There is perhaps no greater sign of zeitgeist status than being awarded a national day of commemoration. There’s National Avocado Day (July 31), National Bubble Wrap Day (January 25), and even a National Day of Unplugging (March 6). The fact that interns now have their own dedicated holiday—National Intern Day on July 29—is just one sign that the internship has gone mainstream.
Though the concept of the internship has existed in some way, shape, or form since the trade-based apprenticeships of the 18th century, modern internships started emerging in the 1970s and ’80s. In 2020, the pandemic marked a new notch in the timeline of the evolution of these temporary work experiences—the shift to virtual settings.
According to Gallup, the percentage of work-from-home employees doubled, from 31 percent to 62 percent, in just three weeks in March 2020 in the U.S. Though those numbers have fluctuated as the pandemic has stretched on, experts expect that the global trend toward remote work will continue to accelerate moving forward.
For interns, this means that even after social distancing becomes a distant memory, some elements of the remote internship may be here to stay.
Taking the Internship Online
Although virtual internships aren’t a completely novel concept, this past summer saw a sharp rise in their popularity. The abrupt shift meant that HR departments had to fundamentally reimagine the intern experience.
Marie Moynihan, the senior vice president of global talent acquisition at Dell Technologies, says that the organization launched a new Communities of Practice (CoP) model—an agile methodology for teamwork used in software design—in order to successfully transition the company’s 2,000-plus interns online.
“We pivoted away from the traditional internship relationship of manager and team member when the pandemic happened,” says Moynihan, who notes that the percentage of Dell employees working remotely jumped from 25 percent to 90 percent during the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis. “We felt it would be too difficult to give interns that one-to-one attention.” Instead, CoP creates intimate community groups with shared goals. Each community encompasses a few different “pods” of two to four people that tackle specific projects.
“We pivoted away from the traditional internship relationship of manager and team member when the pandemic happened. We felt it would be too difficult to give interns that one-to-one attention…[we created] Communities of Practice as intimate community groups with shared goals. Each community encompasses a few different “pods” of two to four people that tackle specific projects.
–Marie Moynihan, senior vice president, global talent acquisition, Dell Technologies
On Dell’s engineering team, for instance, the original plan was to have about 150 interns working in a 1:1, intern-to-supervisor model. That turned into 40 project-based teams. Throughout the summer, intern pods went through technical demos, attended virtual career fairs, and participated in online learning and development curricula, in addition to completing assigned projects. They were led by a senior facilitator/project manager and given access to an executive sponsor, who met with team members virtually to review objectives. Some pods also had coaches—often recent graduates or newer employees—who acted as informal mentors.
Adrienne Foley, a member of Dell Technologies’ summer 2020 intern class who spent several months working on the Global Brand Campaign & Publishing team, was in a pod with two other interns. The group collaborated via periodic touch-base video meetings followed by heads-down work sprints.
As an MBA candidate, Foley found the opportunity to hone her teamwork skills particularly valuable. “Whoever matched us together did a great job in aligning us based on our personal and professional interests,” she says. “We were able to fill in pieces of information more effectively and leverage one another’s strengths.”
“Whoever matched us together did a great job in aligning us based on our personal and professional interests. We were able to fill in pieces of information more effectively and leverage one another’s strengths.”
-Adrienne Foley, MBA Candidate at Questrom School of Business, Boston University
Moynihan explains that working in this way provides a balance of both direction and autonomy. The sense of community makes interns feel invested in the work. “It shows that people can actually form close relationships online once they’re working on something of value that they have in common,” she says.
Creating Virtual Company Culture
In a university setting, students’ success is often measured by individual achievements—exam scores, GPA, and graduating with honors. The change to team-based performance is perhaps the biggest mentality shift that young professionals must make in the early days of their careers.
“You can’t really get anything done in a company unless you are able to work with others and build on their ideas,” says Moynihan. “That’s what we try to achieve out of an intern experience.” The CoP model, she adds, brings this focus to the fore. “A lot of interns really felt like, I’m not here to do an individual project—it’s what I can contribute and how our team can come up with the best possible outcomes.”
“A lot of interns really felt like, I’m not here to do an individual project—it’s what I can contribute and how our team can come up with the best possible outcomes.”
