Running Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Employers

Guest contribution from Debora Jeske

Over the course of the last few months, I received several queries from different employers about how to best run virtual internships instead of or in addition to traditional internships. As a result, I decided to summarize my thoughts and research findings so as to provide a comprehensive overview of all the tips I had learned and come across over the last ten years.

The following post outlines my recommendations to employers running virtual internship schemes.

Recruiting and getting ready for virtual interns

As a starting point, just one clarification. In this blog post I am providing tips specifically to employers running e-internships, that is, virtual internships that interns complete with employers over a matter of weeks and months (not simulated work experience in virtual environments). This distinction is important but also means that these e-internships have a lot in common with traditional internships and other remote working arrangements.

When employers decide to hire interns, many of the same procedures need to be employed as for regular employee selection. Relevant procedures include a proper selection process that involves the preparation of detailed job and candidate descriptions, the development of an appropriate application form, remuneration information, selection interviews that provide interns with a realistic job preview, and appropriate reference checks. Like regular employee records, all applicant data need to be kept secure and should be accessed only by appropriate personnel.

A brief note here on the application materials. Given the nature of internships, I strongly recommend that employers are including sections in the application that specifically ask the interns about a) the skills they want to employ and develop, b) what they hope to learn in the internship, c) what kind of projects would appeal to them, and d) what their future career aspirations are. All these elements can provide employers – and specifically supervisors – with a means to match interns to various projects and teams. The application may likewise set the stage for an explicit, potentially written learning agreement or learning contract for later feedback meetings.

During the interview for their internships, I strongly recommend that recruiters and managers ought to outline how the internship experience will facilitate their learning – and subsequent transition into a job. This requires some prep work to identify what kind of opportunities could be offered (e.g., mentoring, career development workshops, and access to training). Supervisors should consider their network inside and outside their department and organization. Knowing who would be willing to mentor interns will take some consideration and prior exploration. Mentors could come from inside the organization, but could be clients, suppliers, and other external contacts (e.g., if a mentor is needed in an area of expertise not available internally). Given the potentially learning benefit for mentors, it is helpful to explore how mentoring could be offered to all interns.

Before starting an internship, the selected supervisors need to decide how learning progress and task completion will be documented. Collecting the information for future references, LinkedIn endorsements, internship certificates and similar during the internship requires some planning – as does the matching of interns to potential mentors. In addition, many interns may be completing their internship for academic credit: Having a tool in place to record and follow up appropriate documentation will be essential.

Ensuring technical alignment, security compliance and proper working conditions

Once suitable internship candidates have been selected, procedures need to be in place to ensure that the interns are able to do their work effectively, as well as securely. For example, it is important to remember to pre-assess technical requirements for the internship when interns are expected to be using their own equipment. Organizations need to provide both hardware and software (such as licenses).

Before employers, as well as interns get started, employers need to consider a few security issues that apply when people access resources and data remotely. One step is to ensure that interns are provided access based the principle of least privilege (e.g., granting only limited access to internal databases and documentation as needed). Some employers use internship platform instead to provide all the information to interns that way. The use of such platforms can help especially smaller employers host their interns. Similarly, using a platform limit interns’ access to sensitive information while similarly enabling managers to manage multiple internship projects via the same interface.

Depending on the organization’s location and customer base, interns need to receive the appropriate training to ensure that they understand their responsibilities. For example, if they have access or interactions with customers, they must understand their responsibility for protecting consumer data according to the GDPR or CCPA. In addition, it could be useful to provide access to other training units, such as time management and the use of internal platforms. Given that many interns will be working in their own homes, it may also be important to share suggestions on using breaks to stretch and how to set up a desk to reduce eye strain or muscle aches due to poor posture.

Supervising interns effectively

One of the main misconceptions about virtual internships is that interns completing this kind of virtual internship require minimal supervision and support. Virtual interns are not gig workers: The reason they are completing an internship is to test and expand their skill set by working on projects over the course of several weeks or months in order to improve their employability. As a result, setting up support and proper supervision are critical to ensure that interns are supported in their learning journey – which in my experience – is crucial for their task completion, their motivation, their commitment to the internship, and willingness to act as a future ambassador for the organization later on.

