5 Tips for a Successful Virtual Agency Internship Program

by Bo Goliber with input from Craig Mattes

While a number of companies scrapped their summer internship programs because of COVID-19, we at Fingerpaint decided to turn ours into a remote program.

We wanted to keep our commitment to the 23 students who had already accepted our internship offer, while also providing them with real-world experience to use and develop the skills that a post-COVID workforce is going to need. It was a win-win for everyone involved.

Back in April, I began altering the paid, 10-week program for college students to prepare for their June arrival. The decision to pivot wasn’t a tough one, but it did require a lot of planning and preparation — and not just for the interns.

When looking at developing a good internship — whether or not it’s remote — businesses can’t think just about the interns themselves; it’s important to think about their managers. It’s a collective effort, and a key to providing the best experience is to support those people managing the interns as well.

Moving to a virtual program was welcomed by the company’s leadership, who thought the opportunity would help give the interns a bit of an edge over their competition.

“When we look ahead to future hires, I believe there’ll be a heightened emphasis on whether someone has successfully worked remotely,” says Craig Mattes, head of Fingerpaint’s Phoenix office. “It’s becoming a more necessary skill set, and I’m thrilled that we’re giving them such a well-rounded opportunity.”

The following are my top-five tips for making a virtual internship program successful:

Communication
This is a time when there is no such thing as over-communicating. A good practice is keeping and encouraging open lines of communication between everyone: interns, their managers, agency leadership and clients.

When we decided to pivot our program from in-person to remote, we were conscious of making sure we had the support of the agency’s leadership. We made sure they were updated with what our plans were and how we were planning to implement them. We did the same thing with our intern managers, interns and nonprofit clients the interns would be working with. Having everyone on the same page is a must for it to work

Open and consistent communication during the program is also key. Managers at Fingerpaint are encouraged to have daily check-ins with their interns, recreating what would happen naturally in an office. This dedicated time allows both parties to prepare for the day ahead, assess workload, and answer any questions that either of them may have.

In addition, I schedule check-ins with both the interns and the managers to make sure both are getting the support they need. It’s not a one-way street. For the intern to be successful, it is imperative that their manager has the necessary tools to manage them virtually. We put a priority on supporting both the intern and the manager, which we think is another unique part to our overall program.

Collaboration
Encourage interns to work on projects together as a team, as well as across the agency, no matter where they are geographically located. Being a team player and working collaboratively is a sought-after talent companies are looking for in their employees — especially in the agency world. That has only been amplified in this virtual work world, where teams or clients could be scattered across the globe.

For instance, a creative intern working in Phoenix may need to consult with a media expert in Pennsylvania. Encourage interns to jump on a Slack call, turn on their video, and work with that person.

Learning to collaborate with clients virtually is also something the agency knows is important to teach their interns. That’s why I’ve made sure the cornerstone of our internship program — a pro bono marketing project for a local nonprofit — was not lost when the program went virtual. Rather, I identified ways for the current program to be adjusted for a virtual world.

Pitching new business or presenting creative concepts to clients didn’t stop because of COVID-19; it went virtual. We’re doing the same for our interns’ clients on their project.

Organization
Prior to the interns’ start, develop a plan to help managers and interns stay organized. For example, hold multiple manager trainings well in advance of the interns’ start date, and be in communication with the interns well before day one. In fact, I suggest staying in ongoing contact with them from the moment they accept the internship offer right up until their start date.

One thing that really helped this year with a virtual program was sending the interns technical information, like how to access their email and other technology platforms, before they start, so they feel ready to go on day one. It allows them to stay organized and prepared.

That also goes for managers. I encourage intern managers to talk with their teams to develop projects for their team’s intern in advance of their start date.

Technology
Leverage the company’s IT team well in advance of the interns’ start date to make sure the interns have access to the tools they need to be successful, such as remote work resources like Slack and Zoom.

Create Slack channels where the interns can get to know each other and collaborate, encourage them to turn on their video when on a conference call, and give them the same experience as the company’s employees to make them successful at home.

Whether the interns just graduated or are going back to school in the fall, these are the technological tools they are going to need to know how to use. They’re also the tools that teams are already using, so by adding them to existing resources, it makes managing and connecting with the interns second nature to everyone in the organization.

Connection
There is plenty of advice about how to re-create company culture in a virtual world. But how to do that with a group of interns who don’t know each other or haven’t previously worked in an office environment with the company?

Onboard them just like a new employee. Their first week, we give them appropriate agency overviews, then we invite them to virtual company meetings, philanthropic activities, and lunch and learns. By integrating them so well in the beginning, it instills our company values in them and sets expectations right from the start.

Helping them connect in fun social ways using virtual tools also allows them to experience Fingerpaint’s unique culture in some form since they can’t be in the office. We’ve got themed gatherings, trivia nights and other things to help them feel social and engaged with each other and our teams.

Bo Goliber is the summer intern program creator and head of philanthropy at Fingerpaint, a full-service health and wellness marketing agency with offices in Arizona, California, New York, Pennsylvania and New

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