6 Steps for Building a Virtual Internship Program

April 27, 2020

Photo of woman working at desk

For students, summer internships represent a chance to develop professional skills, pique the interest of potential employers, build networks, and earn a paycheck. For companies, internships deliver fresh perspectives, create enthusiastic brand ambassadors, and develop a critical talent pipeline.

Central to all that goodness has been the opportunity to work and learn side-by-side with seasoned professionals. But as the current pandemic began to close offices and company campuses around the world, it simultaneously seemed to shut down the possibilities for that kind of rich summer experience. Students saw interviews postponed and internships cancelled as companies scrambled to address their daily-changing reality.

Many businesses remained either undecided or confused about what to do, not knowing whether an onsite internship would be possible or a remote internship feasible. On LinkedIn’s platform, we saw a 60% drop in the number of internships posted after March 1st. 

In a crowd-sourced list in The New York Times of nearly 500 North American companies, more than half said they were going to go ahead with their internship programs this summer. Of those, most said they would be hosting completely online internships while a few said they were waiting to see whether they could hold all or part of their program onsite. A number of companies pushed back the starting date, either needing more time to make accommodations or hoping that lockdowns would no longer be in place and they could invite interns into their offices.

If your company is still on the fence about internships, take a look at the six steps other businesses have taken to preserve their internship programs — and possibly make this the most productive summer ever for interns and companies alike:

1. Weigh your options and make a decision

Companies can certainly be excused for needing a little time to sort out what they’re going to do.

When deciding whether or not your company wants to go forward with an internship program this summer, here are a few things you might want to consider:

  • Is the work your interns do achievable in a virtual environment?
  • What are the consequences to your business objectives should you cancel the program?
  • What will need to happen in terms of logistics to achieve a virtual program?

If you decide to move forward, one way to gain executive support is by tying your decision back to your company values. At LinkedIn, for example, we weighed the commitment we had made to students and the impact it would have on them had we cancelled. 

Whatever your company decides, it’s important to make the call as soon as possible to give interns a chance to find other opportunities. If businesses opt instead to host interns virtually, companies will need time to put the pieces in place so that students can have a memorable experience, with a meaty work project and skillful mentorship.

“All of those things can happen virtually for us,” says Emily Campana, director of global campus recruiting at LinkedIn, “because engineering, sales, and finance are very computer-based work. Not every company will have that option. There’ll be some jobs that require in-person and they won’t be able to do that.”

Some companies, including General Motors, are trying to split the difference, pushing their start dates back in the hopes that it will be safe to invite interns into their offices and factories for an onsite program later in the summer.

Know that if you keep your internship program, you’ll likely also keep your interns — they’re still eager to work for you. “We pulse students once a week to understand what they’re thinking,” says Ashley Winnett, the director of global talent acquisition at General Motors. “What we’ve seen each week is, unsurprisingly, that the number of students who are interested in a face-to-face internship has diminished and the acceptance of doing a virtual internship has risen.”

Given their digital chops and their current semester at home, students are also well prepared for a virtual internship. “This generation,” says Brooke Simpson, the manager of the global internship program at Microsoft, “more so than other generations is so flexible and ready and willing to dive in and use new technology to adapt really quickly.”

2. Communicate often and then communicate even more

“Once you make a decision,” Emily says, “you start communicating — a lot.” LinkedIn, for example, will have 260 interns in the United States and India this summer, and the company used its first email check-in to gauge interest — still really strong! — and build a contact list, which will later be used for shipping laptops and swag.

General Motors has significantly increased its touchpoints with this summer’s interns, checking in at least every two weeks with an email or video message. “We’re also calling them up,” Ashley says, “and asking them what their concerns and issues might be.”

Ashley says they also use GM TV to address topics of interest to the students. “Once you join GM as an intern,” he says, “we will send out information on what we’re doing, what it’s like to be here, common questions you have.” GM uses blog posts, videos, and live broadcasts to keep in touch.

Before their first day, interns at LinkedIn will have received four or five newsletters about company culture. They’ll also be invited to attend live webinars with directors and previous interns during which they can ask questions and make connections.

3. Provide managers and mentors with tools and guidance for working with remote interns

Many managers may have never overseen the work of a remote employee until the last two months. “So, being in a virtual environment is already new for them with anybody that they’re managing,” Emily says, “much less early-in-career talent who may have more needs and more questions.”

Because of that, companies are developing playbooks for managers and mentors replete with broad suggestions and granular tactics such as cadences for meeting with interns. Companies are also turning to online video training that their learning and development teams have already put in place for managing remote workforces. “We’re also hosting a training,” says Microsoft’s Brooke, “for all 3,000-plus managers and mentors for interns to be able to come together as a community, share best practices, hear from leaders in regards to their best tips and tricks on how to make the most of managing a virtual team.”

At many companies, recruiters and hiring managers have been encouraged to be forgiving when life interrupts a video interview with a dog barking, a phone ringing, or a child running into a room. Life happens, and it’s hard to contain. The same will be true for managing interns. Some will have better WiFi than others; some will be sharing space with multiple family members. When evaluating performance, managers will want to take into account the set of circumstances faced by each intern.

4. Set interns up with all the technology they need

One of the biggest and most immediate challenges companies face when considering the possibility of a remote internship program is technology. How do you get the right combination of software and hardware into the hands of far-flung interns?

GM has relied on learnings developed from how the company has onboarded full-time employees since they’ve closed their offices. “How do you onboard a person in a COVID-19 world?” Ashley asks. “GM flipped almost overnight to essentially virtual onboarding. If you were to start work with us, you’d be sent all of your equipment through the mail. It would all be set up beforehand.”

