Connecting People Through the Digital: Work Experience Abroad, From Home

When we think about work experience, shadowing and internships, we might picture ourselves standing awkwardly around an office, making coffee or trying to decipher how the printer works. It’s not easy to see how such an experience could, like everything else this year, successfully adapt to an online format. For me, it was through my work shadowing placement at Trade Only Gifts in Johannesburg, South Africa (TOGSA), that I saw the real advantages of the digital. Not only does the shift from in person to digital help us to continue with our lives almost as normal, but it allows us to do so much more. Doing an internship online really proved the undeniable advantages, opportunities and benefits of Covid-19’s effect on the working world. Of course, this is not to deny the enormous disastrous consequences of the pandemic, but given the chance to find silver linings, I took on this shadowing opportunity.

In March 2021, I found myself sitting in my Paris apartment, yet working with a South African company. Aside from the pure absurdity of the situation, coupled with an eclectic mix of languages and accents around me, I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity I did. Through shadowing the Owner and Operations Director as TOGSA, Shaun Danin, I learnt a huge amount about the corporate world, running a business and, additionally, the South African market itself. The international dimension of the placement gave me an insight into a different culture and way of working.

At the heart of TOGSA was a focus on the use of online work platforms in creating a highly personal and dynamic relationship between colleagues. Having rapidly adapted to using Zoom, the company and its directors and managers created a form of open-door policy, whereby anyone could request to join a call at any time. Compounded by their monthly ‘Operations Committee’ meetings, the company fostered an environment of communication that maintained interpersonal relationships, while also allowing them to continue with their work at a distance. Adapting to online work platforms showed the personal and dynamic relationship between colleagues at TOGSA. From the perspective of an outsider, I felt immediately connected to and supported by the whole team, despite not having met them in person.

The placement was structured around shadowing the managing director through his daily tasks as well as lengthy discussions and presentations about the overall company purpose, vision and approach. Debating and analysing personal and business concepts, such as Eckhart Tolle’s 'The Power of Now' and Stephen Covey’s 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People', we considered how to learn from personal experiences and apply concepts to the working world. This focus on running a business with a reliance on real, human truisms provided an excellent basis for thinking about my own goals, intentions, and purpose.

And, whilst I couldn’t see first-hand into the offices and warehouses themselves, by shadowing the director I was given amazing insight into the day-to-day running of the business. It was truly a pleasure to meet the team and learn about each of their roles. I learnt about the process of analysing financial data, discussing marketing and buying with the sales team, and the work of the packing and delivery division. TOGSA’s highly efficient systems did not appear overnight; years of developing operational procedures, selecting incredible managers and creating effective training systems, have brought them to the point they are at today. They operate professionally, all with an air of personability and compassion.

Beyond this, what I really gained from my placement at TOGSA was an understanding of the passion, perseverance and care that goes into running such a business. My mentor, the director, is a real inspiration and image of what happens when you dedicate decades to building a business that thrives on organisation, drive and, above all, people.