This is what internships look like in a remote world

This year, it kicked off with a virtual dance party.

The rest of the day, the interns got to know one another by participating in team-building activities, playing MassMutual trivia, listening to speakers, and learning about the company’s communication tools. They also met with their manager and other team members.

But there was no tour of the office and having to remember the location of your new desk, no handshakes and no first-day lunch outings. Everything was all done online.

Welcome to life as an intern during a pandemic.

Many companies had to quickly shift gears on their summer internship programs when their employees started working remotely earlier this year. Some companies scrapped their programs altogether, but others got creative.

“This year, due to the speed of creating the internship opportunity in a virtual format, we are doing something we have never done before,” said Sharyn Jones, head of talent at MassMutual.

One big change for interns is that many programs will be shorter. MassMutual’s program is nine weeks this year instead of the usual 11. The program at PepsiCo runs six weeks this summer, down from 10 weeks.

But in those shorter runs, companies are trying to provide the same vital experiences that make an internship worthwhile — just in a different way.

On-the-job experience and networking

While in-person meetings and social events are off the table, many companies are finding alternative ways to retain the mentoring and real-life problem solving that is at the core of good internship programs.

At PepsiCo (PEP), for example, its 978 summer interns have been given assignments aimed at building their leadership skills and learning more about different aspects of the business, depending on their role. The interns are also divided into teams to work on projects, and assigned a coach to assist them.

All the interns get a virtual tour of the company’s stores, plants and distribution centers. And PepsiCo’s top leadership, including its CEO, participate in live Q&A sessions with them.

The intern pool is an important pipeline for PepsiCo, said Blair Bennett, its senior vice president of talent acquisition.

“A core guiding principle of pulling together the virtual internship program is that we would be able to give our business and our managers enough interaction with the interns where they make that connection and give that assessment of the intern and vice versa,” Bennett said.

That access to top executives has turned out to be one of the advantages to doing an internship virtually.

At Dell Technologies (DELL), many senior executives, including founder and CEO Michael Dell, are primarily based in the US, explained Jennifer Newbill, director of university recruitment.
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“Typically, the US interns are privileged from the point they get to have access or visibility to those executives — [they] physically get in front of those interns in the US and have a session with them,” she said. “Now that we are all virtual and everything is on Zoom, we’re able to have executive presentations as well as professional development, skill building, all of that is available and consistent globally.”

Dell intern Jordan McElroy has been taking full advantage of this increased access.

“We have more exposure to upper level VPs and senior VPs that I probably wouldn’t have in the office,” said the senior at Hanover College in Indiana. “I am sure they would have been traveling and busy, but now they are sitting in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables and I get to sit down and speak with a lot of those people as well and really learn about their careers.”

Social experiences and mentoring

The social aspects of an internship are an important part of the experience: Team lunches and happy hours, forging friendships with other interns and finding mentors to become lifelong career coaches.

But all of this can still happen virtually.

Teams can order food in on the same day and eat together, interns hold daily Zoom calls to check in with one another and, perhaps most importantly, have virtual progress reports and feedback meetings with their managers and mentors.

When everyone is working remotely, communication can be a challenge even for seasoned employees, so many companies have taken added steps to make sure interns feel supported and know where to go for help.

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MassMutual interns are assigned a manager, an intern coordinator and a buddy to help navigate their journey. Without things like lunch, walks around campus and being able to peek over a cubicle wall to ask a question, the company has sought to be more intentional with communication.

“This summer we gave both the buddy and the intern coordinator much more accountability in terms of involvement and frequency of contact to ensure our interns feel included and integrate seamlessly into what has definitely been anything from a normal time for any of us,” said Jones.

The company had Zoom sessions for managers to review intern responsibilities and expectations and also provided tips on managing remotely.

At Dell, some of the interns meet with each other daily. Sometimes teams would order lunch and eat together remotely.

“I feel like they could be my best friends in real life,” McElroy said of her relationship with the other interns. “I hope I get to meet them someday. We have gotten really close. We try to Zoom at least 30 minutes every day just to fill each other in on what we accomplished the prior day and what we need to tackle that day.”

Dell also works with members of its employee resource groups to find mentors for interns.

“This year it kind of blew up,” said Newbill. “We had more people volunteer to be a mentor than we had interns.”

The perks

To help maintain some of the perks of in-person programs, companies still provide food and entertainment to interns — they just do so remotely.

PepsiCo’s interns received a gift box of company products before the program started, as well as a beach towel during the program.

The company also created a five-part podcast series to prepare interns ahead of their first day. Topics included background about the company, advice from previous interns and how to work from home effectively.

There have also been TikTok competitions and the company will host a celebrity sports panel for all interns later in July.

A group of interns at Dell were sent painting kits to paint together virtually. There was also a recent bake-off challenge and an intern talent show.

“We want it to be an experience where they learn, but they build their network, they build skills and most importantly, they have fun,” said Newbill.

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