Employers Engage Interns with Zoom Lunch-and-Learns, Speed Mentoring

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 1, 2020
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intern on Zoom
​This is the second in a series of articles on how organizations are preparing young adults for the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From hackathons to blogging and TikTok challenges, organizations large and small have gotten creative in how they help young adults prepare for the workplace amid a pandemic that has turned traditional ways of learning and networking upside down. SHRM Online has collected the following examples of how organizations have risen to the challenge this year.

All-Digital Internships

The pandemic prompted ServiceNow, a software company in Santa Clara, Calif., to create an all-digital internship for the 360 young adults accepted into its 12-week program. About 70 percent work in product and technology roles.  

"This was our first year testing digital internships, and we thought long and hard about ways to ensure interns had an equal opportunity to stay connected and create relevancy through work opportunities that deliver a business impact," said Shane Driggers, vice president of talent acquisition. 

They worked on client accounts, took part in virtual hackathons, worked on the company's most recent workplace safety app for the employee experience platform and participated in the company's speaker series conducted via video with members of the executive leadership team. And recognizing interns would miss in-person contact, Driggers said, the company encouraged peer engagement by using online platforms to participate virtually in happy hours and mixers.

Caroline Parkinson found the Executive Speaker Series one of the most rewarding parts of her summer internship.

"Normally, it's difficult for interns to get face time with the top executives at any company, but our leadership team made time to talk with us about their lives, careers and to give invaluable advice," she said. The genuineness of the conversations "made me feel seen, heard and valued" and helped ease concerns she and her peers have about the current and future job market. 

Speed Mentoring 

MaRS Discovery District, based in Toronto, Canada's hospital district, occupies over 1.5 million square feet of offices, labs, meeting rooms and event space and employs 250 people.

"It can be an overwhelming place for interns to land at the best of times," Chief People Officer Rajesh Uttamchandani said, calling MaRS the world's largest innovation hub. "So, when the pandemic hit and the nature of our work instantly changed, we knew we had to do something unprecedented for the young people from around Canada who were meant to join us for the summer."

Early during the pandemic, company leadership met to discuss the internship program and voted unanimously to continue it, Uttamchandani said. "Young people are the future, and the future is at the heart of innovation. The only question was how to make the program as useful as possible at a time when almost all our staff was working outside the office."

The answer: a complete virtual experience for the 10 interns who joined the staff of 250 employees for 16 weeks.

"We held lunch-and-learn sessions over Zoom. We threw them into online social events hosted by human resources and a speed-mentoring session with senior leaders, attempting to recreate the kind of interactions they would have had in a normal year," according to Uttamchandani.

The company also put intern/mentor pairs in Zoom breakout rooms, where interns delivered "elevator pitches" and asked questions such as:

  • How do you find common ground with colleagues?
  • What is the best advice you ever received?
  • What is the best way to network during COVID-19?
  • How should I penetrate the innovation ecosystem?
One of the purposes of speed mentoring, Uttamchandani said, was to allow them to connect with staff "at a time where serendipitous and random connections are difficult." It also provided reverse mentoring for MaRS staff.

"Having worked with many people over the years, I can say that this year's interns stand out and make me feel confident about the future," he said.


[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Interns]

Blogs, Virtual Activities

Software company Appian's in-person orientation for interns was a two-day remote event with training sessions such as "Work from Home: 101." There also was a professional development seminar focused on transitioning from being a student to working in the industry; interns attended virtual coffees and webinars and participated in weekly one-on-one conversations with their managers. And members of employee resource group AppianRISE served as mentors to the interns.

Suvajit Gupta, senior vice president of engineering, hosted a Q&A, and Michael Beckley, co-founder and chief technology officer, conducted a fireside chat. Interns also received a list of employees they could connect with to expand their network beyond their immediate team.

Samuel McBroom, a software engineer intern, worked from his Charlottesville, Va., apartment. Only one of his team members worked at headquarters, one day a week.

Daily meetings with his "squad" helped him connect with everyone, he said.

"I actually appreciated the numerous meetings as I never really felt like I was working alone," he explained. The remote internship, he said, "felt more in-person than some of my past experiences."

His group held office hours during which he could remotely pop into a meeting to ask a question or socialize while working on an assignment.

"While working from home had its downsides, I tried to make up for it by participating in a bunch of different activities," like the mentorship pods that helped students network throughout the company and develop personal and professional skills.

Interns also participated in a five-day hackathon competition; heard a talk on diversity, equity and inclusion; networked with college freshmen; and gave a presentation to students about interning in a virtual world. Social events included virtual escape rooms, TikTok challenges, a "Pixel & Sip Night"—a live tutorial on pixel art—and virtual team lunches where attendees solved work-related puzzles and shared pictures and recipes of their at-home meals. A blog series gave students a platform to talk about their experiences, said Dawn Mitchell, vice president of HR


Beginning and Advanced Internships

Thousands of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) employees volunteered virtually to support students this year, according to Rod Adams, U.S. and Mexico talent acquisition and onboarding leader.

"PwC has long [connected] virtually with students across the country, but with the pandemic in spring 2020, [we] shifted all volunteering to be virtual," he said.

"The virtual internship experience is geared toward teaching digital skills like data wrangling, data visualization and automation, but we are also focused on arming interns with skills like comfort with change, influencing without authority and data-driven storytelling," Adams explained. "They are among the most sought-after skills in executive searches and have become more—not less—needed to be effective leaders in our increasingly technology-infused world of today."

PwC has two internship tracks that are now completely digital. The four-week "start" internship is designed for high-performing college sophomores/rising juniors who self-identify as members of traditionally underrepresented minority groups, protected veterans and people with disabilities.

The "advance" internship transitioned from an eight- to 10-week client-service experience to a two-week digital experience for rising college seniors, fifth-year master's degree students or candidates for master's degrees in business administration.

The company hosted more than 3,500 interns this summer.

PwC also encourages interns to regularly connect with each other, tenured employees, work buddies and others using virtual coffee meetings, coaching calls, remote lunch-and-learn sessions and team meetings, Adams added.

It's important to create structure and accountability and assess developmental progress when mentoring, but there is a relational aspect to mentoring that is also important, said Lisa Fain, CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence in Mercer Island, Wash. Relationship building normally happens organically in the office. The advantage of Zoom meetings, Fain pointed out, is that you are seeing people in their homes.

"Get to know one another, build relationships and networking connections, and get comfortable sharing open and honest feedback," she said. Create relationships that are not merely transactional. 

Articles in this series:
Pandemic Forces Organizations to Get Creative in Prepping Young Employees for the WorkplaceSHRM Online, September 2020

Externship Program Offers HR Students a Career PreviewSHRM Online, October 2020 

Modern Apprenticeships Offer Young Adults On-the-Job Training with Pay, SHRM Online, October 2020  

Related SHRM Articles:
Some Companies Are Making Virtual Internships Work During COVID-19, SHRM Online, July 2020

University of Utah Students Help Businesses During Pandemic, SHRM Online, June 2020

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