This approach, sometimes called “outcomes-based culture” or leadership, focuses on end results versus micromanagement. When working on a project, teams have a core directive—but they’re not given explicit blueprints on how to complete the work, and they have the freedom to decide how they’ll get across the finish line. Some experts believe that outcomes-based learning and development can improve organizational efficiency, as well as the quality of employees’ skills-building experiences.
The approach is a natural fit for remote work, as teams are able to arrange their schedule in a way that best suits their lifestyles. It’s not about being logged in 24/7—rather, the team is judged on the quality of the work they’re able to produce collectively, as well as how they meet deadlines.
Foley says that although she had some initial hesitations about a completely online experience, she ended the summer with all fears assuaged.
“At first, I was worried I would not be able to get an understanding of company culture,” she says. “But I think networking was actually enhanced by the remote environment. More employees were flexible with timing. Instead of coordinating a time and meeting spot, they could simply log online.” Foley adds that working remotely gave her access to employees and interns stationed all over the country—and even the world.
Moynihan substantiates the idea that virtual internships can make some elements of company culture—including interactions with executives—more accessible. During the summer, the company hosted a Q&A video conference with CEO Michael Dell. In previous years’ in-person iterations of this annual event, only employees able to travel to a physical venue had this type of access.
“This really created a feeling of being a global community,” Moynihan says. “Everyone is on a level playing field.”
Best Practices and Key Learnings
While Dell Technologies has had more than a decade of experience fine-tuning its remote work processes, Moynihan recognizes that not all companies are as fortunate. For those starting from scratch, she offers the following advice:
- Set realistic ground rules and expectations. Interns must know what’s expected of them, including the loose schedule they’re expected to adhere to. “This doesn’t mean they should feel like they have to be strapped to their desk all the time,” Moynihan says—but they should know when they’ll need to show up for calls and meet deadlines. Being clear about expectations and having a dedicated place where questions can be answered—manager office hours, for instance—helps keep communication running smoothly.
- Use video as much as possible. Having adequate technology to facilitate an internship program is a given—but so is utilizing that technology to its fullest extent. “We expect people to have their cameras on,” says Moynihan. “It creates deeper relationships.” It also helps lessen tension and break down barriers between team members. One of the benefits of working from home is that it humanizes colleagues by affording them glimpses into each other’s personal lives. No matter how smartly you’re dressed from the waist up, the professional veneer cracks when a cat wanders across the keyboard on a video call or a child asking for help with homework interrupts a presentation. “Remote work has forced a lot of leaders to be more authentic and natural and normal,” says Moynihan. “I think that’s a really positive thing.
- Provide resources. Whether it’s an ask-me-anything session with an executive or a resource group for minority team members, it’s important to offer safe spaces where interns feel comfortable asking questions and getting the lay of the land. “We have a number of employee resource groups—one for women in action, one around Latino connection, etc. We get those team members to buddy up with some of the interns if they are from an underrepresented group to help them get a feel for the environment from that perspective,” says Moynihan.
- Plan “just for fun” events. Encouraging interns to bond via non-work-related activities like virtual talent shows or voluntary video tours of home workspaces is another way to foster a sense of community among team members online. “We deliberately encourage people to take coffee time and sit around in a video chat as they might in a break room,” says Moynihan.
- Focus on outcomes, not micromanaging. Instead of monitoring if an intern submits a deliverable first thing in the morning or midnight before its due, managers and team members should concentrate on outcomes. “You can’t be watching whether someone is online [all day every day] or not,” suggests Moynihan. “You have to be comfortable to trust people; I honestly think that’s a big factor in making this work.”
So, does it work? According to the results of a survey of Dell’s 2020 intern class, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, 75 percent said they’d be happy to do a remote internship again, even in a post-COVID-19 world.
“When you’re remote—not to mention, new at a company—it can feel isolating at times. Being in a pod helped eliminate some of the disconnect and allowed us to form our own community,” Foley says. “When you start something new with others that are on the same playing field, it offers a level of comfort and confidence to tackle what lies ahead.”
“When you’re remote—not to mention, new at a company—it can feel isolating at times. Being in a pod helped eliminate some of the disconnect and allowed us to form our own community.”
The ultimate learning from this year, says Moynihan, is that people—and students, in particular—are incredibly adaptable. “COVID forced a huge experiment on all of us, but the experiment has largely worked,” she says. “Moving forward, a hybrid in-person and virtual work environment is the perfect scenario, really—it gives people choice and lets them have the best of both worlds.”