Making Remote Internships Work: 4 Tips for Success

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Consider two statements. First, no matter what happens in 2021, remote work is here to stay. Second, successful companies know that in order to build resilient, renewable talent pipelines, they need to have strong internship programs.

Put those two truths together, and we find ourselves facing a clear challenge: Is it possible for remote internship programs to succeed?

This is a challenge we ourselves have had to deal with at Exelaration. We’ve been running a professional, year-round internship program for a dozen years now, and our Blacksburg, Virginia, development center has always been remotely connected to our clients. You might say we were already experts at remote product delivery prior to the pandemic, but in 2020, we faced a new dilemma: Could we connect to our interns remotely? 

Because our business model is centered on our software development internships, we had no choice. We confirmed remote connectivity with each intern, ensuring everything from Slack and Zoom to their hardware was working properly. We continued to observe the same project norms we did in person, which include morning stand-up meetings, professional development sessions, executive check-ins, pair programming, and retrospectives. And it has been working. In fact, our intern engagement and satisfaction increased this year.

In light of this, I’d like to share some tips we learned about how and why our remote internships turned out so well. 

1. Practice Agile Habits

Agile, Scrum, and kanban frameworks all encompass and encourage specific behaviors, habits, and ceremonies that build better teams. For example, one classic Scrum event is kicking off each day with a daily stand-up meeting where every team member briefly talks about what they’re working on and any obstacles they’re facing. The meeting is called a “stand-up” because, in the in-person world, the meeting is so brief it can be conducted standing up. There are many other Agile team behaviors, like retrospectives and frequent stakeholder feedback, that can also be done remotely.

Interns who participate in these daily stand-ups, retrospectives, and stakeholder feedback sessions learn and integrate rapidly — even in a remote environment. And here’s a sobering observation: A team that is having trouble functioning remotely is a team that already had problems in the in-person world. In many cases, the remote dynamic merely reveals a team’s preexisting issues.

2. Embrace Remote Tools Wholeheartedly

Zoom and Slack are just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to do something remotely — whether it be brainstorm, prioritize, interview, or debate — there’s probably a tool or a dozen that can support it. Experiment with these tools, and show your interns that physical distance isn’t going to impede their integration.

One great assignment is to ask each intern to research a remote tool that can support a specific team need. Since interns are typically on the younger side, they’re the perfect folks to take on the task of discovering and evaluating new tools for the team.

3. Give Interns Full Team Roles

We find that many firms still treat internships as afterthoughts, giving interns leftover or make-work tasks and keeping them away from stakeholders and clients. But interns are highly conscientious, and given proper direction, they will rise to the occasion when asked to participate as full-fledged team members.

We assign an engaged supervisor to each intern, perform regular intern check-ins, and make it clear up front that we expect each intern to present a wrap-up “what I learned during my internship” talk at the end of the term. These practices apply just as easily to non-remote interns, but they’re especially important in establishing from afar that the intern is an important member of the team.

4. Look at Remote Work as an Opportunity

Traditionally, firms establish internship connections with local institutions, but this geographical constraint no longer exists! Firms can now evaluate university programs across the country (and beyond) and connect with whichever programs offer the best qualified and most abundant interns. Boston design firms can now tap into the power of West Coast design schools, just as Chicago tech firms can reach out to either coast, or even overseas, to find the right fit.

Our new remote dynamic is testing every aspect of the modern business environment, and internships are no exception. Given how much talent is needed, and how abundant talent is in the undergraduate ranks, canceling internships is the worst choice any business can make right now. It might be worth partnering with a professional internship organization if managing your own program is too bandwidth- or resource-intensive for your company. This has the added benefits of allowing the program to run year-round, and it helps you focus on the most viable candidates after they’ve been vetted, as opposed to venturing into the mass audience of job fair recruiting (which is much less reliable in a remote world).

Being deliberate, Agile, and creative about internships right now will pay dividends to those organizations willing to tackle the challenge head-on.

Steve Cooper is CEO of NextUp Solutions, which operates the Exelaration  internship program.

By Steve Cooper