The COVID-19 pandemic has sent a large percentage of the workforce home to work. Unfortunately, that has left many student interns out in the cold. With no policies or infrastructure in place to support this group of workers, many internships have been canceled or postponed. However, as work-from-home policies become the “new normal,” companies are now looking to create or transition to remote internships. But where do you start and how do you make these positions effective without in-person training and supervision?
Encouragingly, some companies and post-secondary institutions are at the vanguard of efforts to re-establish these positions—internships that many times are key to the career development of recent graduates and new entrants into the workforce.
What Is a Remote Internship?
Similar to an in-person internship, organizations offer internships to individuals who are completing a related educational program. They are temporary positions, typically around 10 weeks in length. However, remote or virtual internships have the added complexity of being completely offsite using the internet.
Despite the added challenges presented by not having face-to-face interactions, employers are still urged to meet as many criteria of a high-quality internship as possible including:
- Pay the intern. To avoid problems, potential legal issues, and also to motivate the intern, internships should usually offer some type of payment.
- Provide the intern with meaningful work. As much as practical, ensure tasks assigned to interns are similar to tasks given to entry-level employees. In addition, allocate challenging work that’s meaningful to the organization.
- Assign the intern to a supervisor/mentor. An important aspect of any internship is close supervision and one-on-one coaching and mentoring. In addition to providing an educational aspect, mentoring also helps students receive the benefits of another’s life experiences.
- Create opportunities for interaction. Introducing an intern to the culture and professional norms of an organization is a critical element. While in-person integration is impossible, employers should encourage the intern to participate in virtual meetings and social opportunities.
What Are the Benefits of a Remote Internship?
Clearly, the greatest benefit of a remote internship during COVID-19 is the ability to host an internship at all. However, there are a couple of other silver linings to the situation as well:
- Introduction to remote work. Considering that entrants to the workforce have more opportunities to work remotely than before, a remote internship is very timely. Learning to use remote project management techniques and relevant software applications will serve them well going forward in their career. (Note that employers may be the ones receiving benefit here. A born-digital intern will likely have far more experience in computer-mediated communication than the older members of your staff.)
- Reduced costs. Remote internships have cost-savings benefits from reduced overhead. In addition, less travel and lower/no housing costs can further reduce costs. However, these savings may be offset somewhat if you need to provide equipment and/or broadband access.
- Increased diversity and innovative thinking. This is a benefit of traditional internships as well. But a remote internship opens up opportunities to be more inclusive. Without location as a barrier to employment, the pool of potential interns opens up considerably. Intern programs can now hire stay-at-home parents, disabled individuals, and people who live in remote areas. This is in addition to students who may live in a different state or even country.
These benefits are in addition to other known benefits of an in-person internship such as competitive advantage and capacity building.
Examples of Remote Internships That Work
Creating or transitioning to remote internships can seem like a daunting task with little chance of succeeding. However, drawing upon successful examples will encourage you to proceed. From established to just birthed, from the multi-national to hyper-local, companies everywhere are finding ways to make remote internships work.
One prominent example is the Exelaration internship program. This program is the #3 Tech & Engineering internship in the country with headquarters at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. To harness the skills and creativity of students, the organization brings together student teams under the mentorship of senior engineers. Together, they develop custom software solutions for clients. Currently, they host 18 year-round interns and have transitioned their internship program online.
“Our biggest obstacle was replicating the high interactivity of our program using remote tools,” explained VP for Mentoring and Growth, Matt McHugh. “In order to do that, our whole team immediately dove in to talk about our entire process and what we’d lose by not being in the office. Once we identified those items, we researched and tested various applications and tools to determine which ones would be the best fit for us.”
Founded at the height of the pandemic, AC Creative is just months old and on a mission to help business owners survive the pandemic. Delivering marketing and web services, they have quickly grown to over a dozen clients across the State of Florida. Founder Avery Hooks describes the “sales experience” internship her company implemented for students looking to develop real-world sales experience in the digital marketing arena:
“Each intern was paired with a mentor. The mentor would run Zoom sessions during the day to train and refine the intern on our process. After about two weeks, the intern would shadow their mentor as he or she ran a sales meeting with a live client over Zoom. Shortly after the shadowing began, the intern would take the lead on those same meetings while the mentor took notes in the background.”
Tips for Creating Successful Remote Internships
Many stakeholders in workforce development are encouraging businesses of all types to transition to remote internships rather than cancel. Educational institutions, professional associations, and recruiting organizations are developing resources and reaching out to lend a helping hand in the transition. (See the bottom of this article for links.) In addition, many businesses with remote internships already in place have learned important lessons to consider before you start.
