Benefits of Virtual Internships
From Traditional, To Virtual, To Hybrid
While many organisations approached the transition to virtual internships with a degree of caution about their ability to deliver an intern programme and experience that matched their expectations, on completing of the initial programme, many identified benefits that they would retain when they can return to traditional site-based programmes, or more likely as they transition to hybrid programmes in the future. Those organisations that felt best prepared for the transition to virtual already had a good degree of flexibility in their work practices, with employees regularly working from home prior to the pandemic. Additionally, some organisations reflected on the value of prior investment in technological platforms which also facilitated the shift.
In reflecting on the future of internships in one large technology company, the intern programme manager noted:
I know as the manager of the intern programme in this region [EMEA], we are now going to move to a hybrid model in 2022 where our interns will be able to avail of the same, as they always do, the same opportunities as full-time employees. So, if we’re saying, “Full-time employees only need to be in the office X number of days a week,” well then, that would be the same for interns…So pre-pandemic, the interns were five days a week in the office. In the pandemic, they are five days a week virtual and post-pandemic, they are going to be in this hybrid model of: you’ll be in the office some days but you’ll also be at home some days…So hybrid, I think, is the right way to think about post-pandemic and that is then going to create that unique situation again of, “Well, how does that impact an internship and what does that look like?” because we will have to balance local focus.
A key benefit of virtual internships reported by a number of respondents in our research was increased diversity in applicants. The virtual format highlighted the advantage that applicants in cities where offices, or sites were located enjoyed in traditional intern programmes. In traditional formats local candidates benefited in terms of being able to live at home and shorter commutes. There was a definite sense that the virtual format levelled the playing field for applicants who lived farther from offices/sites and hence offered the potential for a more diverse talent pool.
In larger organisations there was a real sense that the virtual format created many more opportunities for collaboration across sites/offices and even across national boundaries. Traditionally, this collaboration was limited to stages such as induction. For example, one organisation reported that traditionally they took interns on an overnight stay to a hotel near another site as part of their induction programme. However, cross-site and cross-national collaboration was reported to be the norm in the virtual format in many firms. Engaging with other interns across sites was perceived to further increase networks, to broader interns’ perspectives and increase their awareness of cross-cultural considerations. A number of organisations increasingly organised their programmes, or at least elements of them, at regional level to capture these benefits. As noted by one interviewee in a technology company.
The fantastic thing, the number one thing that we are so excited about with the move to virtual is this creation of “You’re an intern in the region” and everyone is getting the same experience. Everyone is being treated the same because everything is online. So, whether we are doing a speaker series with a senior leader in the company or we’re doing a magic show just to have some fun and be social, you’re getting the same experience whether you’re one of many people based in Ireland who’s interning at [company] or you’re that one or two people in a country in Africa that’s interning. You know what I mean?
There seemed little doubt that the shift to virtual also increased exposure and access to senior leaders for interns. One specific example of this was around senior leaders’ contribution to induction programmes. Traditionally, only those interns at head office locations had the opportunity to engage with the most senior organisation leaders. In the virtual format, induction programmes often involved live sessions with CEOs and other senior leaders. In one organisation, these sessions were structured to ensure an opportunity for a question to be asked from each location to build engagement. Similarly, virtual coffee and other networking sessions throughout programmes often had greater involvement from local leaders. This was possible as they were travelling less and could commit to the sessions. In one professional services firm one of the mentors interviewed noted that there would be weeks where he would not engage with a partner, yet the interns engaged with partners on a weekly basis through these coffee sessions.
A number of interviewees felt that the virtual format actually improved the level and depth of experience which the interns gained. This was in part owing to the rebalancing of the social and work-related element of the programme, although all acknowledged the importance of the social. The fact that interns could focus better on tasks and projects owing to fewer distractions was also raised by interviewees. Reflecting on the experience at the end of the programme, a number of interviewees noted that virtual internships actually built capabilities that were increasing valuable for the emerging workplace. Virtual internship allowed participants to hone skills and improve digital literacy & professionalism, telecommunication, and time management skills. Further, a virtual internship requires self-discipline, independence, and the ability to take initiative.
Increased diversity of applicants owing to lack of geographic and other barriers.
Increased opportunity for collaboration across sites and countries.
- Build wider networks,
- Broadened interns’ perspectives and frame of reference
- Increased awareness of cross-cultural considerations
Increase access to senior leaders for interns.
Development of capabilities which are likely to be more valuable in the emerging work context.