How to evolve company internships to align with the realities of the new world of work.
By Simon Kent
Getting used to the workplace has always been something of a culture shock for those fresh out of education. Understanding how the workplace works, what needs to be done, meeting deadlines, and bonding with existing employees and senior personnel is not always straightforward.
Naturally the pandemic disrupted this part of working life too, creating, in some instances, an entirely remote internship experience. Even with the best support possible, newcomers were faced with having to find their own work-life balance at home and essentially began their careers without being at work–literally. However, even with restrictions lifted, hybrid internships are still being created and managed for new employees, offering value for everyone.
“The way that businesses approach and manage programmes can really make or break the experience,” says Lindsey Rowe, head of purpose, programmes, and sustainability GTM at SAP UK and Ireland. “It’s important that they strike the right balance between in-person and remote work for interns to make sure they’re getting the most out of their time at the company and maximise opportunities for personal development.”
Whilst some training and employee information can be delivered through technology, events such as large team meetings are important to attend in person, says Rowe, not just to network and build relationships, but also to experience company culture. But, she adds, SAP likes to give its newcomers the chance to work across different parts of the business as well as enhance their general tech knowledge. Hybrid techniques can actually facilitate this more easily than 100% on-site arrangements. Interns have greater access and the opportunity to speak with and work for more people irrespective of where they or their work colleagues may be located.
Rowe also notes that delivering internships through a hybrid model makes sense today since it has become part and parcel of normal working life. “Hybrid working provides greater flexibility for all of us,” she says, “and if we’re going to help prepare young people for the world of work after studies, we need to ensure our internship programmes are reflective of the real world.”
During the pandemic, Grant Thornton ran a purely virtual internship. That has now shifted to a hybrid model in order to deliver what Richard Waite, people and culture director, describes as a more impactful and realistic insight into working life at the firm. It is clear the company can take a more strategic approach to what their newcomers need to learn and where best to learn. “We plan which activities are best delivered in person versus virtually, and arrange the content accordingly,” he explains.
Understandably, Waite and his team discovered connection to teams and peer groups was more easily done through in-person arrangements. However, he says, these kinds of connections were still possible during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns. “Our firm’s culture is threaded through everything we do though – whether virtual or in person,” he says, “and comes across in the way they engage with their peers, their managers, and our leaders.”
Waite and his team are anticipating a permanent shift to hybrid working with a goal for the programme to provide a realistic insight into what life at the firm is like. “Our 5000-plus people work in a hybrid manner and our interns should get a flavour for not just the work we do, but also the way we work,” he says.
Dr. Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, explains that internships can sometimes be ‘othering’ experiences – emphasising to the intern that they are not part of the company and working culture. This is especially the case if organisations treat these temporary workers with insufficient preparation. Conversely, careful planning, thoughtful execution, and the right technology can deliver a fulfilling, valuable experience regardless of whether interns are working onsite, hybrid, or remote.
“Key to a positive intern experience is feeling a sense of belonging from day one,” says Dr. Baumgartner. For Achievers this means following their five pillars of belonging: being welcomed, known, included, supported, and connected. Get it right and Dr. Baumgartner says the intern will become an ambassador for the organisation – a particularly welcome side effect at a time of high competition for talent.
For example, at Achievers, all new interns are registered on the company’s employee experience platform. This not only makes the individual feel part of the workforce, no matter where they are, but also triggers the sending of a personalised welcome card from their team. Team members can also use the system to acknowledge and recognise the intern’s work so that they feel known and recognised for their contributions. “To make interns feel included, we invite them to participate in virtual, hybrid, and in-person workplace initiatives,” adds Dr. Baumgartner, “such as one of our five employee resource groups, or ‘Achievers Women’s Network,’ ‘Achievers Proud,’ and the ‘DEI Steering Committee.’”
One unique benefit of having a hybrid workforce is that remote workers can now get to know one another through technology, and even form their own communities based on share geography. Interns and existing workers can be linked together for the benefit of both, whether in the office or remotely. If they share the same location, they are free to meet and discuss work together if so desired.
Dr. Baumgartner adds, “Ideally, when interns do come into the physical workplace, they focus on those activities where they can benefit most from the in-person experience. This could be observing a sales manager in a pitch or a procurement director negotiating a major supplier contract. Or it could simply be spending time with team members to absorb the work culture in meetings, brainstorming sessions, and social events.”
As with many aspects of the workplace, the disruptive impact of the pandemic has again left behind some positive, innovative practices which may yet prove important and practical as the workplace of the future evolves. Just as hybrid practices mean workers can now work from anywhere, companies can use this opportunity to open up their internships and work experience to a more diverse field of candidates.