My recommendation is to set out a structure and schedule to ensure that supervisors and interns are able to coordinate their efforts. I would like to recommend a few specifics here.

First, some prep work will need to be done by the supervisor, department, or team. For example, the team members or supervisor might need some additional training so that they can onboard their interns to whatever software or databases they will be using. Supervisors who have never actually supervised interns will need to be upskilled and mentored themselves when they get started. Knowledge management is often an area in need of more consideration. My recommendation here is that insights from supervisors and interns are regularly collected (in testimonials, handbooks, or manuals) so that good practices can be identified, and the appropriate guidance can be produced readily over time.

Second, supervisors should always have a plan that outlines the step for each week of the project, including onboarding and offboarding. Ideally, plan at least two weeks ahead. This means identifying the tasks, the appropriate resources and contact persons (in the case the task involves training and networking) for the next two weeks. This way, the intern always has a structured task road plan to follow – even if the supervisor is momentarily unavailable. In addition, it provides a structure to the intern – encouraging a certain independence and proactivity at the same time. Identifying potential breaks due to exam periods, planned holidays, and other events need to be considered in this project plan.

Third, both the supervisor and intern should set a clear schedule for meetings, feedback discussions, peer introductions, and so on. Ideally, interns should have at least one meeting a week that allows for a more detailed discussion of the project at hand. That said, the frequency may depend on the complexity of the task, the nature of the project (in the case of team efforts), and the number of hours that interns work each week. The learning agreement or contract, mentioned above in relation to the application materials, can be a very useful guide for both the intern and the supervisor during these feedback discussions.

Supporting and motivating virtual interns effectively

As part of my research, I looked at the psychological contract and the expectations and experience of interns depending on the amount of communication and support during their internship, as well as the task-based nature of their internship. One-side or irresponsive communication patterns, unavailability and limited access to support often led interns to feel greater uncertainty and isolation. However, when the supervisors invested time and effort in training and feedback (online or on a person-to-person basis), both the interns and supervisors reported more satisfaction with the internship and commitment to the internship.

While more and more employers use dedicated internship platforms, most supervisors use video conferencing and social media to connect to and support their interns. The media use may depend on what kind of software is used within the team and department (e.g., Slack, Mattermost, Zoom, Jitsi, Skype, MS Team). Such tools help interns to connect to their peers, potential mentors, and other members of staff over time – helping them to develop a network within and outside the organization. Especially peer mentoring can be helpful for interns. If such tools are tied to regular meetings, feedback sessions, and learning discussions, interns are more likely to feel motivated, feel more connected to others in the organizations, and ensure that interns stay committed to stay the length of the internship. The latter part is particularly important as silent dropout is not uncommon among virtual interns. However, that likelihood declines significantly when supervisors and teams use multiple mechanisms to stay connected, engaged and in contact with the intern during their internship.

Providing goal clarity, regular feedback and offering opportunities for development are effective means to motivate interns. Regular meetings to discuss task progress but also interns’ experience ensures that both the intern and supervisor (and/or team) explore motivational and performance barriers, facilitators, and emerging issues. Especially given the remote working model for virtual internships, it is important to consider the importance of different expectations due to different backgrounds, cross-cultural differences, and emerging career interests and opportunities. However, many HR professionals will have the requisite insights and expertise to advise managers and supervisors on these matters.

A number of additional CCWT resources are available online for further guidance.

About Dr. Debora Jeske

Debora is a work and organizational psychologist in Berlin, Germany (PhD 2011, Northern Illinois University). In addition, she has worked in education in the US, UK, as well as Ireland where she is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University College Cork. Debora has researched virtual internships for almost ten years in various countries and continues to collaborate with practitioners and academics on a number of projects related to remote work, e-HRM, as well as learning and development at work.