Some Companies Are Making Virtual Internships Work During COVID-19

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer July 6, 2020
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student at home

​Internships have always been more than just summer jobs at Abbott, a global health technology  company based in Chicago. Their 12-week programs typically include career development sessions, "deep business learning," network building and challenging, real-life assignments, said Vildan Kehr, Abbott's divisional vice president of global talent acquisition.

"Programs offered to high school and college students can change the trajectories of their professional lives," she said. That's why canceling the programs was not an option, even when "it became clear that the threat from the coronavirus would make moving interns across the country for in-person programming difficult, if not impossible."

Internships are not just important for students; the programs are a key channel into the company's talent pipeline. Every year, more than 60 percent of the interns at Abbott become employees. The decision was made to move ahead with the programs. Now the question was: How could the company provide 170 college students with an engaging, meaningful internship experience remotely?

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Interns]

Year of Disruption

Not surprisingly, most college students are missing out on traditional internships this year due to COVID-19. About 22 percent of employers said they were canceling internships entirely, with another 19 percent undecided as of May 1, according to the latest polling from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Employer responses showed that most of the organizations moving forward with programs modified them by making them virtual, shortening them or both.

"We've seen significant changes for our students this year," said Rebekah Paré, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and executive director of SuccessWorks, a professional development center at the school. "A lot of employers felt terrible to cancel programs but felt they couldn't support them. Another scenario—postponing programs, sometimes more than once before canceling them—put students in a worse bind because they may have tried to find another opportunity. About half of our students kept their internships, which were mostly made virtual."

Employers like Abbott, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Microsoft and ServiceNow transitioned to a virtual experience, in many cases for the first time. Some organizations took a hybrid virtual/in-person approach. Half of the approximately 2,800 interns hired by global aerospace and defense firm Northrop Grumman this summer are working onsite in roles requiring clearance or deemed essential, said Peter Brooks, vice president of talent acquisition at the company. The other half, spread across a variety of business functions, started virtual programs.

As companies adjusted their summer internships to meet the new reality, HR and front-line managers took on the challenge of how to remotely incorporate students into the organization's culture.

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Remote Work

Paré said interns were anxious about this, too, hopeful not to miss out on the networking opportunities and career development associated with a summer internship. "We take for granted the amount of learning that happens in a face-to-face environment as a result of spontaneous interactions at the worksite," she said. "Experiencing the culture of an organization is the hardest thing to replicate in a remote space."

Gautam Tambay, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based online education platform Springboard, said even with the support of virtual platforms and remote collaboration technology, interns looking to gain real-world work experience "are surely questioning how totally remote internships will shape their professional development. The challenge for these companies will be to create effective remote internship programs that can adequately substitute for in-person projects, learning, networking and socialization."

It was clear the answer wasn't just videoconferencing, Kehr said. "Success would mean personalizing students' summer experiences by responding to their needs for peer interaction, professional networking and quality, meaningful work. We collaborated with each manager to adapt and realign the internships to the virtual environment."

Creating a meaningful experience was top-of-mind for Brooks and his team at Northrup Grumman as well. "I think we've done a good job replicating the in-person program, but using video to host social and networking events is never going to be the same as getting together in person," he said. "With so many students out there having lost internships and even job offers, our interns have been grateful to have the virtual experience, even if they're missing some of the onsite activities."

Making It Work

Organizations that had invested in remote work long before the appearance of the coronavirus were perhaps better prepared to transition to virtual internships than those that had not, but all employers had to adjust their practices in some way to develop and run effective virtual programs.

"We've had interns work remotely before, but only after completing an initial program—that's different from having your first and only engagement with a company be remote," Brooks said. "And this was done at scale. It's one thing to have 10 or 20 interns doing some extra work remotely over the school year, and another to onboard and manage roughly 1,400 interns virtually. It was a significant undertaking."

Liberty Mutual Insurance also had some experience managing "a handful of interns" remotely in the past but had to quickly ramp up this year's fully virtual program to include 600 of them, said Maura Quinn, assistant vice president for campus recruiting.

The curriculum includes a mix of professional development, insurance-related instruction, career-pathing courses and work assignments that complement interns' majors. Quinn recommended using videoconferencing as much as possible for work collaboration and "virtual socials to engage teams remotely … [and] connect with the culture of the organization."

She also advised interns to talk with their managers early on about the frequency of their check-ins and for established points of contact to determine who to reach out to for questions, social programming and cultural engagement.

