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A Successful Virtual Internship: What does the Research Say?

A Successful Virtual Internship: What does the Research Say?

By Hae-Song Jung

What does a successful virtual internship experience look like? Last year around this time, we were just coming to terms with the realization that the pandemic’s impact on work might last longer than a couple of weeks or couple of months. Along with pivoting much of the workforce to remote work – practically overnight – we faced critical decisions: whether to switch in-person internships to virtual internships, and more importantly, how to create and execute a successful virtual internship experience to early career talent.

Last summer was a massive learning experience for both leadership development program summer interns and managers. And though we did not anticipate a repeat performance of virtual internships, many of us are about to head into our second round of it.

While virtual internships marked unfamiliar territory for most in 2020, the world of organizational psychology is surprisingly rich with years’ worth of research on virtual internships and remote work. So what lessons can we draw from research to make Summer #2 of Virtual Internships a more successful one? LDP Connect is here to share the best applicable takeaways from the academic field.

Set clear expectations and make the implicit explicit

The distance and remote nature of virtual internships mean that your early talent interns’ involvement and interactions with managers may become passive and limited. For example, does the manager always wait for the intern to initiate contact? Does the intern get regular feedback on project progress from the manager? While your leadership development program interns who have more work experience may already understand how to “manage up,” interns without much work experience may have much trouble doing so. To foster successful internship experiences, ensure your managers and interns are ready to explicitly discuss and agree on the following at the beginning of the internship:

  • Project timeline, milestones, and goals
  • One to one meetings and feedback frequency and structure
  • Stakeholders and team members: Who else are the key stakeholders, decision-makers, and team members involved in the intern’s projects, and what should the interns’ relationship(s) with them look like? In the absence of a physical office, these things may not be obvious.
  • Courses of action in case of questions or issues: Who, besides the manager, can the intern go to if questions and issues arise? Where can the intern exercise independent decision-making and problem solving, and where should the intern look to involve the voice of others? Not explicitly clarifying these may greatly limit interns’ ability to learn and engage with their work.
  • Communication channels: What is communicated best over email vs. chat vs. virtual meetings? What requires synchronous collaboration and communication, and what can be completed asynchronously? If your intern is expected to contribute to projects involving large teams, this discussion will be especially critical.
  • Working periods and availabilities, especially given the lack of a physical work-home boundary
Ensure clear feedback and communication

Interns face a three-way challenge of learning about the organization, learning about their work, and actually performing their work to fulfill goals… all in a virtual setting. Research shows that virtual interns report lower self-performance and increased isolation without goal clarity and manager support. Furthermore, interns’ sense of feeling valued and satisfied with the internship experience correlates closely with goal clarity. So while there are numerous ways to deliver a positive experience to interns, the research emphasizes the importance of clear and frequent communication on goals and performance. Managers and interns should implement a clear and frequent two-way feedback system where:

  • Interns and managers check for alignment on interns’ understanding of project deliverables, goals, and opportunities
  • Interns and managers check in on project progress and next steps
  • Interns can provide feedback and suggestions on managers’ style of supervision as well so that the relationship is a genuine two-way street
Leverage and encourage mentorship

Many leadership development programs and rotational programs already have mentoring systems. However, this summer may present an opportunity to revisit and strengthen your mentorship programs, as they can be even more valuable in a virtual environment. Research shows that mentoring increases interns’ reported skill development, especially regarding their ability to think strategically about problems. In addition, interns who receive mentoring are more likely to have more opportunities to further expand their network within the company and collaborate with others. As isolation and “silent dropout” are key risks of virtual internships, mentoring offers especially promising ways to promote engagement and to transmit company culture. What are the critical leadership competencies or career-related skills you want your interns to learn? And who might your interns benefit from connecting with? Consider these questions, then ensure that your interns have the opportunity to access and build their own network of mentors.

Learn about successful virtual work FROM your interns

Even after the pandemic ends, we are not likely to return to the pre-pandemic ways of working. This means the way your managers lead, your teams collaborate, and the way your organization communicates and maintains its culture will require change and innovation. Here, your interns can offer valuable outside perspective, feedback, and even unlock new innovative ways of working. A 2016 study showed that virtual interns helped address critical knowledge and skill gaps, and created new solutions to problems. Although these internships may primarily be viewed as learning opportunities for the interns, finding ways to leverage the perspective, skillsets, and feedback of your interns can benefit your entire organization, especially during these times of rapid change.

Want to discuss this more?  Create a free membership account at LDP Connect and join our discussion forum.  Or join us at the LDP Summit.


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