Tech companies, naturally, have an advantage in this area. Brooke says that her virtual internship program will lean heavily on Microsoft Teams to build community and host meetings, coffee chats, and large-scale events. Interns will be able to use Teams from their own personal devices to help them get set up on company-distributed laptops.

Companies that can’t offer interns hardware might be able to offer them software instead. For example, VMWare is providing interns with the company’s Workstation software to facilitate their work. ServiceNow is doing the same. “We’re putting the power of our own Now Platform to work,” says Pat Wadors, Service Now’s CHRO, “to create an amazing digital experience for our interns, to keep their productivity up, and to make them feel like part of our team.”

5. Plan a first week that gets interns started with work and meeting with colleagues

Microsoft is encouraging managers to set up meetings for the first week that allow interns to connect with their teammates. “Both one-on-one,” Brooke says, “and then to have something like a virtual team lunch or a team social gathering so they can all come together.” Just as important, managers are urged to review the project plan with their intern and establish the goals for the summer.

At LinkedIn, most interns will start with a two-day onboarding, which includes one full day of orientation. Engineering interns would have a full day of engineering boot camp, a compressed version of the one full-time engineers go through when they join the company. The start for GM interns will be a two-day onboarding program based on the one developed for FTEs. “Part of coming to work at GM,” Ashley says, “is understanding what a GMer is like.”

No single thing may be as important in creating an effective internship program, onsite or online, as giving interns meaningful work. Treating them like professionals will get them to act like professionals.

“Our students connect with their manager halfway through their internship,” Brooke says, “and again at the end to talk about the milestones and their ability to hit the pieces of their project that they had discussed in their first couple of weeks.” A lot is riding on this: Microsoft typically offers jobs to the majority of their interns. (GM, Ashley says, tenders roles to more than 80%.)

Some interns may even get to work on projects directly shaped by COVID-19. “Maybe an intern was supposed to be working on a project that required being in person to complete,” Brooke says. “Since that may not be possible, interns could have the opportunity instead to complete a project focused on the Microsoft Teams product, which has seen a spike in demand since COVID-19.”

Professional development will continue to flow out of an intern’s summer colleagues. LinkedIn and Microsoft provide interns with both a direct manager and a mentor. The manager serves as the intern’s boss and oversees their work; the mentor serves as a day-to-day contact to explain how work gets done and how the work fits into a larger context. And that work may get supplemented by online offerings. Ashley says that GM will turn to “a significant training library” to provide interns with online courses that will round out their learning. 

6. Make sure your interns have frequent chances to get to know their colleagues and their fellow interns

As noted in point 5 above, it’s important to schedule ongoing one-on-ones for interns with their managers, mentors, and teammates. They should also be added to recurring team meetings and any outside social activities. Finally, make sure everyone on the team connects with the intern on LinkedIn.

Emily says she thinks the biggest challenge for virtual internships will be replicating the energy that students feel sharing a physical space with their colleagues. “There is something about people all in a room together,” she says. “There’s just that heightened decibel level and interactivity.” Well, if interns can’t be in the room where it happens, they can certainly be in the Zoom where it happens.

Many people working from home have found that they’re learning more about their colleagues than they ever have — where they live, who their kids are, what kind of food and music they love. Encourage your interns to share photos or videos of, say, their pets or college campuses, which will give their colleagues a better chance to get to know them as individuals.

The opportunities for interns to network with their peers may, in some ways, be more numerous than ever because they’ll have virtual access to interns spread over many locations rather than clustered in just one. “I’ve got a group of 35 students from all around the United States I’ll be talking to on Monday,” Ashley says. “Normally, they’d all be working at their separate locations. One might be with GM’s IT group in Austin, Texas. Somebody else is in the engineering group in Warren, Michigan. This is one of the benefits of virtual. I’m pulling them together into these virtual networking experiences and really seeking to get them to create professional friendships.”

One of the time-tested ways to build connections among interns has been events, whether those were a summer picnic or a trip to Disney World. For its interns in North America, LinkedIn is planning on 15 to 20 virtual activities and events, which will range from a speaker series featuring senior leaders to a LearnIn Week that will include workshops and a chat with Mohak Shroff, LinkedIn’s SVP of Engineering. Still other activities will be solely focused on fun. 

Final thoughts: There will be lots of valuable learnings from this summer’s internship programs

Though some companies seem to be approaching internships with hesitation, this summer may actually be a transformative one for both interns and their companies.

Online meetings, chat groups, and virtual company-wide events that might not have been deemed necessary in years past will mean that interns could have a chance to connect with more people, both colleagues and fellow interns, than ever before. In some places, interns will have access to online courses that haven’t been open to them previously. And interns have a chance to polish up their remote-work skills.

Companies, on the other hand, will get to see which interns are most adaptable and self-driven. Managers will have a chance to hone their skills managing remote employees. And businesses will have a chance to radically change workflows, work teams, and workspaces.

Frank DeVecchis, the director of university relations for Merck, thinks the learnings have already been incredibly rich. “As we look at things like onboarding,” he says, “we’re building out this virtual curriculum for the interns to take them through the first two to three weeks of their engagement, and we’re looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Why didn’t we just do this before?’ It’s going to allow us to be more effective. It’s going to allow us to be higher touch. And it’s going to allow us to get to know this individual better — altogether, these are really good things. So, I think it’s something that’s going to live beyond this current crisis as something we take forward.”

It turns out, interns can deliver fresh perspectives even before they arrive.

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