn't make up for the fact that the interns, like everyone else, were trapped in place because of the pandemic.
"For school and for work, you're used to going into a separate environment for being productive," Richards said. "It's hard to get that work-life balance when you don't have any sort of separation or boundary."
Anyaoku, an international student from Nigeria at the University of Maryland, had to move into a hotel during the last leg of her internship after her apartment lease ended.
"It was difficult coping during the pandemic alone while having an internship," she said.
Away from her family in Nigeria, Anyaoku worried about how she was going to navigate her first-ever internship while it was virtual. But after two weeks, her project work picked up and she became closer to her colleagues.
"Everything started to fall in place," she said. "My team members were eager to help. I would say I was lucky."
Trying to forge bonds, virtually:
Like Anyaoku, the other interns weren't quite sure how they were going to network or collaborate virtually with teams they would never meet in person, either.
"As an intern you're already pretty shy, it's kind of hard to reach out to full-time employees," Richards said. "Virtually, that's even harder."
Still, Microsoft did its best to accommodate its interns, according to Richards and the others.
For example, Toh said her manager asked about her work style and was taught her teammates' work styles, too. Some preferred email, while others preferred messaging on Teams. This helped Toh understand how to best talk to her colleagues for time-sensitive questions and to ask for advice. Her team also scheduled meetings throughout the week that didn't revolve around work. Sometimes kids or dogs would hop onto the screen, and that helped her get to know her colleagues better, too.
"It basically kind of replaced talking to someone in the hallway," Toh said.
In addition to how individual teams handled it, Microsoft also held company-wide virtual Q&As with company vice presidents, and organized small groups of interns to play Pictionary and get to know each other. During the company's annual Intern Day in July, students got to watch performances from Chance the Rapper and Trevor Noah.
"They actually made such a big effort," Anyaoku said.
How their work adapted to current events:
This has been a truly historic year. Not only has a raging pandemic send the economy into a tailspin, but people across the country hit the streets to march for the Black Live Matters movement, while a particularly heated presidential election approaches.
Toh joined Microsoft's marketing team around the time protests erupted across the country over George Floyd's death. She said that her team often reflected on how to make its marketing campaigns more inclusive.
Toh's colleagues shelled out some advice for creating inclusive campaigns while collaborating with colleagues. "I should always want to make it more uncomfortable — to ask those questions," Toh said, referring to bringing up topics about fair representation and accessibility. "What can we do personally? What can I do personally?"
Before the pandemic, Herrera Sebastian, who worked with Microsoft Teams, didn't really understand the product well.
"I was like, alright, it's another messaging service," Herrera Sebastian said. "And then work from home started coming out and I realized, 'Okay, there's more.'"
The coronavirus pandemic spurred the chat app to grow by 75 million daily active users in April, a 70% growth from March.
During the antitrust hearings, when Congress confronted CEOs from Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, Richards said that he spent some time reflecting on the issue.
"It's kind of bad to be crushing out the small competition," he said. "More companies should be given a chance to innovate and show their product, and that just leads to better things for everybody."
Advice for future interns working from home:
All interns said the hardest part of the remote internship was finding ways to have light, casual conversations with colleagues and finding ways to network without scheduling formal one-on-ones.
"Some advice I got from my manager was: It's all right to just cold-message someone and be like, 'Hey, are you free at this time?'" Herrera Sebastian said. "Because for the most part, everyone's just sitting around with an empty inbox."
Toh said she became more proactive about reaching out to colleagues on Microsoft Teams and talked to her manager frequently. She encourages other, future remote interns to try "over-communicating" as well: "Just telling them how are you doing with your project" is a good way to start conversations and make sure you're on track.
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