Challenges of Virtual Internships - Sharing business etiquette and organisational culture

Challenges of Virtual Internships - Sharing business etiquette and organisational culture

The third challenge which emerged consistently across the organisations was around sharing and showcasing business etiquette and especially organisational culture in a virtual environment. In this context, it is important to remember that for many interns their internship may be their first introduction to a professional environment, so sharing business etiquette was as important as organisational culture. Culture is core to guiding how things are done in organisations and is embedded in signs and symbols, shared practices and underlying assumptions which become taken for granted [1]. It is often captured in values and symbolised in, for example, open plan office layouts and workplace attire (ranging from formal to casual). It is reinforced through rituals such as water cooler chats or town hall meetings [2]. Clearly the shift to working from home and the transformation of workplaces to facilitate social distancing for those that are co-located, has made key signs and symbols of culture less visible and disrupted rituals which reinforced culture. As noted by one interviewee in the telecoms sector.


“Culture was a big thing in terms of a pain point where we felt the culture of [organisation] might not be seen by an intern, so it was more being siloed, being isolated. And what we had done in that process of benefits and pain points, we actually built out personas based on interns who had been here with us before in a physical presence and we had…Max and Molly, where Max, he was a real social character, really likes being around people. So we identified, “OK, what would make this internship great for him?” And then Molly prefers working on her own, likes quiet time, your classic kind of introvert. What would be a pain point for her as part of this programme and what would be a benefit? And that really actually helped us design something that would suit both their needs…One might like more of a lighter touch approach in terms of our regular communication and contact with them and the different activities that we're doing and the other might always want different workshops, always being on calls with people. So that actually did help us in terms of the design of the programme.”


The use of personas in this organisation was key in helping them design the induction and the wider program to ensure that participants felt that the organisation was “a place that you belong” and “a great place to start your career”.


A key means though which culture was shared was though senior leaders. Many of interviewees referenced the fact that the virtual context facilitated wider access to the most senior organisational leaders. A number of multinational organisations had global CEOs or CHROs join sessions in the induction programme. These sessions were also shared with intern programmes in other countries or regions, showcasing the global footprint of the organisations concerned.  The focus was often on introducing the history of the organisation and some of the stories that become core to organisational heritage. Building on these talks induction sessions often included specific sessions on the history of the organisation to build further understanding on this front.


Calling out key aspects of culture and organisational values was seen as a key step in making them visible [3]. A number of interviewees made the point that the best way to bring culture to life was through colleagues sharing their experience of working in the organisation. Many organisations chose previous interns or recent graduate hires to talk about their experience to ensure those stories resonated with interns. Speakers from key business units or support functions, such as HR or IT, provided insights into how the values impacted on their work. These speakers were prompted to frame their talks around what values and culture meant in practice and to bring culture to life by speaking on how they impacted on their decision making or work lives. These lived experiences of values and culture were a core early step in sharing culture in a virtual context.


In a number of organisations, the shift in culture for interns from an educational setting to an organisational setting was a key challenge. As noted by one interviewee, in university settings, students’ success is often based on individual achievements in exams or assessments. However, the shift in the organisational context is towards team-based activities. Similarly, some interns may be more comfortable sitting in the background, thus encouraging them to step forward and be visible was a key part of socialisation into the business context. Examples of how this was reflected included having cameras on in meetings or being willing to speak up in discussions. The following quote from a technology company is illustrative of this view.


“Getting [interns] to use their camera was another thing…a lot of them didn’t want to use their camera so trying to encourage them to use their camera and another big challenge that we had was that when they were in meetings or in training sessions, they didn’t speak…it’s trying to get that other culture across that we bring you in because you have ideas from college, you are looking at it from a fresh lens and we want to hear what you have to say. So that was another thing and I think as well that they are so used to being spoken to and not participating that this is a challenge and it’s a challenge with every intern that comes in, bar the one or two that are really out there and are not afraid to make mistakes. And that’s another part of the culture here is that you can ask questions. It doesn’t matter. You can keep asking questions"


Learning and development was also used as a means of reinforcing aspects of culture. In the example above, speaking up was highlighted as core to the organisational culture. This was reflected in values around asking questions and being curious. That organisation had a long-standing relationship with Toastmasters to help employees develop their confidence in speaking up.




Building A culture of questioning and curiosity

One technology company had a long-standing partnership with Toastmasters which was very much aligned with their culture of asking questions and being curious. While pre-COVID these meetings operated at a site level, the pandemic meant that all the groups in the Irish sites came together in one community. Interns were actively encouraged to join Toastmasters with an engagement rate of 60% reported. In addition to building their confidence in asking questions and being curious, interns also expanded their networks considerably through the programme. There was wide engagement with Toastmasters across the organisation including to senior VP level.

Another key area mentioned was the importance of line managers and mentors as role models and sounding boards. We saw one particularly innovative example of this in an insurance organisation, which was initiated by a line manager and was an example of a truly transformative experience for the intern involved. The line manager deliberately identified meetings with internal stakeholders and external partners that would provide exposure to key parts of the business to the intern. Following each meeting they found time for a debrief where the manager encouraged the intern to ask questions and probe to build a better understanding of business culture more broadly.


The final key element of culture which organisations emphasised was around the more informal and social aspect of their organisations. This varied to a degree by sector in terms of focus, but there was wide recognition that the social and fun aspect of internships was a core part of participants’ experience of the programmes and key to showcasing the culture of the organisations. In a number of organisations sports and social societies played a key role in organising social events which demonstrated the organisation culture. We saw a huge range of activities that fit under this banner. They ranged from zoom quizzes, to virtual escape rooms, to DJ sets, to online yoga classes but all had the objective of creating opportunities for fun and social interaction. 


Given the focus on culture, it is worth noting that how interns’ behaviours aligned with culture and values was a key criterion in making decisions around graduate offers in a number of the organisations. For example, one technology company asked managers as part of the final evaluation to rate students against culture. In the context of that organisation, this included questions such as Are they taking risks? Are they speaking up? Are they delivering also? Are they executing and delivering what they said they could deliver?


Overall, despite the challenges of replicating culture virtually, organisations demonstrated a number of innovative approaches to showcasing and sharing their culture.



Sharing Business and Organisational Culture

  1. Make culture visible by calling it out.
    • Use senior leaders to introduce the history and key aspects of culture.
    • Bring culture to life through employees sharing their experience of the organisation.
    • Call attention to and acknowledge aspects of culture on display in particular work situations and why they matter. For example
      • how colleagues engage with and behave towards each other.
      • how work gets done and what work is prioritised.
      • what non-work activities are emphasised and prioritised
  2. For many interns, business culture is new to them to. Help them understand business etiquette and how culture influences work.
  3. Develop learning opportunities tied to culture.
  4. Reinforce the importance of role modelling to line managers and mentors alike.
  5. Integrate feedback on behavioural alignment with culture in manager one-to-ones.
  6. Create opportunities for social activities that showcase culture.



[1] Meyerson, D. & Martin, J. 1987. Cultural change: An integration of three different views. Journal of Management Studies, 24, 623-647.

[2] Spicer, A. 2020. Organizational Culture and COVID-19. Journal of Management Studies. 57, pp. 1737-1740.

[3] Howard-Grenville, J. 2020. How to sustain your organization’s culture when everyone is remote. MIT Sloan Management Review.