Chelsea Strzelecki

Preparation is the key to getting the most out of your virtual intern while also giving them a positive, relevant, resume-building experience. If you’re considering hiring a virtual intern, or even a virtual volunteer, I have first-hand advice on what you can do to prepare.

Though virtual, it is a very real internship, with responsibilities, accountability, and deadlines. More radical than telecommuting, virtual interns work remotely, often never meeting staff in person. My entire interview process and internship took place via Skype, email, and phone. I did my work from the comfort of my apartment, usually sitting next to my adorable puppy, Maverick (named after the Top Gun character, not John McCain!).

My summer virtual internship was a great fit for me and LightBox Collaborative. Though companies and organizations have long toyed with virtual internships, they are finally becoming more popular as online collaboration and communication tools improve.

There are many perks to virtual internships. I was able to learn from an amazing group of inspiring professionals, even though they live across the country from me. Plus, LightBox Collaborative was able to choose from a larger candidate pool and get exactly the right person.

Checklist for a successful virtual internship:

  • The right people. Virtual interns need to be two things: self-starters and great communicators. Avoid interns who need constant hand-holding—nothing will get done. Since the intern won’t be in your office, they need to be able to hit deadlines and use their time effectively on their own. Interns also need to be able to judge when to communicate with you about what’s working and where they need more guidance. The other right person is the…
  • Supervisor. One intern = one supervisor. Though the intern may work with many people, to avoid ambiguity and confusion, there should always be one person they can to turn to for answers and for help prioritizing. Make sure that the supervisor is willing and able to mentor the intern to help them get the most out of their experience—they need enough time in their day, as well as management and virtual communication skills. I knew that I could email my questions to Alexis anytime and she’d have an answer to me fast.
  • Office hours. Virtual interns need to be very independent and self-motivated people. By keeping regular office hours, it’s easier for the intern to manage projects without losing track of deadlines, or falling victim to distraction or procrastination. With office hours, the intern also won’t be “5-minuted” to death. I get between 3 and 15 emails a day regarding LightBox Collaborative work. If I read and acted on each email as they came in, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else this summer. Of course, I always skimmed emails to make sure they didn’t require immediate attention, but if it could wait, I knew I could save it for my office hours.
  • Real tasks. Outline specific projects for the intern and set up deadlines in advance. Everyone is more efficient with a deadline. Be a little flexible though, since this is a learning process for the both of you. Also, add some variety, especially if it’s busy work you wouldn’t want to do yourself, like data entry. Busy work is the virtual equivalent of fetching coffee. Adding a fun project will rejuvenate the intern while increasing their productivity and quality of work. Whenever possible, tell the intern how their project helps your larger strategy and celebrate successes that they helped make possible.
  • “Face” time. It’s critical that the virtual intern feel like part of the team. Invite the intern to teleconference in on staff meetings. Set up regular check-in calls talk with the intern about their tasks as they progress, not just when work’s overdue. Leaving check-ins until the deadline is a recipe for messy work and a frustrated intern. Lauren and I Skyped at least once a week. This made me feel more comfortable with the work I was doing and made this internship a learning experience. Because of my close interaction with her, I got real-time, critical feedback that I used to develop my skills.
  • The right tools. Sending documents back and forth will clutter an email account quickly, and makes it hard to stay organized. Use DropBox as a virtual filing cabinet in your virtual office. With Skype, you can chat without worrying about managing cell phone minutes. It’s also a nice way to feel closer to your virtual co-workers. Video chatting is the next best thing to meeting in person.

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Chelsea Strzelecki is a public relations student at Central Michigan University. She will graduate in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in integrative public relations with minors in psychology, leadership, and public affairs. Chelsea’s passions include community service and involvement, writing, social media, and design.