12 Keys to a Successful Virtual Internship Program

03/29/2021 6 min read
Stephanie Emma Pfeffer is a sought-after storyteller for bestselling publications like People, Family Circle, Self, and New York Magazine.

When the pandemic hit last year, companies with robust internship programs were left wondering how to move forward. “Our internships feed directly into our STEM talent pipeline and ensure that we attract diverse new hires,” says Bryan Quick, Director of Talent Acquisition and Global Head of University Relations at Abbott, a Fortune 500 healthcare company. “Every year more than 60% of our interns become Abbott employees. In fact, multiple executives started out as interns,” he says. “We couldn’t cancel our internships.”

Instead, Abbott and other blue-chip organizations, including fellow healthcare giant Roche Diagnostics and Verizon, pivoted to virtual internship programs to attract interns in science, technology, engineering, and math. Here are the best practices their talent leaders established.

1. Offer Impactful Work That Can Actually Be Done Remotely

“Our students crave real, meaningful assignments,” says Quick, explaining that intern managers had to redesign their projects for virtual work.

Roche roles that worked well virtually included a customer experience intern creating promotional materials and an analytics intern gleaning insights from large datasets.

But don’t force it. “There were some leaders who, based on the nature of the work, couldn’t accommodate interns,” says Jamie Wright, Roche’s Manager of Talent Acquisition. “Our chemical and instrumental analytics area was not able to transition their internship because the internship was designed for laboratory experimentation.”

2. Use Virtual Recruiting Tools

Colleges canceled on-campus recruiting opportunities, so Roche invited students to a virtual event, called Your Future @ Roche, a one-hour discussion about the company’s programs with virtual interviews. The organization also promoted the event through a LinkedIn campaign to drive social media engagement and increase applications.

Verizon, too, tried something new: They created a recruiting platform offering Verizon-branded environments, including chat rooms and virtual headquarters so candidates could see the buildings. “It was critical to preserve the same types of interactions that students would have if they were face to face,” says Laura Houde, Director of Talent Acquisition at Verizon.  

3. Diversify Your Outreach

Without the geographic constraints of an in-office internship, companies can cast a wider net for candidates. Roche’s virtual event targeted historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Latino-serving institutions. Verizon created a Brand Ambassador program, which sought to strengthen partnerships with HBCUs. “We were engaging the executives at the schools, the deans, boards of advisors, and really building out connections and relationships,” says Houde.

4. Interview Efficiently

Roche used Modern Hire’s video interview tool to send prerecorded questions from business leaders to intern candidates, allowing them to record and upload their responses. “Our candidates could complete the videos at a time that worked for them,” says Wright. “It allowed us to evaluate close to 2,000 individuals.” After a diverse hiring committee reviewed those videos, selected candidates could self-schedule their live, second-round virtual interviews in Modern Hire, eliminating back-and-forth emailing.

5. Set up Interns With Tech Early

Give every program participant a laptop, and offer a stipend to those who need help accessing Wi-Fi or hot spots. When Roche sent computers, interns received information about how to contact IT and their manager with any questions. “We also sent calendar invites to inform interns what onboarding calls they would need to attend,” says Wright. He suggests giving interns ample time before their first official day to receive their equipment, follow up with their leader, talk to IT, and access their systems.

6. Get Interns Excited

Abbot announced the virtual program structure in a video message through their intern app. “We highlighted the opportunities interns would experience throughout the summer,” says Quick. The app was also used for onboarding and allowed for easy communication between interns and program directors. Verizon launched Altru, a video platform that allowed executives to share recorded welcome messages about their most rewarding experiences at Verizon. Roche created an internal site, Summer @ Roche, where interns could find information about helpful websites, workshops, speaker series, mentoring, and other programs.

7. Train Managers to Lead Interns Virtually

Abbott managers were walked through a checklist, says Quick. “We reached out to each manager individually to talk about expectations, how to set up a goal plan, and how to take what they do on-site and do it virtually.”

