Main image of article Virtual Internships: Pathways to Success for Companies

COVID-19 has accelerated the trends many companies were already beginning to embrace—more flexible work schedules and home office options. That shift has now extended to the position that is, for many, an important first rung in the career ladder: an internship. 

For Sam Zietz CEO of GRUBBRR, a Florida-based startup specializing in automation ecosystems for restaurants, the big challenge was translating the hands-on learning experience an internship provides into the digital realm. 

“We love to give our interns things that will be coming to market, and they get to get on the ground floor of development and make it happen,” he said. “They’re getting to see the sausage being made, as opposed to be in [a] silo, writing code, not knowing how things connect together.”

The struggle his company faced at the outset, Zietz said, was figuring out how to replicate that in-person experience, as well as the team building and learning, all with digital communications tools. 

“We have had a virtual stand-up every day—we would double that for remote interns, at the beginning of the day and the end of the day—so you have the sense of being able to see everyone,” he said. “One intern was in California, one was in New York, and one was in Chicago, and they were all able to work together on screen—they were able to get a lot of the same environments.” 

The company tapped RingCentral, a provider of cloud-based communications and collaboration solutions with a built-in Zoom-like function, to make that happen. 

“Normally we have 10 to 15 on-site interns, and what ended up happening was 75 percent of kids lost their internships, and with social distancing, we had limited space, and that’s where the idea of the virtual internship came about,” he said. 

In addition to virtual stand-ups every day, Zietz also organized a speaker series every Friday, where the company would invite CEOs from across the country to share their experiences and then leave time open for the interns to ask questions. 

Zeitz also made himself available once a week for Q&A sessions online so he could help connect the dots for interns across various areas of business, find out what they were learning, and how their work affects clients or consumers. 

“Because you’re not in the building, you’re not able to walk in and see people in their office, so once a week we’d have a different department head speak about that facet of the business, which allowed them to see what was going on and how things work out,” he added. 

Zeitz said any successful distance internship should be sure to use video extensively, to provide a sense of you-are-there immediacy: “Video all day was extremely important, the screen was open the whole time, so you could look over at the other person and say, ‘Hey.’ Everything was done with video.”

Constant contact was another critical factor in making sure interns were being productive and engaged. Zeitz learned his own lessons on how virtual internships would progress in the future. “We’ve already hired a number of our remote interns for full employment, and those are people we would have otherwise never had been exposed to,” he said. “We ended up getting the kids that don’t live here, and we’ve got three that have already started and have moved here as a result.”

Zeitz noted the remote internship program has worked out so well that GRUBBRR has decided to continue it during the school year, with the flexibility for interns to work between 10-20 hours per week.

Remote Internships Need Tech… and Flexibility

Kelly Penry, director of Chicago-based business and technology consulting firm West Monroe’s talent acquisition function, said COVID-19 has “catapulted” the company into being nimbler. They’ve learned that virtual internships can deliver the same “really high quality” elements as in-person ones.

“At the end of the internship, whether it’s virtual or in person, we want to extend a full-time offer,” she said. “We wanted to make sure we really drove home the culture, and building relationships is imperative—you have a really short period of time to provide impact and value, and make sure with leaders and the project managers, and other interns develop a camaraderie.”

To do so remotely, Penry said the company tapped into digital conferencing resources such as Zoom, as well as collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and a platform called Miro (a free online collaborative whiteboarding program). 

She noted the interns also created their own chat through GroupMe, which is “like texting but for larger groups.” It’s important to allow for corporate flexibility so that interns can find their own avenues in which they can come together.

“Given that everyone was virtual, it seemed like there was more collaboration by their own means, because they were able to see other interns around the country—this gave them more opportunity to reach across home offices and reach other interns,” she said. 

Penry added that remote internships have given those just starting out a feel for how remote work environments function: “It’s also about getting development opportunities with virtual tools, and business skills virtually—you’re really learning more about the professional environment, and learning how to operate in a remote state.” 

Because you can’t physically wander around the office and check in on interns, Penry said it’s critically important to make sure the company clearly sets out roles and responsibilities for interns, and those to whom they’re reporting.

“We actually created a new intern liaison role where they would check in with the interns on Zoom and talk about what that day would look like and what questions they have,” she said. “We made sure to focus on social feedback every day with coaches and career advisers, making sure we were being innovative with engagement.”