Challenges of Virtual Internships - Enabling Relationships & Building Networks

Challenges of Virtual Internships - Enabling Relationships & Building Networks

Unsurprisingly, one of the key challenges identified in transitioning to virtual internships pertained to opportunities for interns to build relationships with members of the organisation and thus their social network. Some interviewees feared that social relationships “can’t be replicated” and that this was something widely identified as a challenge in the move to virtual programmes.

Specific challenges encountered included the challenge of fewer opportunities to “fall into dialogue” around water coolers or coffee docks and the lack of random social encounters on corridors, at desks or canteens. Those short conversations prior to or post meetings were also missed. There was recognition that without intervention this could result in interns feeling isolated or disconnected from the organisation owing to the lack of opportunities to bond and to connect with individuals and the organisation. This translated into concerns that not experiencing the “social” work environment would limit interns’ opportunity to truly see and feel organisational culture (we return to this below).  As noted by one interviewee:

“I think there's some parts you just can't do virtually…It’s just not the same and so I think the physical element of social interaction can't be replicated and they also thought that it was probably too much “work only” conversation…There's a way that happens in the physical world that doesn't happen in the virtual world where you can kind of break into work seamlessly...Whereas I used to always wander up to meeting rooms early by their nature and you will always find one or two people there and you can have a bit of a longer chat or you can stay afterwards…So I think the social element, I would say, we really have to kind of crack yet”.


Few organisations felt they had solved this challenge, but some strategies to build social relationships in intern programmes were identified. A key overarching theme in these strategies was the importance of deliberate intervention compared to a reliance on chance encounters in more traditional programmes.

The following quote captures this challenge well.

“[In the traditional format] you could roll four to six people into the management floor on the 1st of June in a physical way and [the] organisation will look after them…And you could turn back up on the tenth week and say, “How did you get on?” and they would go, “We had a pretty good experience. All these people…looked after me.” So I think it's more from my perspective, the type of role somebody would have to play [now] is more hands-on because the company won't be able to look after them in the same way . I think that's the difference for me.”


Creating Connection

Induction programmes play a key role in socialisation of new interns. Many organisations traditionally had relatively intensive bootcamps, or induction programmes that brought cohorts through a combination of icebreakers, training sessions and social events to build initial social connections. Reimagining such programmes for a virtual environment was thus a key challenge (see also step 3). As part of induction, a number of organisations formalised networking opportunities for interns. One organisation included specific guidance as part of their induction manual around how, whom and when to connect with over the course of the programme. Others went further and pre-populated interns’ calendars with pre-arranged meetings with key contacts including managers, mentors, HR, and members of the work team.

The most common approach to socialisation was creating opportunities to connect through regular coffee mornings or the like. Many of the managers and mentors we spoke to mentioned that these coffee mornings offered opportunities for interns to connect across the organisation, including having more access to senior leaders than would be the case for other employees. In some instances, these sessions were akin to speed networking sessions where interns spent time with a mix of people across the organisation. We also saw examples where managers tried to replicate more informal communication. For example, in one organisation managers called interns on a more unplanned and ad-hoc basis and encouraged them to do likewise- the equivalent of dropping by someone’s desk in the office- to try to replicate more informal communication. In another, line managers suggested to interns that they go for a walk at the time of their one-to-one calls, and they did likewise, so that the calls had a more informal feel. 

The centrality of line managers to building social connections for interns was very clear. Selecting line managers with excellent interpersonal and communication skills and the capability to build networks was identified as critical. There was a widely shared view that “virtual interns needed a lot more hand-holding” and of the value of a manager who could integrate them and broker networks. The virtual format required a much more structured approach to socialisation. This often began before the official start of the programme with a phone call to check-in with incoming interns. Scheduling frequent check-ins during the programme and being aware of the importance of their role as a network broker for the intern were key tactics. Additionally, being deliberate about identifying appropriate departmental and cross-departmental project teams and opportunities for the interns was also key. 

Similarly, peer- mentors provided a key linking pin in building networks within the organisation. A number of organisations emphasised selecting mentors who were similar in age, who were recently recruited graduates, or who had recently completed an internship programme as key to building relationships. This provided new interns with someone more similar to engage with and whose memory of being a newcomer was still fresh.



Selecting Mentors

Mentoring programmes did not have to be overly elaborate. In selecting mentors in one technology company, the internship coordinator identified early career employees whom she had seen demonstrate leadership qualities. They were approached to be mentors based on these competencies and their closeness in age to the interns. The mentoring programme was not highly structured. Rather, mentors were encouraged to check in regularly with interns over the course of the programme and to offer a sounding board for questions. They were also encouraged to help the interns build a network within the organisation by making connections with colleagues across the organisation. This proved to be a very successful approach for all concerned.

Unsurprisingly, social events also played an important role in building social networks, especially within the intern cohort. These social events provided opportunities for fun, informal conversations, and a chance to get to know people better. Examples of initiatives included zoom quizzes, escape rooms, cookery demonstrations and the like. The importance of providing a range of different events to meet the wide-ranging interests of interns was recognised. Interestingly, intern-led social networking events were perceived to be even more successful than the organisationally led, formally scheduled social activity in some organisations. In many ways these replicated the informal traditions of intern programmes such as nights out. Some organisations spoke of identifying the more extrovert, sociable interns and enabling them to initiate engagement in online meetings or in running activities, such that these interns brought the other more reserved or less socially confident interns along with them.

Supplementing our findings, we identify a number of insights from academic research on social capital and social relationships in organisations which can aid in socialisation of interns. This research points to the importance of social, network, structural and relational strategies. Appendix XX summarises the key evidence which can inform practice.



Enabling relationships & building networks

  1. Match socialisation strategies to the internship programme priorities e.g. learning, job performance, helping the intern fit in, gaining the interns commitment to the organisation.
    • For learning: Build relationships across departments and levels in the hierarchy
    • For job performance: Build relationships within the department/unit to colleagues who can help with work tasks.
    • To build commitment to the organisation and help them fit in: Provide opportunity and space for informal socialisation and fun to develop friendships.
    • Include interns in project teams which facilitate relevant network building for each priority.
  2. Develop trust early during onboarding through:
    • Focus on teambuilding and team relationships rather than work tasks.
    • Encourage interns to share information about their competencies and to learn about others’ competencies.
    • Provide tasks which allow interns to demonstrate and to view others’ willingness to do good for each other
    • Provide opportunities to informally engage in conversations about personal activities, to actively participate in online discussions, to cooperate with others.
  3. Train interns for virtual communication
    • Share norms around e.g. etiquette, cooperation, conflict management, frequency of communication and preferred technology
  4. Choose line managers based on commitment to the programme and experience of developing their teams.
  5. Assign mentors based on similarity to the intern such as attributes, values, beliefs, educational background & functional area. Mentors should be able to focus on supporting the intern rather than work allocation.
  6. Create networking opportunities
    • Create opportunities for interns to engage with colleagues across the organisation.
      • Examples include regular coffee mornings, huddles, or other scheduled events.
    • Create or encourage intern only and intern-led networking opportunities.
      • These can be more informal such as zoom quizzes, escape rooms, cookery demonstrations.
    • Consider developing an initial formal schedule of meetings to help build the intern’s network.
  7. Review the intern’s work and workplace experience and consider how to provide adequate and appropriate autonomy, resources, people, and organisational support.


Research Insights Download