At Roche, interns’ managers could access Summer @ Roche to find resources for onboarding, offboarding, goal setting, and more. “The site also included what to do in the first two weeks: Have an initial call with your intern, walk them through the project, and introduce them to the team,” Wright explains. “It indicated when intern equipment would arrive and when their initial HR onboarding and I-9 verification would occur.”

8. Build in Touchpoints

“We encouraged frequent, consistent communication between intern leaders [who managed interns] and hiring leaders [who are department leaders] to check on progress, challenges, and questions,” says Wright. “Intern leaders coached interns on a regular basis, providing transparent feedback on job performance,” he says. “They create opportunities for interns to collaborate with, job shadow, and network with other colleagues.”

Verizon managers held regular office hours during which interns could ask questions. “We accounted not just for their project and manager interaction, but also engagement activities, professional leadership development, networking sessions, and business and functional acumen,” says Houde, emphasizing that Verizon wanted to create a “culture of learning.”

9. Include Career Development Sessions

Interns need exposure to the business beyond their day-to-day assignments. “Some of Abbott’s senior leaders engaged with our students—right up to our CEO, who delivered an address to our interns,” says Quick. Verizon partnered with the communications team to host live and interactive events. “We had a lot of teams come in and talk about topics like 5G, diversity and inclusion, and corporate responsibility and sustainability,” says Houde. These presentations helped familiarize interns with terms and concepts they’d encounter in their professional lives.

10. Provide Professional Networking Opportunities

Give interns a chance to network virtually, but make the sessions interactive. Abbott coached their leaders on how to enable this. “We asked executives to speak on a personal level about topics that highlighted their career paths and decision-making processes and give advice about overcoming challenges and pursuing passion and purpose,” says Quick. “This approach resonated more strongly with interns than if our leaders only talked about their businesses.”

Similarly, Roche offered mentorships, workshops, and networking opportunities where interns had exposure to senior leaders. “Do it so there are four or five individuals at a time,” suggests Wright. “Let them speak up, have their voices heard, have their questions answered, and establish that rapport.”

Because virtual networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone, Wright suggests offering tips to interns. “Implore them to do groundwork in advance, such as checking out employees’ LinkedIn and company profiles, and understand what they would like to learn from each professional. Also, guide interns to know what they want to convey to each individual they meet,” says Wright. Supervisors should craft introduction emails to broker a networking conversation, too, which fosters intentionality and holds the intern accountable for following through.

11. Promote Peer Interaction

Get creative with ways students can connect with one another. Abbott offered competitions through its app and used Zoom to host “hackathons” and virtual scavenger hunts. They also conducted a popular Shark Tank-style contest in which intern teams developed a product or solution pitch around a supplied theme. Interns gave group presentations to judges via virtual video, and the executive leadership team selected winners.

Roche assembled intern committees for newsletters, social media, and social events to keep them connected to one another. They even gave them community service opportunities. “Create time for fun. Make sure you have team-building activities and socialization to compensate for what’s missing from not being in person,” says Wright.

12. Think About the Future

Practical experience and professional development are great, but students who have a good experience generally want to land a full-time job. “The internship program leader should be making connections through introductory emails based on someone’s post-graduation interests,” says Wright. He also recommends creating a website where employees and leaders can learn from interns’ projects—and see what these prospective full-time candidates can do.

Despite virtual internships’ challenges, the setup offers surprising rewards. Every member of Verizon’s senior leadership team was able to interact with the intern cohort, which may not have been possible with a strictly in-person class, according to Houde. “Interns got to know senior leaders on a personal level,” she says. Most importantly, companies can expand the diversity of their candidates. “The caliber of talent from across the country that we interfaced with was off the charts,” says Wright. “Going virtual definitely has benefits we didn’t anticipate.


Stephanie Emma Pfeffer is a sought-after storyteller for bestselling publications like People, Family Circle, Self, and New York Magazine.