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May 7 2020

Interning during a pandemic: NATO Agency interns share their experience


Less than a month after moving to The Hague, Netherlands, for her internship at the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency, Aakanksha Sharma's stay in Europe was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.


Before she even had the chance to explore the "low lands" and see the famous tulip fields in full bloom, she was on a flight back home to Canada. While she was less than enthusiastic about this change of plans, Sharma has been able to continue her internship remotely and make the best of this unusual situation.

Interning during a pandemic: NATO Agency interns share their experience

With over 90 percent of the Agency's staff members working remotely at the height of the pandemic, all interns were also asked to work from home, and given the opportunity to travel back to their native countries to be closer to their families if they preferred.

Sharma's decision to return to Toronto was an easy one.

"I didn't want to be away from my family in these times. I wanted to make sure I was home in case they needed me," Sharma said. "My manager and the team have been very supportive and flexible, so I am happy to be at home. It brought me a certain peace of mind."

When Sharma's day in Toronto starts, her Information and Knowledge Management (IKM) colleague and fellow intern, Lisette Somsen is ready to switch off her laptop and enjoy her evening in The Hague.

"Working from home in this unique and unprecedented time has been quite the experience," Somsen said. "It is something that impacts everyone and we are going through it together."

IKM interns like to stay busy. Their task is to assist Agency staff with teleworking, for example helping them navigate through the Agency's intranet and information sharing platform, or writing useful Wiki pages.

Some interns, like Creative Media Centre content production intern Michael Linennen, have had their roles tweaked to adapt to the changes. As a photographer and videographer, Linennen cannot be in the field to gather imagery, so he is now focused on reviewing existing footage to create new content that highlights the work of the NCI Agency. As long as he has editing software, Linennen said he is set.

"Luckily, everyone is very well taken care of in terms of technology," Linennen said.

Fellow content production intern Zala Grudnik is happy to report that she already had all of the essential equipment to work from home comfortably.

"All I need is a computer screen, keyboard, mouse and a stable internet connection," Grudnik said. "So far, I haven't experienced any issues.''

They agree that the ability to continue with their work has let them hold on to a sense of normality and made the social isolation more bearable.

"I would love to see more people on the streets, go for a coffee and enjoy the spring. However, I can't complain considering I have the luxury to continue working from home," Grudnik said.

Air and Missile Defence Command and Control (AMDC2) intern Megi Berberi added: "Working from home has not changed the fact that I am learning new things related to my job and position."

There are some perks to working from home. Mario Sholli, AMDC2 engineering intern, pointed out that the nature of his work, an independent project, makes it easier for him to adjust to working remotely. He is able to focus on his tasks with fewer distractions and said the autonomy to be able to set your own schedule is nice too.

Meanwhile, Linennen has enjoyed having a lot more time to cook because of the pandemic. While he can no longer go for a lunch with other interns, the group has stayed in contact through chat apps to maintain their new friendship.

Even though the interns enjoy this newfound flexibility, they miss live interaction with the colleagues and being part of a work environment.

However, even with social distancing measures in place, the NCI Agency community is still connected – even if in a different way. In the anticipation of their reunion, the interns are making sure to stay well-informed through online platforms. Messaging colleagues to strike up conversations, whether or not related to work, helps to bring back the sense of togetherness. Holding on to connection virtually matters, and makes for distinct memories.

Mario Sholli visits the Community of Practice pages for updates, which allows him to feel more connected to the organization. These pages are a place where people who are interested in the same things connect and talk with each other.

"Being able to have a relaxed discussion about topics with like-minded folks helps me fill the void,'' he explains.

Linennen noticed that meetings twice a week help to keep the team spirit intact. His team has been able to make their "fun time" virtual too, by trading get-togethers at the pub for online socializing by playing video games like Fortnite.

"Our relationship with the Agency and our colleagues is already unique from any intern that has come before and will come after us, simply because of how the forces of nature have re-oriented us fundamentally," Sharma said.

Through this experience, the interns have learned the importance of organizational agility in adapting to crises.

"Although complicated and delicate times, the NCI Agency has so far offered us a truly unique internship experience, where we are working from the safety of our homes," Somsen said.

Written by Lisette Somsen and Aakanksha Sharma