Most of Abbott's interns work in the science, technology, engineering and math sectors. "We all have challenges working from home, and interns are no exception, but it's our hope that personalizing the intern experience will help students connect with their work even though they won't be onsite," Kehr said. "How people are connecting with work changed dramatically almost overnight, and personalization is more important to the employee experience than ever."

Some of the things Abbott has done to support remote interns:

  • Created a special app for interns to interact with one another through messages, videos and photos. "We're asking all of them to post 30-second videos introducing themselves, which we hope will spur engaging interactions, along with [hosting] virtual scavenger hunts and trivia contests," Kehr said.
  • Assigned interns to "peer buddy" groups along with a coach. Separately, students are paired with a mentor to help them navigate the program.
  • Increased engagement with senior leadership via live video discussions to bolster networking opportunities. This level of interaction hasn't existed previously and is now possible because there are no location limitations, Kehr said.

Interns are also receiving dedicated personal and career development programming on topics like motivation, reputation building, resilience and innovation, results-driven job assignments, and post-internship professional development.

HR technology company ServiceNow is also determined to provide a substantial and valuable internship experience. "This is our first year testing virtual internships, and it has been exciting," said Shane Driggers, vice president of talent acquisition at the company.

ServiceNow accepted 360 interns for its 12-week programs, representing 25 percent growth compared to last summer. The majority—about 70 percent—work in product and technology roles.

"Things we think about are how to spur engagement, how to create relevancy and focus on professional development," Driggers said. "We created groups with internal communication tools like Slack, hosted happy hours and mixers where interns can get together and socialize in a virtual setting, and developed a whole suite of virtual activities that have been deliberate and intentional in terms of how to make the experience meaningful for interns and hiring managers doing this for the first time virtually."

Managers were trained on how to help interns adjust to remote work and each intern was assigned a mentor who they can lean on for advice and go to with ideas, Driggers said.

He added that in-person social interaction is the biggest loss for the interns but that engagement and productivity among interns were trending positive so far this year, according to pulse surveys.

Caroline Parkinson, a student at the University of Michigan and a corporate communications intern at ServiceNow, said she misses the face-to-face interaction but doesn't think the lack of it has negatively impacted her internship. "My team has reached out often to have real conversations to check in with me on not only work-related things, but how I'm doing personally and how I'm dealing with everything," she said. "Some of the natural office barriers have been removed by going virtual, and I've been able to engage with interns from outside my team that I may not have had the chance to before."

Brooks said communication and engagement—using Zoom or FaceTime—was accomplished fairly easily. The harder part was workforce planning and, specifically, "connecting the dots between the supply of incoming talent that would be virtual versus in person with the work that needed to be done in person or could be done virtually. It meant that front-line leaders had to think quickly and deliberately about the scope of work they would hand their interns, how that handoff would happen and what the checkpoints would be. If you're more accustomed to waiting for interns to show up and then assigning them activities, you will be too late." 

Managing Virtual Internship Programs

The following are a few basic tips for running successful remote internship programs.

  • Set clear expectations. A successful internship will have articulated learning goals and outcomes, Paré said. The remote environment requires that those be much more strongly articulated up front. "Interns need to have complete clarity about the projects they will be taking on, what their objectives are and what success looks like," Tambay said. "Cover not only project tasks, deliverables and deadlines, but also introduce relevant stakeholders and tools."
  • Invite frequent communication. "The importance of frequent communication with teams and managers can never be overstated, especially since in-person meetings aren't possible right now," Tambay said. "Managers and teammates alike should provide interns with constructive and motivational feedback on their work. This will help interns stay motivated, achieve their goals and feel that they are not operating in a vacuum."
  • Encourage relationship building. Make interns feel like they are an important part of the team and help them bond with colleagues through team-building activities. "Acknowledge the uniqueness and vulnerability of interning remotely and overemphasize that you're available as a resource for them," Tambay said. "Above all else, help your interns get through these strange times by forging a real connection with them."
  • Assign mentors. A good mentor is essential for helping interns grow their knowledge and skills set, especially when working remotely. Paré said she's worried that interns without mentors will have to do a lot of proactive outreach on their own, "a tall order to ask for in a remote environment where they don't understand the culture."
  • Perfect onboarding. This is a great opportunity to evaluate and identify the gaps in your remote onboarding process and improve it. For example, it's essential that interns have the resources to work remotely. "From day one, I was given the technology and services I needed, so I never felt like I lost productivity working from home," Parkinson said. "Any company that wants to adjust to a virtual internship needs to lean in to making sure their interns have the tools they need to succeed."


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