In the wake of COVID-19, organizations around the world quickly made changes to how they got work done, including managing summer internships. For many organizations, that meant creating remote internship programs in 2020 that will stay in place through summer 2021. There is also an opportunity for these programs to exist beyond the global pandemic because of the unique ability to connect with students across geographies and expand the pool of potential candidates.

To help organizations think through the process of creating a successful remote internship program, HBS Career & Professional Development has gathered best practices from companies who crafted remote internships for the first time in 2020, and those who have managed virtual teams for years. Using these strategies and tools will help set your company up for an effective summer internship experience that benefits your organization and the student interns.

Start with Clear Communication

Clear communication is essential as companies work to ensure all of their stakeholders are well informed about plans for the future, even if those plans are evolving in a rapidly changing situation. When a virtual internship becomes a part of those plans, making sure students know what to expect and when is critical.

Molly DeCastro, Assistant Director, Recruiting Operations with HBS Career and Professional Development, witnessed some of the earliest moves to remote internships in 2020. Google is one example of a company that made the move to remote and will continue that plan in 2021. “What Google did especially well when rolling out a remote internship program (in lieu of their in-person program in 2020) was make a decision early and then clearly communicate that decision to students as soon as possible,” said DeCastro.

Clear and decisive action coupled with direct communication with students is beneficial even if the details of the remote, virtual, or hybrid internship are not finalized. What we saw in 2020 was that students were concerned about internships being cancelled, and as we remain in an uncertain economic environment taking action now to move an internship virtual goes a long way in establishing trust and confidence in the organization’s future. Furthermore, by deciding now and making this decision known to incoming interns, your organization will have more time to craft an internship experience that will be just as effective virtually as in person.

Designing the Virtual Internship

To design an effective virtual internship, look to what has been successful for in-person internships at your company and others. Kristen Fitzpatrick (HBS 2003), Managing Director of Career & Professional Development, has noted the common threads among great internship experiences. “Successful internships benefit both organizations and students by providing a chance for someone with fresh eyes to take a look at how things are done, and allowing students to bring their previous experience to bear in a new situation. Students with particularly positive experiences often remark that they felt integrated into the work of the team and that people in the organization cared about what they were working on.”

To replicate this integration, consider how you can create an online structure of support, mentorship, and ongoing education. The checkpoints Fitzpatrick often suggests, including regular 1:1s with a supervisor, a mid-summer check-in with leadership, and an end-of-summer presentation, can be completed using video conferencing with day-to-day work completed using chat, project management tools, and email. Not only will these pre-determined check-ins give your intern set milestones to work towards, but they will also allow interns to get to know team members and leadership from afar.

Darren Murph, Head of Remote for GitLab, also stresses the importance of choosing the appropriate projects for remote interns. “It's important to select projects which are important or notable to a large group. This ensures that many people in the organization are invested in the intern's success, and it widens the scope of available mentors who are knowledgeable about the project and can step in and help across time zones.”

You can also consider a rotational internship that will give students insight into various aspects of your business while not being on-site with your team. Keirsten Sires, remote internship consultant and founder and CEO of LRT Sports, has utilized this model for five years in the company’s remote 10-week rotational internship. Students go through five rotations with weekly assigned projects reviewed by mentors. The final rotation allows interns to choose the business area they are most excited about to complete a final project. She also stressed the need to be flexible within your structure. “Our internship looks wildly different from when we first started. You need to be dynamic with this process and get feedback. Then if something isn’t working, don’t try to force it.”

Onboarding Remotely

A remote onboarding experience for your interns won’t be filled with handshakes around the office and a team lunch. However, you can effectively onboard your interns and ensure they feel integrated from day one with effective processes and ongoing support.

For example, all employees at GitLab have been remote for many years and so they have developed an onboarding process that includes an onboarding buddy, specific task checklists, and a comprehensive company handbook. The 5,000-page online handbook is constantly updated as employees find gaps, new tools, or more efficient ways of getting work done. It is not meant to be read cover to cover, but to act as a resource guide for questions. For their internship program specifically, Murph recommends onboarding with check-ins at a regular cadence, up to several times a day in the ramp-up period, to replicate an in-person experience. You can also set up an “always-on” video meeting room to encourage questions and interaction.

At LRT Sports, Sires has established an onboarding process that focuses heavily on making sure interns have ample opportunities to learn about the company through access to resources and social media before their start date. Then two weeks into the internship, each intern pitches the company back to their manager to ensure they are up to speed. Education is also ongoing throughout the internship program including video lessons and articles provided via Slack channels.

Managing a Virtual Team

Technology has made remote work easier today than it ever has been and there are numerous tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Basecamp, and Google Drive that help teams collaborate. However, there have been remote teams for decades in various industries and much of what makes these organizations successful is effective management rooted in support and trust. These practices apply to managing successful summer internships as well.

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team, a software company that helps managers become better leaders, has led her all-remote company for 7 years and provides tools and resources for other organizations to do the same. The advice she shares regarding managing virtual teams centers on setting clear expectations about what success looks like coupled with systems to track progress. By setting the groundwork early on with all employees, and especially new interns, you can avoid micromanaging projects and instead create a culture of trust and give the team the time and space to do impactful work.

It’s also important to set clear expectations around communication. If your team has a default mode of communication, make sure interns are well informed about what channels to use and when. How quickly are interns expected to respond to messages? What belongs in chat and what is best for email or a video conference meeting? In a recent Know Your Team webinar, Lew shared examples of companies who do an excellent job setting communication expectations including Automattic, Buffer, and Basecamp.

Lew, along with Murph at GitLab, also recommends implementing a practice of asynchronous writing instead of relying entirely on video conference meetings. Kicking off brainstorming sessions in writing or posting questions on shared documents allows team members, including interns, time to think and then be less reactive and make decisions more thoughtfully. As you integrate remote interns into your team for the summer, asynchronous writing also allows for collaboration across time zones and provides written documentation of how interns have made impactful contributions.

Finding What Works for You

As you move forward with managing your virtual interns this summer, evaluate what worked in 2020 and what you can improve in 2021. Consider what opportunities may be available for small group in-person experiences or how an all-virtual program will allow you to attract new candidates.

While many challenges remain in 2021, the opportunities we have all uncovered in 2020 can be brought into this new year and allow organizations and students to succeed in new ways. Find what works for you and your team and embrace a year of creativity, innovation, and new ways of accomplishing your goals.

If you would like further resources on virtual work and onboarding, reference remote management best practices and thought leadership from Harvard Business School faculty.

The New Rules for Remote Work: Pandemic Edition

How the Coronavirus is Already Rewriting the Future of Business

15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered

How Remote Work Changes How We Think About Onboarding