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  • Hosting Virtual Interns: A Primer for the Summer of COVID-19

    June 15, 2020 | By NACE Staff

    Internships
    An intern goes through a virtual onboarding.

    TAGS: best practices, internships, operations, spotlight, coronavirus

    Spotlight for Recruiting Professionals

    Given that internships are so critical to student career development and resume-building—not to mention their value to employer hosts—how then can employers maximize remote work experiences to ensure that nothing is lost in translation?

    Andrew Crain, director of experiential professional development at the University of Georgia (UGA) Graduate School, has conducted significant research into internships and recommends reflecting upon the core functions of an internship, which, he says, include:

    • Experiencing day-to-day work life within a specified professional domain—This includes gaining an understanding of company and/or team culture, the types of skills/experiences necessary to succeed in a given field, and typical expectations for employee performance within that space.
    • Completing a meaningful project and/or work experience—One aspect that separates internships from other forms of employment, e.g., part-time jobs, is the completion of deeper and more meaningful work for the organization. This may entail specific project outcomes or a handful of functional responsibilities for the host organization. Above all, internships should be framed as learning experiences for the student and should not merely serve as a replacement for a regular employee.
    • Cultivating a professional network—Internships represent an important avenue for students to develop their social capital in a certain career field. Internship supervisors should consider ways to help students build connections with team members, other interns, and helpful contacts within their field. In a successful internship, the student should walk away with several professional references and/or new contacts that they can leverage in their future career development.
    • Providing opportunities for feedback, reflection, and integration of these experiences into one’s professional identity—With an understanding that an internship is a learning experience, host organizations should deploy a framework for delivering meaningful feedback to the student. This process begins by clearly outlining expectations around deadlines, project deliverables, or other behavioral norms relevant to the team, and then periodically discussing student progress toward these goals and/or challenges that arise.

    The host organization can also help the students reflect on their experience and integrate new knowledge into their future plans, Crain says.

    “This can be as simple as having conversations dedicated to these purposes throughout the summer or a more involved format, such as capstone presentations to organizational leadership,” he suggests.

    “An added advantage of such experiences is that host organizations may use these moments as part of a feedback loop to capture data about the student experience on their team.”

    Reviewing this list of key internship outcomes, Crain points out that it is clear to see the value that comes through face-to-face interactions during a typical internship experience. Understandings of company culture, for example, are much easier to convey through informal channels, such as participation in meetings or team-building events.

    “Yet we know that remote internship work is a likely reality for the foreseeable future,” he says. “How can we pivot effectively to maximize these experiences?”

    Perhaps, Crain says, it is helpful to think through the points above and consider ways to transfer these outcomes into the virtual space. He offers a list of suggestions that may be important to this process:

    • Onboarding new interns—One of the best ways to make new team members feel welcomed—even in normal times—is to be prepared for their arrival. While you may not be thinking about a physical desk space for your interns, you can consider what tools or resources they may need access to in the initial days of their work. This might include organizational user accounts for productivity platforms as well as the physical technology—such as laptops, webcams, and cell phones—needed to connect with the team. Source your team members for ideas. If there will be significant training involved, begin outlining a schedule and determining who should be involved with these efforts. It is better to block meetings early rather than try to string together a training schedule on the fly once your interns begin. Consider sending out a care package with organizational swag (or even a virtual swag-bag) to welcome your new interns to your team. For a personal touch, you could ask your interns to record a video message introducing themselves and sharing more about what they hope to learn during their experience—which may prompt additional connections as new project opportunities emerge.
    • Connecting with the team—Begin developing a plan for how your remotely based interns will stay connected with the team. This should include a schedule for periodic check-ins with their primary supervisor as well as any relevant project leads with whom they will be working. An emphasis on communication norms is important. For example, who will a student turn to with questions? And how? Crain explains that his team at UGA—which includes two graduate assistants who work largely remotely—meets each week, in addition to weekly individual meetings with him to discuss project concerns. They also use dedicated Slack channels for quick daily touchpoints. Whereas interns who are physically present in a work setting may often learn a task from firsthand observation, remote interns may need more frequent opportunities for feedback or discussion about a new task. And, don’t forget to schedule some fun team-building activities as well—even a virtual lunch gathering or iPhone tour of the workspace could be an interesting form of engagement.
    • Review project guidelines—It will likely be helpful to meet with your interns initially—just as you normally would—to review their assignments and discuss expectations for completion. For remote interns, this may include a discussion around expectations for availability. Is there a set work schedule? How quickly are students expected to respond to work requests? If you have work samples, or can connect interns with key team members to walk them through certain duties, this may also be helpful. Above all, you should provide a space for them to connect periodically and address concerns, either in a live meeting or via a more asynchronous format, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. It may also be helpful to develop a list of two to three secondary tasks that they can turn to during down times, such as while they are awaiting next steps for their primary project. Professional development activities could be useful here, or other miscellaneous virtual work such as writing; proofreading; coding; designing presentations; or data collection, entry, and analysis. For interns who are working on projects with multiple supervisors, check-in meetings are also a good time to review their project bandwidth and determine whether they have enough (or too much) work on their plate.
    • Provide feedback mechanisms—In the early days of the internship you can set the expectation that feedback will be provided at the end of the experience and at appropriate points along the way. In fact, checking in periodically will help both parties to maintain a sense of accountability and adjust project expectations as needed. If you would like your interns to provide feedback about their experience, let them know. Allowing students to share their goals and expectations for their internship early on is also important, as it will allow you to redirect and/or tailor their experience as needed. Team members who work with interns should also understand appropriate ways/channels to provide feedback if needed. Remember, sharing positive feedback and celebrating accomplishments as a team is another a great way to build camaraderie and help students feel integrated into their host organization.

    “All in all,” Crain says, “a great deal of the typical internship experience can be adapted to virtual settings with a little ingenuity and pre-planning. While some aspects of the internship experience will inevitably be lost in a virtual setting, it is possible that many students may actually thrive in a remote work environment.

    “When in doubt, just remember—we are in the midst of a pandemic and facing unprecedented challenges to our work and our lives. Be gracious, be flexible, and be creative. Students are certainly appreciative of organizations that are committed to providing them with an experiential learning opportunity during this chaotic time, and we all may learn some interesting lessons along the way.”

    Andrew Crain (acrain@uga.edu) is the director of experiential professional development at the University of Georgia Graduate School. The information presented here is based on his own experiences coordinating internship experiences for UGA students. These views are his own and do not represent the University of Georgia.