As COVID19 lockdowns around the world went into effect earlier this year, a great many students were disappointed to find that the internships they had lined up for their break from school were cancelled. However, as firms were forced to lay off and furlough workers, retaining interns for the summer became increasingly important to many businesses, resulting in many companies making the decision to take their internship programs online overnight.
Unfortunately, with leaner teams and the pressures of adapting to working from home, most managers are under greater pressure than usual and don’t know the first thing about mentoring students with no work experience over a computer screen.
Luckily, Cody Rapp, Paragon One’s Director of Coaching Operations, has been doing it for years.
Armed with his favorite book (High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way) and seated within viewing distance of a quote he lives by, (Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.), Rapp shares some hot tips for managers of remote interns, developed over his career in education technology and student engagement:
I think the first thing to remember is not to make any assumptions. Don’t assume the students know anything. Don’t assume they have access to everything that they need to meet your expectations.
You have to model first. You have to give clear examples of the output you expect when it comes to participation, work documentation, professionalism and time management. You have to outline clear processes that support the result you’re looking for and reinforce them through modeled behavior.
Most companies don’t bother with coaching interns on things like work culture, because they don’t think they need to. But the nature of remote work means it’s harder to be authentic and establish trust, especially with people you don’t regularly work with, so it’s imperative to devote time to combat that.
My advice as a manager is that you need to be thoughtful about how you can establish an authentic relationship with remote interns.
I don’t restrict my communication with the interns I manage remotely to emails. I text, I call, I Facetime! That’s my style. I’ve discovered that with students today, social media is important. That’s simply how young people connect. That’s what feels natural to them.
As a manager, it’s important to watch for certain behavior during group check ins. When someone on the team displays aggressiveness or dominance or steals the limelight a lot, it makes others retreat. Now that happens in the office, but remote work exacerbates the effects of such behavior.
Being one of many faces on a Zoom call makes it easier for vociferous people to be heard and for quiet people to be stifled. The reason that’s important to know as a manager is because you have to expect all of these things to constantly be at play with all student interns.
It’s also important to observe the background in a one-on-one Zoom call, or listen for noises like traffic or a baby crying, because then you’re able to accommodate challenges that your remote intern is facing better. If I notice someone is using their phone to video call, I don’t screen share because I know that’s going to be inconvenient.
To give effective feedback, you need to know the person you’re talking to. When working remotely, very often that isn’t the case, so I would choose live video calls, where interns can read your body language and tone, over giving feedback in writing. You have to really frame and prepare what you’re saying, you have to listen and look for non-verbal cues when communicating.
As a remote manager, stay conscious of the fact that interns who work from home are dealing with more challenges than those who have the luxury of simply asking the person in the next cubicle what to do when they don’t know how to send a calendar invite! You need to figure out what the issue is. Sometimes it’s fairly simple to resolve. A student might just need more clarification in a one-on-one format because of their learning style. Other students need to be validated and heard.
If a student is struggling, what do you do? Meet them where they are. I adapt the approach I use in person to connect with students and find out what’s going on. We do that on a daily basis at Paragon One. We manage interns from such different backgrounds that there is no one solution that applies to all of them. For example, our Chinese students feel more comfortable when we check in on them using WeChat, so we do that.
Managers need to remember that they play an important role in ensuring the psychological safety of their student interns. We talk about this with our staff and in our teams, so why not offer this same type of care to students? If it’s good enough for you and your full-time team, it’s good enough for interns. They deserve to feel secure and supported in their role too.
I believe you have to let your interns know you’re accessible at all times.
I don’t think it’s a best practice to say, ‘hey send me one email a week, just before the touch base.’ That’s not realistic, or fair, or equitable.
Being approachable doesn’t mean you handhold interns, either. Instead of responding with a, ‘Just Google that!’, as a manager you can say, ‘what resources do you think you can use to find that answer?’
Because a lot of companies are resorting to remote work solely because of COVID19, the chances are they haven’t put a lot of thought into ironing out the internship experience because they have a lot of other things to prioritize.
But I do recommend that they find a way to standardize the process of onboarding, training and managing interns. They need to have a system in place to keep students engaged, schedule regular time for interaction with a manager, and create templates for follow-up emails.
At Paragon One, when we run remote externships on behalf of other companies, we have an automated system in place so students get weekly updates and progress reports. That really helps keep them engaged and striving to do better. Personally, I send monthly motivational emails too!