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What You Should Know About Virtual Internships

Written by at Looksharp 2016

Your Guide to Remote Internship Opportunities

Virtual reality is here, and not the kind that requires you wear a head-mounted display or data gloves. Over the last few years, job boards and career center advisors have noticed an upswing in virtual internships. It’s no wonder that more organizations are posting telecommuter positions with the slew of communication channels available—students and employers stay connected through phone, email, instant messaging, Skype, Google Hangout, etc. For a virtual intern, the office is anywhere a laptop and an Internet connection coincide.

What kinds of companies manage virtual internships?

An increasing number of small businesses and startups are turning to virtual interns for the sheer horsepower needed to get a venture off the ground. It’s an ideal setup for a company that is at once strapped for resources and positioned for explosive growth. Larger organizations recognize the value of virtual work, too: the U.S. State Department, for one, runs the Virtual Student Foreign Service program to match interns with diplomatic offices abroad. Columbia University’s Virtual Internship Program provides remote internship experience and skill development workshops for its students.

What kinds of internships can become virtual?

With the right planning and management, almost any internship could feasibly become a virtual position. However, some roles are better suited for the management style, learning curve, and work type of remote internships. Sales, marketing, and social media positions especially lend themselves to telecommuter work, and recent trends have found more executives hiring interns to make cold calls, manage company blogs, and Tweet from company accounts. These positions usually begin with a strategic overview but don’t necessitate constant direct oversight once the intern has a game plan.

Graphic design and software developer roles also jive well with nontraditional internships, as the product depends on one individual’s work and talent before running into feedback cycles. That’s not to mention that many designers and developers prefer off-hours and quiet work environments over a traditional office space. In all of these cases, however, communication and direction are key—for a successful virtual program, put these Ten Tips to Effectively Manage Interns into hyper-drive.

What are the benefits of a virtual internship?

Opening the position to students beyond a fifteen-mile radius of your company strengthens your talent pool. By seeking candidates nationwide, you pull from candidates with diverse experiences and educational backgrounds that can bring fresh energy to your company. This is particularly true during the spring, winter, and fall, when most students remain tied to top campuses that sit far away from large cities. (Pro tip: hiring talented interns to work remotely during the school year can help you secure these students for full-time summer positions.)

Access to better talent is not the only upside: because you save on the overhead costs of space, supplies, and office perks, you may have the capacity to hire multiple interns with differing skills. That gives you the jurisdiction to compartmentalize and assign work accordingly instead of attempting to hire the super-intern who can do it all. Alternatively, you could offer a single intern a hire wage to attract even more competitive talent. Lastly, a virtual internship caters to students’ schedules and affords the flexibility that begets an intern’s best work. 

What about the drawbacks?

For all the hype surrounding virtual internships, they do have their downsides. Because the intern never sets foot in the office, he or she gains little insight on company culture or how to navigate a work environment. On the employer side, you have a harder time gauging the intern’s potential as a full-time hire given the absence of face-to-face interaction.

A virtual internship also necessitates diligent management to make sure that tasks stay on track. We highly recommend at least one intensive meeting per week to allow the intern manager and virtual intern to stay updated on progress and new assignments. Furthermore, facilitating asynchronous interaction via a chat service during the week is a great solution. Even with program structure in place, though, a virtual intern has a smaller capacity to grow in the role and less likelihood of seeking out new responsibilities than an on-site intern.

What’s the bottom line?

Without a doubt, virtual internships hold enormous potential for your company and, especially in the case of smaller ventures, can spell the difference between, say, a deserted blog and a virally popular one. We’re optimistic about the rise of virtual internships: wider prospects for interns and employers alike lead to better internship matches and more valuable work experiences.

It is worth noting that we absolutely discourage unpaid virtual internships. For an internship to be both legal and fair, it must afford the intern a combination of professional experience and payment. Since a virtual internship hinders the professional networking opportunities that arise on-site, payment becomes even more critical.

Lastly, remember that the keystone of the virtual internship is clear direction and solid management. If you plan on hiring future virtual interns, be sure to hold an exit interview and supply the Internship Exit Self-Evaluation to keep improving your program.