How to Create a Successful Virtual Internship Program

Due to the pandemic, Intel replaced its traditional internship program with a virtual one for 5,700 participants in 32 countries. It was highly successful. This article outlines the steps that Intel took, which other companies can implement. They include listening intently to the participants in designing the program and continuously improving it long the ways, create virtual substitutes for normal physical interactions, and exploit the natural advantages of a virtual program.

The pandemic required companies across the globe to become nimble seemingly overnight to effectively safeguard the well-being of employees while keeping their business moving forward. At Intel, this included maintaining our strong track record of partnering with colleges and universities to offer students a highly valued internship program, despite the limitations on in-person work.

Internship programs have played a critical role at our company; they reflect our commitment to investing in developing future workers’ skills and are a vital component of our talent pipeline. When the pandemic threatened our ability to run our traditional program, we created a virtual internship program for undergraduate and graduate students across engineering, design, marketing, finance, and other business units at Intel. To our surprise, it rivaled, and even exceeded, what traditional internships had to offer, giving students the flexibility to work wherever was most convenient while enabling them to connect with peers, mentors, and executives across the globe.

By taking a step back to understand the key challenges of our work-from-home environment and listen to the needs of internal stakeholders, Intel worked quickly to design a virtual internship program for over 5,700 participants in 32 countries. Upon the summer program’s three-month completion, 98% of participants responded that they would recommend working at Intel to a friend or family member, resulting in our highest-ever U.S. Intern Glassdoor ranking, and nearly half of eligible interns made a commitment to join us for a full-time position upon their graduation. The positive response to our first virtual program has encouraged us to continue an online-only program through September 2021 as the world slowly returns to a state of normalcy.

While internship programs obviously vary enormously, the steps we took at Intel to maximize the value of our virtual initiative can serve as a guide for others looking to do the same.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Before beginning to recruit your new class of interns and plan out what the program will look like, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the sentiments among students seeking internships. Treat your interns and your internal stakeholders like customers and proactively seek to understand their wants and needs. Invest in third-party research and services to gather additional information and use the insights to shape your program.

Accordingly, before beginning to design the structure of our new program, we solicited the input of existing interns that would be transitioning to the virtual program via regular touchpoints and formal, anonymous surveys. Unsurprisingly, we found that students were accepting of a virtual experience but still had a strong desire for the networking opportunities that typically only come from traditional internship programs. We also looked to online MBA programs where digital was the norm before the pandemic and worked to incorporate the things they did most successfully. This included ensuring students had a designated cohort upon entering the program and allowing them to showcase for fellow interns the projects they worked on.

We also strove to refine the program while it was going on. We conducted surveys following activities and events, as well as at the end of the program, and personally conferred with the stakeholders on a regular basis to understand their sentiments towards the program. As a result of these conversations, we learned that the interns particularly enjoyed networking activities and working alongside other interns and employees on challenging projects. However, they tended to dislike large group meetings that didn’t leave room for collaboration. In response, we reconsidered our approach to holding group meetings for all the interns and prioritized smaller virtual gatherings that allow for more engagement.

Create Substitutes for Natural In-Person Engagement

Beyond planning to ensure your stakeholders receive the utmost value from your program, you must also structure your virtual internship so that it makes possible experiences or interactions that would occur naturally in office settings. For example, college-aged students are often new to working in a professional environment. Removing the in-person experience makes it difficult for them to adapt and understand the basics by observing others. Consequently, it’s critical for virtual internships to conduct an extensive training session in the beginning of the program to make introductions among the interns and their managers, provide an overview of the program, share best practices for remote work, and set expectations.

In a remote work setting, it’s especially important to create an interactive environment that encourages teamwork among the interns and their managers, despite the physical barriers. Ensure that each intern has a designated full-time employee to guide him or her through the program and provide virtual touchpoints to discuss the intern’s workload as well as their professional development and goals. In addition to doing that, we divided cohorts of interns into small peer groups, creating a greater sense of camaraderie and support, and some departments at Intel adopted an intern buddy system that paired two participants together.

As a substitute for in-office “water cooler” conversations, we created a monthly speed networking activity, which allowed interns to reserve 15-minute sessions to meet with other interns and employees. We also gave interns opportunities to spend an hour with full-time employees for coffee and coaching on a more formal basis. Through this process, we enlisted 150 employees — from new college graduates to senior directors across nearly every business unit at Intel — to submit their bios for interns to review and choose which representative they’d like to chat with. This gave interns the ability to connect with employees based on how their background and work at Intel resonated with their own personal interests and professional goals.

We also tried to expose interns to the extracurricular side of our office culture. For example, Intel encouraged its interns to start their own clubs and provided funding to help facilitate this. To support one club dedicated to comic book aficionados, Intel invited comic book writers to do talks with members virtually, offered participants a comic book magazine subscription, and funded club lunches. Intel also offered interns opportunities to volunteer virtually with non-profit organizations. Through one initiative with the Red Cross, interns were enlisted to help map remote areas in third-world countries to improve responses to disasters.

Exploit the Advantages of Virtual

There are some opportunities that only the digital setting makes possible. To promote interactions among interns and boost their productivity, companies can gamify tasks and activities with incentives for participation, leveraging tools like social media. For instance, Intel developed the Intel Passport Program, which allowed participants to earn badges and rewards, including a coveted virtual lunch with our CEO, for completing specific activities such as authoring a blog for Intel to distribute or sharing a social post about Intel technology.

The virtual setting also offers ways to bolster diversity and inclusivity by removing the geographic or accessibility limitations of the physical world. While Intel’s vast program has historically included a broad and diverse set of interns, the virtual experience allowed us to group together participants from different walks of life to enrich their collective experience.

Separately, given that the pandemic greatly reduced the amount of executive travel, our leaders were more available to interact with interns, resulting in one of the most positive elements of our virtual program. We invited executives from across the company to speak with interns via live online Q&A’s and other virtual events, providing interns with more access to high-level leaders than in previous years while giving them valuable insights into the company’s strategy and priorities.

By thoughtfully designing and executing a program that addressed the needs of all stakeholders, we were able to create a highly successful internship program. With adequate preparation, a continuous improvement-focused approach, and an enterprise-wide commitment to the success of the program, other companies can too.

Sandra Rivera is the chief people officer and an executive vice president at Intel, where she leads the HR organization.
By external content
external content external content