Virtual Internships Step 4 - The Role of Managers & Mentors
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.
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.