(Photo by Ziga Plahutar/iStock by Getty Images)

On the path from school to a career, internships are often pivotal experiences. They give students access to on-the-job experience, networking opportunities, and mentorships that can propel them into their future careers.

But what happens to internships during a global pandemic, when so many workplaces are closed? How can fresh talent get their feet in the door if that door is temporarily locked?

While hundreds of companies simply canceled their summer internships for the year, many others have made valiant attempts to shift programs online while keeping alive the integrity of a traditional internship. Moving to a virtual format can present challenges, but the situation has inspired companies to come up with creative workarounds. In a recent From Day One webinar focused on the future of internships, a panel of HR leaders said they have not only pivoted their internship programs, but enhanced them in some ways as well.

“We're really thinking through being intentional about the goals for our program and making sure that those experiences are as impactful in a virtual environment as they are in the in-person type of environment,” says Brooke Rice, senior director of workplace learning at NAF, a non-profit that brings educators and business leaders together to create student internships.

Highlights of the discussion, which was moderated by Seth Green, founding director of the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise and Responsibility at Loyola University Chicago:

New and Improved Programs

At this time last year, summer-internship programs were in full swing, with millions of students reporting to work. But this March, HR leaders suddenly realized they needed to make radical changes. “It's just kind of an interesting year, right?” said Tom Kleber, senior manager of university relations at Biogen, a biotech company focused on neurological diseases. “Right as we were wrapping up recruiting, that's when things started to come together, when we realized the traditional internship experience probably wasn't going to happen.”

One of the challenges was shipping laptop computers and headsets to the new interns, which for some companies meant hundreds or thousands of devices. Then there was the reinventing of programs. In an effort to revamp extracurricular activities to the remote space, Biogen includes weekly lunch-and-learn Zoom calls, as well as video-game competitions. Kleber said his team’s favorite is “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes,” a game that encourages players to work together to defuse a bomb.

Zillow Group, the real-estate hub, provides “swag” and care packages to get interns started. The company even sends interns a house plant, encouraging them to set up their home offices in creative ways. “It gives the interns a little bit of a sense of belonging because they all have the same items in front of them. And they're all kind of in it together, even though they are dispersed,” said Scott Moore, Zillow’s senior manager of early-talent recruiting.

At Fox Corp., interns have infinite access to master classes and unique online experiences to take the place of in-person networking events, said Mercheley Beuns, Fox’s VP of talent acquisition.

Companies have adapted in other ways too. NAF, which partners with the global professional-services firm KPMG to operate the Future Ready Lab for high-school students, have expanded the program calendar so that so that students can join internship programs during the school year too.

Accountability and Buy-in (From Managers Too)

Interns aren’t the only ones who need attention in these new programs. Managers can also benefit from special training to make sure that interns have a rewarding experience despite the shift to a remote-work situation.

“I think what we found was there were some managers, quite frankly, that were having a hard time managing their own staff remotely,” said Beuns. “And so what we did not want to do was hinder the internship experience for that intern by having them reporting to a business manager that potentially wouldn't have full onus, or the time to really give that intern a full robust experience.”

Our panel, clockwise from upper left: Scott Moore of Zillow Group, Brooke Rice of NAF, Tom Kleber of Biogen, Mercheley Beuns of Fox Corp., moderator Seth Green of Loyola University Chicago, and Amanda Beaver of KPMG (Image by From Day One)

Especially given the remote environment, HR leaders have needed encourage managers with interns to step up as leaders and mentors. Among the techniques: frequent check-ins and ample amounts of communication. Important too is a sense of compassion, especially since the look and feel of internships has fundamentally changed and interns may be vulnerable to feelings of isolation.

“Do they remember being an intern themselves to remember the kind of guidance that they got?” asked Kleber. Motivating managers to give back in the same way they may have started their careers can bring energy to the remote office as well.

Being Intentional About Diversity

Conversations about race and diversity have intensified in recent weeks, but the need for active recruitment of diverse talent is an abiding one. Young people need role models, including ones who look like them. “If I am a black or Latina or queer child in this country, and I have not seen my story reflected in in your profession, I could never see myself having a place there,” says Amanda Beaver, associate director of community impact at KPMG. “And so we're really trying to close those gaps so that we can grow an increasingly inclusive and diverse future workforce. This has been how the program has been designed.”

Leaders who recognize this gap can work closely with diversity-and-inclusion teams to align inclusive values with in-bound interns and their needs. This also applies to interns with family circumstances that might hamper their participation. “They [may] have parents who are essential workers and they have increased responsibilities in the home,” said Beaver of interns whose families have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

To take the pressure off individual managers, Zillow assigned additional mentors to the program. “We just wanted to make sure that they got more support than they would have in a face-to-face environment,” said Moore.

Fox caters its program to intern interest as well, allowing interns to take a survey at the start to match their passions with their projects for the summer. This has a dual impact of engaging interns in their work and giving them a sense of belonging in the program.

Inspiring Stories to Keep the Program Alive 

For companies that might be on the fence about keeping their internship programs going under these difficult circumstances, our panelists offered some inspiring reminders.

“I think it's really important for businesses to also acknowledge how important internships are to them. Interns bring their fresh eyes. They don't know the box, so they can't think inside of it yet,” says NAF’s Rice.

She recalled a past intern several years ago who happened to be a teen father. Watching him climb the ladder to a successful career brought her hope and reassured their team that the program was for just that: changing the lives of the people involved.

Beaver added: “Do we expect a high-school intern to walk away with technical accounting skills? Of course not. But we think they walk away knowing how to look at a problem from many angles, and focus on asking as many questions as possible instead of seeking the right answer.”

Internships have the potential to not only jump-start a young person’s career, but also gives companies an opportunity to welcome young people into their industries, sometimes as life-long professionals with impressive careers. Of a past intern, Moore remarked: “Fast forward five years from there, she's now an adjunct professor at North Carolina A&T State University. She's also a career coach and has started her own business. But that first internship experience really gave her the opportunity to learn about what a career in accounting could do, and all the different ways you could branch off from it.”

“We're all learning this together,” said Rice. “And so the interns really bring in that kind of new energy, new vibe, new things to think about as we are learning our way through this. And for those of you in the audience who haven't had an intern before, get one. It's an amazing experience. You'll learn a lot about yourself and a lot about others.”

Thank you to everyone who attended this webinar live. If you missed it, feel free to check out our replay here and visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.