Alex Hyman pictured his summer internship as being one part “Entourage” and one part “The Office”: people screaming into telephones Ari Gold superagent style, others menacing their desk mates as unnervingly as Dwight Schrute did at Dunder-Mifflin.
Instead, the office of his entertainment agency was mostly empty when Hyman, 20, arrived in early June, on the day he had been told to report to the Los Angeles location. He waited outside a locked door until a colleague found him and explained that his boss was working from home. Hyman was dropped off in a conference room with his fellow interns. They spent the day navigating Excel and joking about it. (What is an Excel joke? “How do you not know how to use Excel,” Hyman said, insisting it was funny at the time.)
“I think everyone is a little nervous for the first day on a job,” Hyman said with a laugh. “This definitely threw a curveball in what I was expecting.”
Summer interns generally are aware of what awkward rites of passage await them. Most have to attend their share of stilted happy hours and softball games. They might have to nod their way through a brown bag lunch. Now, though, interns experience a strange new introduction to professional life. Working a summer job can mean commuting to an empty office, sitting unsupervised with other interns and trying desperately to impress managers over video calls. School is out for the summer — but in some cases, so are the bosses.
“The thing I’ve always been taught by my parents is to be the first one in and last one out,” Hyman said. “But there’s no one else there. My boss isn’t going to see me put my best foot forward.”
A short window to impress
Office occupancy across the country has remained under 50% on average, according to the building security firm Kastle. Executives have often said they worry that the youngest generation of workers will have no interest in returning to — or in some cases, even entering — an office environment. But some research has found that young people are more eager to work in person than their senior counterparts.
A continuing survey of more than 5,000 Americans, started during the pandemic at Stanford, the University of Chicago and ITAM, found that the share of people ages 20-29 who want to work remotely full time is just 24%, while it is 41% among workers 50-64. Many recent college graduates are hungry for friendship. Others are fatigued from spending the past few years locked down in their dorms.
“They’re people-starved,” said Cyrus Beschloss, 25, founder of the Generation Lab, a firm that polls his own generation. “The last thing folks want is to do something that’s meant to be in person on a Zoom. Even if there’s a light dusting of people coming into the office every day, as much as young people can recreate some semblance of normal — dare I say 9 to 5 — that’s comforting.”
Research suggests that junior employees have gone back to the office in greater numbers than their managers. A study in April from Future Forum, a research consortium backed by the office messaging company Slack, found that 35% of nonexecutives surveyed were back in the office five days a week compared with 19% of executives.
The impulse to go into the office can be especially strong for those who have just a few summer weeks to get to know their employers. About 300,000 Americans work internships each year, with about 60% in paid positions and 40% in unpaid roles that they hope will lead to permanent opportunities, according to the job search site Zippia. More than half tend to take full-time offers from the places where they intern, which can heighten the desire to form relationships.
Josh Siegel, 19, recalled starting his internship at a financial firm in New York this summer sitting alone in a hallway waiting for someone to arrive and show him to his desk. A fellow intern, who had started earlier in the summer, gave him a tour, making sure to point out the fully stocked kitchen. The advantage of a team that is partly remote is that there is little competition for the coconut water, stone fruits and Taro Chips.
Recently, Siegel’s boss gave the whole staff a Friday off. But Siegel knows he has limited time to make an impression, so he decided to go into the office anyway, where he was by himself for the afternoon. What did he decide to do?
“Got out the fire extinguisher and blew it everywhere,” he said, quickly adding assurance that was a joke. “No, I kind of just worked.”
Katherine Hong, 25, who has been doing an in-person law internship in Berkeley, California, said she sometimes found herself trying to guess which days the lawyers would be in and the building would feel more bustling. Hong has a more than hourlong commute from San Francisco to the office, so the stakes of showing up to an empty office feel high.
“I already work in a small office, so if a couple people don’t come in, it’s like, oh, gosh,” she said. “Luckily, there’s a co-intern, so I have someone else to hang out with.”
The draw of in-person interactions
Some workplaces are creating structure in the thorny middle ground of hybrid work. At the law firm Ropes & Gray, lawyers have been encouraged to come in on the days when summer associates are in the office, which are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Many of the lawyers realize how important that in-person time together can be. “The transmission of knowledge from one generation of lawyers to the next generation of lawyers is done most effectively in person,” said Peter Erichsen, a Ropes & Gray partner who leads the firm’s summer program. “That’s been my experience over four decades of legal practice.”
In addition to the knowledge they glean from being in the office, summer associates at Arnold & Porter, a Washington law firm, have been invited to social activities like escape rooms, mini-golf and Nationals baseball games.
And plenty of interns are finding it gratifying to put faces to Slack avatars. Treasure Brown, 19, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, figured that her manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. would get some understanding of her from the personality test she was required to take for work, which revealed that she was an introvert and a Type A planner.
But once she started working from the office at least four days a week this summer, she realized she could share more about herself, like her strong interests in Beyoncé and Yo-Yo Ma. After the amorphousness of online college classes, which allowed her to sleep until 10 a.m., she has enjoyed setting an earlier alarm clock and putting on formal clothes.
For plenty of college students, in-person work has come as a reprieve after two years of relative isolation. Freshman orientations went remote, college seminars moved online, prom and senior skip day were canceled. No wonder sitting in a conference room with other people might sound appealing.
Hamna Tariq, for example, graduated in Trinity College’s class of 2020, so she rarely met her colleagues while working her first job at a think tank. She spoke with them during virtual happy hours and Netflix viewing sessions, when they all watched the same movies simultaneously. She entered the office only once — on her final day.
Now Tariq, 25, who just finished the first year of a master’s program at Columbia, is getting a sense of office life by working an in-person internship at the Atlantic Council in Washington, another think tank. Some of the norms that may have once seemed routine now feel refreshing: greeting the CEO when he strolls by on his way to the elevator, planning outings to the popular “Jazz in the Garden” series with other interns.
“We banter about everything and anything under the sun,” Tariq said. “If I have a crazy idea for writing a paper, I can go to a co-worker’s office and knock on his door.”
The desire for normalcy is even driving career planning for some students. Amanda Schenkman, 21, said she had applied only to in-person and hybrid internships this summer. She got to experience the thrill of plotting her first-day outfit with the other interns through text messages, trading TikToks about corporate attire. It felt like preparing for the first day of school.
Recently, the other interns came over to her apartment for a game night and stayed until 3 a.m., which Schenkman felt wouldn’t have happened if they had known one another only through computer screens.
“In person, your friend is whoever you make eye contact with at the same awkward moment,” she said. “Online, it’s whoever you Zoom DM.”
To Schenkman, those chat messages just aren’t equivalent. “Who doesn’t want to be in a morning meeting, look across the room and just start laughing?” she said.