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Recommendations for building your virtual internship program

Written by Angela Finding

Virtual internships have become a reality for many employers and students across the nation as they consider how to adapt to the current restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many employers remain uncertain exactly much how their traditional summer internships will be impacted, the consensus is clear, adaptations and flexibility will be necessary for internships this year. For many, this will come in the form of virtual internships.

What exactly is a virtual internship? First, it is important to keep in mind a commonly accepted definition of “internship”: an internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent. (NACE, 2020) A virtual internship is just an internship that allows the intern to work remotely, as in anywhere other than the office.

Virtual internships can bring some strong opinions depending on who you talk to. For some, they are innovative and allow you to expand your talent pool; for others they lack important elements that make an internship a rich learning experience. Both of these can be true, depending on the employer’s approach to virtual internships and the ability of the student to embrace a remote experience.

The good news is that many employers have already researched, implemented, and evaluated virtual internships. The overall advice from those employers is there are essentials that must be in place in order for a virtual internship program to be successful. The following is a basic suggested framework for how to create a successful virtual internship program.

  1. Develop the work plan and projects the intern will work on (just like an onsite internship). Include what technology the intern will need access to, such as wifi, laptop, cell phone and any other tools necessary for the internship. Also determine what, if any, of these tools the organization will provide. If organization is providing equipment, consult with IT department on next steps. Click here for a sample work plan template.
  2. Determine what tools and platforms will be used for collaboration, review, and delivery of work such as a shared network folder, Google Docs, DropBox, etc.
  3. Set clear, realistic deadlines for delivery of assigned projects. This can be flexible, but it will provide structure to an offsite intern. Structure is very important in all internship programs.
  4. Create an ongoing schedule of regular communication such as Microsoft Teams meetings (or any video conferencing software), regular email communication, and a bi-weekly in person meeting (if post-COVID-19 stay-at-home order). This also includes ensuring there is a scheduled video conference (or in-person meeting if allowable) for internship evaluations. Regular communication and feedback is critical to the success of a virtual internship and to ensuring that the intern feels part of the team.
  5. Identify a supervisor, or point person, for each department that is working with a virtual intern. This will be the staff person that can answer general questions, provide support, help communicate any organizational news to the intern, and ensure their overall engagement in the internship.
  6. HR, senior leadership, and any other point people should work together to identify solutions for any privacy concerns or other organizational proprietary issues such as access to the network or internal programs, such as CRM, etc.
  7. Work with HR to create a virtual onboarding and orientation for virtual interns.
  8. Departmental point-person is responsible for creating a virtual departmental orientation for virtual interns.
  9. Determine compensation for the intern. The general rule of thumb is to pay them what you would pay an onsite intern.
  10. Be creative in developing opportunities for professional development and social interaction such as monthly webinars, virtual coffee connections with other employees (outside of their department), access to LinkedIn Learning, etc.
  11. Get the intern’s feedback about the experience at the midpoint and end of the internship using survey tools and video meetings. Also, do regular check-ins about how they feel about the experience.

Other elements to consider as you are developing your virtual internship program are:

  1. Ensure your communication schedule includes seeing each other through video or in-person meetings.
  2. Ensure department supervisors are “bought in” and are prepared and able to manage someone remotely.
  3. Provide laptops with access to necessary files and programs to ensure the intern has quality tools, if possible.
  4. Schedule social activities that are in-person, if possible. This could be happy hour, sporting events, etc. This will encourage deeper engagement and connection. Virtual social event ideas include virtual lunch and learns, virtual tours of local organizations (museums for example), virtual speaker series, virtual happy hours, virtual talent show/game show, etc.
  5. Determine what the transportation capabilities are for the intern to attend in-person meetings or events (if in-person meetings are possible). If there are costs associated with traveling to meetings and events, decide who will cover travel expenses. It is common for the employer to cover parking costs and mileage for travel. Additionally, many employers will provide bus passes for public transportation, if applicable.
  6. As with any internship, very clearly identify what your goals and objectives are for the internship.

As with all new or evolving endeavors, each organization has their own individual needs, challenges, and/or concerns that will need to be addressed to determine if a virtual internship program is a good fit.

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