Establish Clear Expectations
Interns, both remote and in-person, benefit from a set of clear expectations. The difference with a remote internship is the lack of in-person direction and explanation. Without that contact, everything needs to be written down and easy to read, access, and understand. One way to simplify internship development is to establish a project that will last the length of the internship.
“Preparation is power,” according to Jase Rodley, Founder and CEO of Dialed Labs, an SEO services firm. He notes that internships, “become a lot more time consuming if you need to look for something to do.” His advice is to create a project that can be completed when the student has no other tasks. “Lay the base for background work that is always taking place behind daily tasks, ensuring the candidate is never worrying about something to do.”
Neal Taparia, founder of a new software company called Solitaired, also used this approach when hiring two interns this summer:
“We asked our marketing and product teams to define the key projects they hoped to do this summer, and what specific parts of those projects could they outsource. For example, our marketing team needed a list of colleges and university alumni teams to reach out, and our product team wanted to find 20 people to interview. This became the basis for what our interns would do.”
Incorporate Opportunities to Build Social Relationships
One of the biggest drawbacks to hosting remote internships is the lack of in-person interaction. Internships are great ways for informal learning about workplace culture and starting professional networks. In addition, many internship organizers are recognizing that is important to include fun social elements to the experience.
Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, a company that runs team-building events for clients like Apple, Amazon, and Google among others, notes that “Many of the training and professional development opportunities in an internship translate well to a video conference call, but ‘heading to the bar for drinks after work’ or ‘doing a fun outing together’ are not as simple.”
To help his clients, Alexis seeks outside facilitators for virtual events, but says, “You can do free DIY virtual team-building activities too.” His suggestions include, “Anything from trivia, to Bingo, Werewolf and more elaborate games will help create that social atmosphere you need for a successful program.”
Communication Is Key
One of the biggest drawbacks of remote internships is the lack of in-person supervision and informal opportunities to provide coaching. A good communication plan is important both to identify issues and problems and to prevent problems from becoming more serious.
Taparia also found regular communication with interns to be critical:
“You can’t assume an intern, like many experienced employees, will understand a project and go execute on it per your standards. They are new to work. Instead, we found that it’s best to check in with them regularly and set small and regular milestones to give feedback on their work.”
McHugh also emphasizes that mentors need to be proactive:
“While remote, it’s too easy for the intern to be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ To solve this, we not only check in with our interns at the beginning and end of each day, but we also created a rule—if they haven’t made progress on something in 30 minutes, they need to reach out to their mentor. They’re not judged or looked down upon for being stuck and asking a question, and they got the help they needed without wasting too much time.”
Adjust Training and Onboarding
One of the best ways to introduce your company and company vision is during orientation and training. But sometimes making your onboarding processes 100% remote can be difficult.
Companies are finding ways to quickly adapt. Hooks explains how they overcame their sales training issues:
“Initially, the training was slow and somewhat ineffective. It seemed the training over Zoom meetings wasn’t translating very well to the application, but we quickly overcame this obstacle by having the intern shadow a few live sales meetings. After proper training and the intern seeing it happen in a real environment, our interns showed great progress as they began to take the lead.”
In addition to other adjustments you may need to make to accommodate remote internships, you may also want to reconsider your recruitment strategies. With universities closed to in-person recruitment, social media may offer an alternative option. One company that found this to be the case is Resume.io. Human Resources Manager, Rolf Bax explains how they recruited for computer graphics animation internships.
“We created an ad for the internship program and posted it on different social media platforms and ran a paid campaign. We placed the call to action button on the ad that directly lands them on the web page where we had sufficiently described the program. At the end of the program, we got two amazing animators that are still working with us and contributing their skills to our megaprojects.”
With the above considerations in mind, you can proceed with planning remote internships beneficial for your company and the students. Detailed guides and further resources on how to develop a successful remote internship program can be found at the following websites:
- Tips & Guidelines for Employers to Create a Remote Internship, Yale Office of Career Strategy
- What to do about internships in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? A short guide to online internships for colleges, students, and employers – The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, UW-Madison
- National Association of Colleges and Employers, offers several resources for companies interested in developing virtual internships
- Remote Internships 101: Your Guide to Creating and Managing a Remote Internship Program, a comprehensive resource developed by a micro-internship staffing company, Parker-Dewey
iStock Image: RgStudio, AntonioGuillem, fizkes
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