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3 things you must have to design a great remote internship

The CEO and cofounder of online education platform Springboard says that successful remote internship programs need to do three things well to ensure that interns deliver on their goals, feel included, and find meaning in their work.

3 things you must have to design a great remote internship
[Source images: Rawpixel; Brooke Cagle/Unsplash]

As the world hunkers down to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all had to rapidly evolve how we communicate and interact. Learning, social life, and work all now rely heavily on virtual platforms and remote collaboration to keep people motivated, productive, and connected.

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Yet even with the support of technology, interns looking to gain real-world work experience and potential future employment are surely questioning how totally remote internships will shape their professional development and résumés.

Big tech companies like Google and Apple, as well as smaller startups, will welcome thousands of remote interns this summer. The challenge for all these companies (large or small) will be how to create effective remote internship programs that can adequately substitute for in-person projects, learning, networking, and socialization.

This is certainly not an easy feat. But there’s good news for employers and interns alike. If companies thoughtfully integrate a few key principles when designing remote internship programs, these interns will likely have highly meaningful experiences that could mimic, and in some cases even be better than, an in-person environment.

For the past couple of years at Springboard, the online school I cofounded, we’ve paired our students with companies to complete remote apprenticeships. They’ve now completed over 250 internships across 150 startups. Interns got hired by these companies 10% to 15% of the time.

So our team gathered data to understand what made certain remote internships more successful than others. The data revealed that successful remote internships follow three common principles. In addition, and in this unprecedented time, managers would do well to express solidarity with interns and take the time to foster relationships beyond just the professional.

To pull off a successful remote internship program, employers must commit to doing these three things–and doing them well–to ensure that interns deliver on their goals, feel included, and find meaning in their work.

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Set clear expectations

Regardless of whether they are working in a team-based culture, or are assigned largely independent tasks, interns need to have complete clarity about the projects they will be taking on, what their objectives are, how you, their supervisor, works best, and what success looks like. So establish the goals of the internship and your expectations right from day one. Cover not only project tasks, deliverables, and deadlines, but also introduce relevant stakeholders and tools, and be clear on how and to whom they should communicate in case they have questions or concerns.

Integrate interns into communication channels

The importance of frequent communication with teams and managers can never be overstated, especially since in-person meetings aren’t possible right now.

Signing in to the world of Slack and email is overwhelming to anyone new to a workplace, and in the age of remote work, it’s even more critical to make new folks feel plugged in and welcome. There is no one-size-fits-all communications formula, so think about what works best for your organization, then take the time to explain the purpose of each medium (email, Slack, text message, phone call) and your best practices for communicating over each one.

Remember that remote interns are losing access to the more informal interactions that office culture provides, such as watercooler chats and lunch-break banter. Make sure to include them in random, informal exchanges such as Friday happy hour Zoom calls through which they can start getting to know other colleagues and develop rapport outside their immediate teams.

Finally, make sure to give them periodic public praise for a job well done. This way, you’ll show them that they are truly part of the team and that their work isn’t being taken for granted.

Offer regular mentorship and feedback

Once interns have their feet on the ground and projects are underway, managers and teammates alike should provide interns with quick and open feedback on their work. Our tools are more collaborative than ever, so leave comments, provide examples, share more background, and encourage iteration. This will help interns stay motivated, achieve their goals, and feel that they are not operating in a vacuum. Keep the conversation going until you see quality results. But keep in mind that interns are there to learn, so don’t reprimand them for making mistakes.

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Keeping feedback constructive and motivational is the best way to approach someone who is excited to learn and jump into the working world. Be sure to set up regular one-on-one check-ins, outside of project feedback sessions. These give interns the opportunity to ask questions and managers the opportunity to give feedback in more informal ways, such as on behavioral issues or just giving career advice.

However, being a manager doesn’t mean you also have to be your intern’s mentor. In fact, it may be better for interns to have mentors who are not their direct managers. Encouraging multiple mentors like an onboarding buddy, a safe-space mentor, and perhaps another worker they admire will give interns invaluable opportunities to connect with people beyond their supervisors to build strong networks that they can call on in the future.

Connect as people above all else

Internships aren’t just about work. Interns want to connect, have fun, and build their networks. And given that remote work will be new to many of them, keep in mind the small things you can implement to encourage relationship-building and community online.

For instance, in the first-day meeting, ensure you turn on your video to show them that they’ll be interacting with real people, despite the remote setup. Or, in any given meeting, try to keep the first couple of minutes conversational with getting-to-know-you questions, checking in on their well-being before segueing into work chatter.

Most importantly, acknowledge the uniqueness and vulnerability of interning remotely, and overemphasize that you’re available as a resource for them. All of these will cement a solid support system between managers and interns, creating a comfort level that sets your interns up for success.

Interns bring unmatched energy and fresh enthusiasm to the work environment. They are determined to excel and learn new things, while managers want them to have a productive experience. Working toward a clear objective, communicating inclusively, and keeping open lines of communication will all help remote interns have a top-notch experience.

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Above all else, recognize that working life has been changed forever, so help your interns get through these strange times by forging a real connection with them.


Gautam Tambay is the cofounder and CEO of Springboard.

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