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Best Practices to Create an Engaging Virtual Internship Program

If COVID-19 has taught employers anything, it has taught them how to overcome fears and embrace teleworking even if teleworking is not an ideal solution for working during this pandemic. While an organization’s internship program may not have been a top priority during 2020, now that many companies’ workforces are still working remotely, companies are creating virtual internship programs for the spring and summer of 2021. Employers know that internships are not only beneficial for students but that internship programs provide a key channel of skilled students into an organization’s talent pipeline. If companies and their workforces have been able to adjust to meet this new reality of teleworking, then why shouldn’t employers remotely incorporate interns into their company’s culture? Below we discuss some of the best practices to create an engaging virtual internship for interns, employees and employers.


Begin with Clear Communication


Clear communication is an essential key to ensure that all employees and interns are well informed about the organization’s plans for the future, even if those plans are constantly changing based on the current pandemic. Throwing a virtual internship into the mix can create chaos for both employees and interns, so making sure that all parties know what to expect and when is critical. Even if the details of the internship program are not finalized, it is important to communicate what has already been decided and what decisions, if any, still need to be made.


Prepare Interns for Virtual Onboarding


While the remote onboarding process will certainly not look like a company’s normal onboarding process, you can effectively onboard your interns from day one if you have overcome the many hurdles of teleworking ahead of time. This starts with ensuring that your interns have exactly what they need to start, including technology, equipment, workstations, employment forms, etc. If you plan on providing interns with company computers, consider sending the computers a week before they are scheduled to start working to give them some time to set up their devices. Then schedule a session with their direct supervisor prior to their start date to confirm that their computers and any other devices needed for work are functioning, and to provide instruction on any software or apps that interns will be specifically using. This is also a good time for interns to virtually meet their direct supervisors and learn more about the company and its culture before they start working.


Designing the Remote Internship and Managing Virtual Interns


Unfortunately for many companies, designing a virtual internship is not nearly as easy as creating your original in-person internship program. However, to craft an effective virtual internship program, employers are encouraged to look to points of success from their in-person internships. For example, employers benefit from internship programs because interns bring a pair of fresh eyes to current projects and can provide a different perspective based on the student’s previous experiences. Many students often say they had a positive experience from their internships because they felt integrated into the team and their team appreciated the new insight the student brought to the project.


How can employers ensure interns feel like they are part of the team? This starts with training both managers and employees on how to juggle their regular teleworking duties and schedules with the addition of training and working with interns. A successful virtual internship is going to require your managers and employees’ buy-in first. Employers may consider hosting a kickoff meeting before the internship program starts to go over the components of the internship program and what is expected of their employees as mentors to interns and how to keep interns virtually engaged in the work. It should also be emphasized that many interns have little working experience and will require supervisors to be more flexible and patient.


Employers can also replicate the integration of interns into the company by assigning interns to various departments or teams. To do this, employers should create an online structure of mentorship, support, and ongoing education that includes different levels of employees who can interact with your interns. It is a good idea to include the interns on all platforms of virtual communication that the team uses to ensure that they are kept in the loop and are a part of all projects. Since in-person interaction is the biggest loss for interns, keeping interns continually engaged through any messaging apps or teleconferencing platforms is key. Be sure to invite frequent communication to help interns stay motivated, achieve their goals, and feel that they are not operating in a vacuum.


Employers should also assign interns to certain team members or supervisors for regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings to discuss the day-to-day work and to set goals and milestones to meet throughout the internship program. Since everything will be virtual, assign interns to “peer buddy” groups where they can meet with their mentors weekly. This is where mentors can discuss the interns’ progress toward the goals they set at the beginning of the program. Without a mentor in the remote work environment, it can be difficult for interns to proactively reach out for advice. There are clear benefits that interns will gain from having a mentor, but the employees assigned as mentors may benefit even more by learning how to lead, teach and clearly communicate in a supervisory position.


Companies may also consider implementing a rotational internship that will afford students the opportunity to learn various aspects of your business while working remotely. This may include creating a short period of rotations throughout different departments where students are assigned weekly projects reviewed by mentors. The final rotation can be the intern’s choice of department in the company that they are most excited about and where they would complete a final project. Provide interns with the opportunity to share their end-of-summer projects and set up time to provide feedback on their projects. These meetings can be done through whatever videoconferencing platforms the company regularly uses.


Most importantly, instruct supervisors to assign appropriate projects for remote interns to complete. It is important to select projects that will be notable to the team to ensure that as many people as possible are invested in the intern’s success. Not only will the interns feel that they are performing important work for your organization, but it will increase the number of available mentors who have a vested interest in the protect who can step in and help guide the interns.


Create the Same Culture Your Company Has in the Office Digitally


Although it may seem difficult to embrace your company’s culture while everyone is working remotely, there are ways to get your culture across to interns virtually. This may include inviting interns to join your social meetings. If a team or department normally hosts a virtual breakfast or lunch once a month, invite interns to join those meals so they can interact with everyone outside of their normal work schedule. Consider implementing an open video call where interns, employees, managers, and leadership can all join in to say hi, ask questions, and get connected through a virtual “water cooler” chat.


Another way to engage interns on a personal level is to ask each intern to create a 30-second video introducing themselves at the beginning of the internship program. Then ask them to share their videos with the teams, employees and other interns they will be working with. This will likely lead to engaging interactions among the interns and the teams they will be working with.


Other ways to keep interns engaged is to schedule virtual “lunch and learns” hosted by different team leaders or department heads who can provide training on various topics, professionalism, and networking for the interns. These lunches can be great ways for interns to connect with each other and other employees who they may not work with on a daily basis.


Measure the Success of Your Virtual Internship Program


Why go through all of the trouble to create a virtual internship program and not determine if it was a success? It will likely be easy to use the same methods you have previously used to measure the success of your program and adapt them to the remote work setting. For example, you would likely conduct an exit interview with your interns to gauge the success of their program. We encourage you to conduct exit interviews virtually and to specifically address how the teleworking settings impacted the interns’ experiences.


Takeaways for Creating an Engaging Virtual Internship Program


Overall, creating and implementing a virtual internship program comes with many challenges. However, those challenges can be overcome despite not working in the normal office setting. High levels of engagement and productivity for interns can be reached by simply inviting frequent communication and working closely with your interns so that they see and feel that they are integrated in the teams they are working with.