Virtual Internships Step 4 - The Role of Managers & Mentors

Virtual Internships Step 4 - The Role of Managers & Mentors

For most intern programmes, the line manager is the key point of contact between the individual intern and the organisation. Hence, the line manager is a critical partner in the internship programme. In larger programmes the line manager’s role is supplemented by a mentor or buddy who is generally focused on the more informal aspects of supporting interns.

The Line Manager

While the line manager was always viewed as critical in the context of traditional internship programmes, there was a broad consensus that the importance of their role was amplified in the virtual context. The line manager’s role was increasingly structured and planned. Their role emphasised clarifying expectations, establishing goals linked to specific projects, monitoring performance, and providing feedback.  The competency requirements of interpersonal skills, communication, network brokering, and organization, became more significant as there was a sense that virtual interns require more planned attention or “handholding”. Line managers also acted as critical guides for interns as they navigated through their journey through the programme. They also provided a vital touchpoint for interns for discussions on workload and professional development.

We saw a greater emphasis on selecting managers for the virtual context. This involved selecting managers that would and had the capacity to give the interns the time and support they required. A number of interviewees referenced a significantly better intern experience when managers were more engaged and committed to the programme.

A number of organisations provided dedicated training and support to managers who signed up as line managers for internship programmes. These generally emphasised the unique characteristics of intern populations by comparison to more general employees that the manager would have experience with. This training was mandatory in some organisations. The following quote from the intern programme manager in a large technology company is illustrative of this focus:

“One thing we do is we do offer what we call host manager training which is mandatory for anyone that's going to host an intern at [company] to go through but again, it's sort of just a reminder to them of, “Yes, you're experienced managing full-time employees within the company so you're a very competent manager, but just a reminder of some of the things like, Hey, these are students. This is maybe for some of them their first work experience. You need to be more hands-on and be available for them in a way that maybe you wouldn't typically expect with a full-time employee.” But we are in no way … Yeah, how you manage an intern, it's not radically different to how you manage a full-time employee. But we just want to make sure that we have some face time with people that are going to host an intern, just to remind them of just some of the nuances of like, “Hey, this is a student. You know, some things to be mindful of,” I guess, that maybe they wouldn't be in terms of how they're used to managing full-time employees”


In other organisations we saw the development of toolkits to assist managers in supporting interns.




Manager's Toolkit

One telecoms company developed a manager toolkit to assist managers in managing their interns. This toolkit outlined the purpose of the programme, the programme outline in terms of the journey that interns would take and the role that the manager would play in that journey. The toolkit mapped the intern’s journey week by week on the programme. It provided specific guidance on how one-to-ones and feedback should be approached. It also highlighted the importance of goal setting. This helped the manager understand the expectations in terms of close support in early weeks and the development of more independence later in the programme.

The virtual environment created two key challenges for intern managers. The first related to the allocation of work. Work allocation required much clearer and task focused communications and direction than in the traditional internship format.  The virtual environment required much greater planning and deliberate allocation of work which may have happened more organically, or certainly in a less structured way in traditional programmes. Ensuring interns have clarity over what the expectations of them is likely to be central to their adjustment to the organisation and subsequent performance[1].

The second was the key role the manager played in helping interns build networks within and beyond their work teams. We noted above the real challenges which interns faced in building networks and indeed outlined some ideas for how such relationships can be built.



Most organisations also operated a more informal mentoring or buddy system to support interns on their journeys. These roles provided both practical and psychosocial support, and a listening ear. Previous interns, graduates, or project team members were often appointed as mentors and generally shared their experiences as previous newcomers to the company,  their insights on the culture and more informal aspects of organisational life. One mentor reflecting on their role noted:

“I encourage them to go to as many meetings as possible, certainly in the early weeks, I think is very important. So much business is done through meetings. I would help then to understand how they run and then I would talk about what was really happening. I think that's very interesting. I think a lot of it is about helping them and showing them how to get things done in the big stupid corporate kind of structures. I think that's an important learning that stands them in good stead. Having somebody explain what's really going on is one of the most useful things you can…You'll never get a chance for that to happen in real life. So why not have it happen when you're an intern?”


Mentors generally adopted a non-directive and developmental approach with a focus on providing opportunities for collaborative and egalitarian support for the intern. We saw an example of this developmental alliance in one pharmaceutical company, where the intern and buddy would meet regularly to share their respective learnings on the research projects they were working on. The mentor, who was on the graduate programme had found this useful during their internship and replicated the process acting as a sounding board for the current intern. 

While the mentor and line manager roles were generally separate, in organisations with smaller intern programmes, a single person sometimes occupied both roles. Generally, in these instances the line manager had proposed a specific project for the intern to work on and was thus heavily invested in the individual. In an insurance company, an intern was taken on as a virtual assistant to the head of research and innovation. As line manager he was given the responsibility for onboarding, managing, and mentoring the intern. That manager did not have a team of direct reports, but their role provided a great oversight of the entire organisation which proved an ideal opportunity for an intern. They proposed a role for an intern which provided support to them in the role and provided an excellent opportunity for the intern to really learn the business through a close relationship with the manager.



Line Managers

  1. Line manager selection is key. Identify line managers with strong interpersonal and communication and organisation skills and who have displayed competence in network building.
  2. Develop a line manager training module which
    1. Introduces the intern programme.
    2. Reinforces the intern characteristics in terms of limited business experience, transition from education etc.
    3. Outlines the line managers role.
    4. Highlights the importance of work allocation- including clear understanding of the intern’s role, expectations, goals and how they link to outcomes.
    5. Reinforces the need for line managers to connect the intern to others in the organisation
    6. Reinforces the importance of feedback and developing the intern’s confidence in performing in their role.
  3. Encourage the line manager to build the interns’ networks within the organisation.
  4. Develop a toolkit to support line manager engagement. (See appendix A)



  1. Select mentors based on previous internship or graduate programme experience.
  2. Ensure a focus on providing both practical and psychosocial support, and a listening ear.
  3. Emphasise the importance of building the intern’s network.
  4. Create a feedback loop to programme managers to share concerns or find out where to access resources for interns.
  5. Provide training for the mentor on mentoring role and skills.
  6. Develop a toolkit to support mentor engagement (See appendix B).


[1] Scott CPR, Dieguez TA, Deepak P, Gu S, Wildman JL, 2021. Onboarding during COVID-

  19, Organizational Dynamics, doi: