Virtual Internships Step 5 - Designing The Internship: Projects & Work

Virtual Internships Step 5 - Designing The Internship: Projects & Work

The focus in this step is on planning the work to be undertaken by the intern during the programme. We identified two broad types of project work which interns undertook. General projects as part of a team or unit and internship programme specific projects. Interns also self-selected to be involved in projects such as CSR or social club activities which provided another way of showcasing their competence and fit with the organisation.

Daily Tasks & Work-Related Projects

Given that a key objective for most organisations was to build a talent pipeline, ensuring interns had experience in the core job or area was a key priority. A number of our interviewees felt that interns possibly got better and deeper experience of work owing to the virtual format. This was in part owing to a rebalancing of the social versus work related nature of the experience. 

For one technology company core work experience was described as the key priority of the intern experience.

“So almost entirely the focus of an internship is getting experience in the core job. So they will almost, in many ways, operate like a full-time employee and then have some of these, yeah, intern social activities and things on the side. But that’s quite a small percentage. So much of their time is really invested in doing the work, getting experience of what it would be like to work in this job full-time in this company. So in that sense, the sort of extracurricular, if you will, offered by the intern programme is, I would say, quite in the minority to the number of hours they're actually going to spend working in the company. Most of the time it is head down, kind of doing the day to day.”


The type of work undertaken was relatively well defined in many organisations. For example, in a number of professional services firms, programmes were specific to areas, such as audit, and the nature of work was relatively clear. However, in intern programmes that spanned the organisation more generally, the importance of selecting appropriate work-related projects was highlighted. The key was to identify projects which offered interns the opportunity to maximise the opportunities for learning. This was noted by a number of interviewees. 

Some were more selective in project selection than they had been in the past in the context of the virtual environment. This was to ensure that projects translated well to the virtual environment and maximised opportunity for leaning. Central to selecting projects for interns to work on was ensuring the project manager was willing to include and support the interns’ engagement on the project.

One interesting initiative in a technology company involved the use of communities of practice (CoP) as a means of structuring work projects. CoP’s are an agile methodology and an approach to work design for team projects that originated in software design. The box below provides some detail on this programme.




Communities of Practice

One technology company recognised the challenge of providing interns with the one-to-one support and experience provided in traditional programmes. They introduced a CoP model to structure work tasks for interns. The CoP framework aims to creates more intimate community groups with shared goals. Each community comprises “pods” of two to four people with a specific project focus. Each community was led by a senior facilitator/project manager. An executive sponsor met with the team to review objectives. A number of pods also had coaches who acted as informal mentors. These coaches were typically recent graduates. Pods operated via periodic video meetings followed by intensive work sprints. There was a sense that these CoPs were effective in building commitment to the projects at hand and also to building community within the teams.

Intern Specific Project

Organisations with larger cohorts on their programmes generally created intern specific projects to be completed over the course of the programme. These projects provided interns with the opportunity to work on projects with their peer interns, outside of day-to-day roles, to learn more about the organisation, display their creativity and innovation and to gain exposure to senior leaders when the final results were presented. Thus, for organisations these projects served not only to build a network and connections amongst the intern groups, but also to bring innovative and creative ideas to business challenges.

These projects tended to span a significant proportion of the duration of the programme. Thus, it was important that the challenge was substantial enough to challenge interns and keep them engaged over the course of the project. Additionally, it was important to schedule regular time for interns to connect to work on their project. Almost all organisations set aside some time on a weekly basis. Presenting the outcomes to senior leadership, and in some instances to other intern groups too, greatly contributed to the status of these projects. 




Intern Project Work

One professional services firm designed an intern project around an audit proposal for prospective clients. It had a strong teambuilding element and brought intern teams together every Friday evening to work through the project. Interns particularly valued this opportunity to connect with other interns. The project built social relationships but also gave interns a good insight into the pitching process. They were provided with input from project sponsors and mentors along the way to help them refine their ideas. The project culminated in a pitch to partners who awarded some prizes to the best pitch. The overall quality of pitches was judged to be very high.

In the context of the virtual environment some organisations experimented with new variations on these intern projects. These included hackathons and Dragon’s Den initiatives.


Intern Self-Selected Projects & Engaging in CSR & Social Club Projects

A number of organisations encouraged interns to be forthcoming if they identified any project happening in the organisation which they saw as something they would like to get involved in. Intern programmes managers generally felt that supporting interns in engaging in self-selected projects helped them engage in work that interested them, broadened their social network, and ensured they enjoyed the internship experience, and thus their time with the organisation. This ultimately helped foster a positive image of the organisation as a place to work.

Similarly, a number of organisations encouraged interns to engage in CSR projects and social club activities as a means to broaden their networks, have fun, showcase their competencies, and showcase elements of the organisational culture that was important. Showcasing that having fun together was important, that supporting certain causes or charities was closely aligned to organisational values in many organisations and was another means of showcasing organisational culture.

All in all, the nature of work allocated was key to the intern’s experience of work. Thus, designing and allocating meaningful work should be a core priority for intern programmes. 





  1. Identify appropriate projects for interns to work on during the programme
    1. Ensure the projects are appropriate for a virtual context.
    2. Ensure the projects are appropriate for the level of experience of the intern.
    3. Consider alternative structures such as communities of practice to build commitment and community.
  2. Develop intern specific projects which span the course of the programme
    1. Choose business problems to open the possibility of innovative solutions.
    2. Ensure they are substantive to keep interns engaged.
    3. Create space in the workweek for teams to come together.
    4. Provide formative feedback along the way.
    5. Identify a project sponsor
    6. Conclude with a presentation to senior leaders to build profile, provide exposure for participants and transfer knowledge from the interns to the organisation.
  3. Identify initial daily tasks to provide structure for the intern in early days. The level of direction can reduce as the intern gains more experience.
  4. Encourage interns to communicate to their line manager or mentor if they identify additional activities they wish to get involved in.
  5. Encourage interns to get involved in CSR or social club projects and/or include such projects in the list of projects they engage in during their programme.