Tips for Hosting Virtual Internship Programs in 2021
Here's how to host virtual internships in 2021, according to university talent leaders.
In 2020, many companies were forced to host their internships virtually, with little time to plan. The ability of university teams to adapt in-person programs in as little as a few months or even weeks was impressive, but many lessons were learned from the hastily-formed programs.
Research conducted for The Gen Z Job Seeker Report gave us significant insight into what worked and what didn’t in 2020. For example, it’s clear that one of the most impactful aspects of virtual internships last year was ensuring that interns worked on meaningful projects. Conversely, building community among interns was one of the greatest challenges.
To get a clear picture of the internship landscape and how to navigate it, we hosted a Community Workshop and ran a survey on how the campus recruiting community is dealing with these challenges. These are the biggest takeaways from our survey and workshop.
Prepare Interns Ahead of Time
One key takeaway from the first year of hosting virtual internships was the importance of providing interns with as much information as possible ahead of time. Even though they have likely attended school virtually for at least some of the past year, they probably will not have worked in a remote environment, and thus are sure to have a lot of questions.
Make sure to send regular emails ahead of the internship letting participants know what to expect, how to prepare, and what updates they should be aware of. Hosting video Q&A sessions ahead of time is a great way to ensure interns feel welcome and prepared. It can also cut down on questions you would otherwise have to answer individually via email. Another way to prepare interns is to create welcome packets with all of the important information they will need to know, background on their fellow interns, and event schedules. Additionally, it can be helpful to invite interns to a group chat to help them get to know each other. Facebook or LinkedIn groups, GroupMe, or Slack can all work well for this purpose.
In a survey of the campus recruiting community conducted by RippleMatch in March 2021, 70% of respondents said they have been emailing interns on a regular basis to keep them updated. Over a quarter have held two-way conversations with their incoming interns either via video calls or teleconferences, and 23% have utilized forums like Slack or LinkedIn groups to communicate and answer questions.
Train Managers to Work With Virtual Interns
It’s not just critical to make sure interns themselves feel prepared, but you should also ensure interns’ managers are properly trained on how to work with them virtually. Even if they’ve gotten used to managing their teams remotely for the last year, interns will have specific needs and may need more supervision than full-time employees. Create a running document utilizing tools like Notion or Coda to provide useful information and answer questions throughout the program. Consider delivering specific training on how to work with Gen Z, how to set clear priorities, and how to provide and receive feedback virtually.
You may also need to set expectations for how often managers should meet with their interns. While interns participating in in-person programs may have only needed a weekly check-in, it’s likely that virtual interns will need multiple touch points throughout the week to stay on track. You can also consider pairing interns with early-career employee “buddies” who they can more easily connect with, and who can help them navigate the challenges of working remotely.
Ensure Your Events Schedule – From Community Building To Professional Development – Can Meet Different Intern Needs
Remember that your interns come from different backgrounds and have different personalities and preferences. Plan your event schedule to fit their varying needs, both professionally and personally. Some interns may be comfortable with one-on-one discussions, while others may find them intimidating. Many may be experiencing Zoom fatigue after a year of attending classes and interacting with friends and family virtually.
According to our survey of campus recruiters, lunch-and-learns with senior leaders were the most valuable professional development events during 2020’s virtual internships. Focused projects and structured professional development panels were also seen as valuable by more than half of respondents. It’s clear that when it comes to professional development opportunities, face time with employees and executives and practical projects were seen as more useful than smaller-scale workshops and online courses that may have simply taken up too much of the interns’ time relative to their value.
Instead of filling interns’ calendars with one-way presentations, consider prioritizing interactive events or making some programming optional. Mix up company-wide meetings with smaller group chats and one-on-ones and include opportunities for interns to discuss both professional and personal topics. By offering a variety of events with different focuses and purposes, it will be more likely that interns will find something that works for them. Just make sure to be very clear about which events are mandatory and which are optional, and ensure they don’t feel obligated to attend everything in order to avoid burnout.
Be Intentional With Community-Building Events
It’s clear from our survey results that campus teams tried a little bit of everything last year when it came to community-building events. But with interns feeling over-programmed and overwhelmed, companies plan to be more selective with their activities in 2021. Virtual happy hours, in particular, will be utilized by about half as many companies this summer compared to last year.
When it comes to community-building the emphasis this summer will be on one-on-one meetings and company-wide events that help interns feel like they are truly a part of the organization. While they were really popular in 2020, fun group activities like virtual scavenger hunts won’t be utilized as much in 2021, likely due to the challenges companies saw with burnout and over-programming.
Know that what works for one organization or department may not work for others. For example, some companies found that pairing interns up for one-on-one coffee breaks was a great way to help them build friendships, while others found that their more introverted interns thought these chats were stressful. Fun group events like Sip & Paints, mozzarella-making classes and escape rooms were almost universally enjoyed by interns last summer, but not when overdone. Larger-scale events that combined learning with community building, like hackathons and corporate challenges, were also very successful. They helped interns feel like they were making an impact within the organization, while also allowing them to build relationships and gain useful skills.
The key to properly preparing for virtual internships this year is to consider your interns’ individual needs and understand that a one-size fits all strategy is not ideal. Interns will likely need more oversight and support than full time employees. However, it’s important not to overwhelm them with events and meetings, and to be mindful of Zoom fatigue. Make sure your interns are given enough information about what to expect ahead of time, check in on them throughout the program, and plan some fun events to help them get to know each other and connect with the organization. With these considerations, you’ll be sure to have a successful virtual internship program.