Flywheel’s successful remote internship program (+ how you can implement your own!)

Flywheel’s successful remote internship program (+ how you can implement your own!)

Liz Ernst's Layout avatar

It’s a privilege to be able to work remotely during these uncertain times. While the hope remains that we’ll all be in our offices by next year, that might not be the case for everyone! If you’re in the midst of planning your company’s remote summer internships, keep reading for how you can implement your own safe, meaningful, and engaging program. 

I’ve had the opportunity to lead Flywheel’s internship program since 2018. At one point, I even recruited interns as an intern myself! Internships show an investment in the future of our Omaha community and our recruiting team’s talent pipeline. We believe they’re the number one way students can discover their passions, learn what they want to do long-term, and begin to see themselves in the technology community. Our 12-week program gives interns the chance to do just that!

Like many companies this year, we were also in the rut of uncertainty given the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had several signed internship offers, so I felt as if we had a commitment to these young professionals who depended on us to keep a roof over their head and food on their plates with the income we set for them. The idea of canceling the program was simply not an option, so I was left with answering this question:  “How much value could our remote internship program provide?” 

Let’s dive in.

Plan ahead 

To cancel the internship program was already ruled out so my main concern was the health and safety of our brand new employees. We didn’t want to do anything that would promote dangerous work conditions or break local or state health regulations.  

Our main offices were closed in March so we thoroughly began planning an entirely remote 12-week internship program. The first step was to consider the living conditions of each intern. Here are some questions we considered: 

  • Do they have a good space to plant their laptops and monitors to work? Perhaps not an office space, but something practical like a desk or table?
  • Does their housing situation have reliable wifi to work on? 
  • How are they going to get their tech? Are they able to pick up their equipment or do we need to ship it to them?  
Here’s what a day in the life of a 2016 intern looked like for Erin Coburn.

These questions were just some of the logistical angles we had to determine since not all of our interns lived in the same city as our main office. Luckily, we were able to stagger pick-up appointments with the majority of the interns while abiding by health regulations and social distancing, and shipped equipment out to anyone who wasn’t able to stop into the office. 

Looking for more WFH resources? Check out this article on how to WFH as a creative!

Have a Plan B (and a Plan C) ready

As offices were closing left and right all over our city, no one knew when things would be safe enough to open again (spoiler alert: we’re all still remote). While a lot was still up in the air with uncertainty, we wanted to cover our tails and make sure there was a plan A, B, and C ready to implement if the situation was ready for it.  

We informed our interns early on that while we had a set plan for the summer program, it was subject to change at any moment. It’s important to state this from the get-go for expectation setting and planning. Your company likely already has these plans set, so make sure they’re aligned with the virtual internship program you’re creating! 

Create a sense of community 

That’s me as an intern presenting to the entire company in 2017.

I started at Flywheel as an intern in 2017, so I know first-hand how enriching and welcoming our program is. A star feature of why the program was (and is!) so successful is because Flywheel values its interns. They don’t just fetch coffee and print manuals, they take on real work that directly impacts our business goals, and that’s why we love them! 

Just like this photo from 2018, we make sure our interns have lots of fun while they learn!

I was concerned about making sure each one of our remote interns felt our sense of community because we deeply value the role they play for the company. Our company culture is one of the best parts of Flywheel so we needed each one to feel part of it as if we were all in the office together. 

The solution for this was to be more thoughtful with how we spent our time together for intern events. I scheduled weekly lunch-and-learns as an excuse for the interns to get together virtually, eat, and learn something new about any topic they chose. On an ordinary day in the office, they’d be eating lunch together anyway so this was one way to encourage cohort bonding! 

Another idea to promote camaraderie was skillfully planning Photoshop challenges in our group Slack channels! During an ordinary day in the office, interns aren’t strictly working from 9-12 and 1-5, they’re also walking around greeting colleagues, sharing ideas, and cracking jokes together! This, of course, is not the case when we’re fully remote. The solution was to create intentional moments to bond our intern cohort. On most Fridays, I’d find a quirky public photo and then I’d announce a spontaneous Photoshop challenge! It kept the conversation flowing and the reactions were priceless!

Over-communicate like heck 

It’s already so easy for miscommunication blunders to create hiccups in an office. Take that into a now remote office setting, and you could really be opening a can of worms. Right from the beginning, I set out to create a thoughtful environment where over-communicating was not only welcomed, but encouraged.

A few months before the internship program, I was already getting emails asking if we were going to continue forward with it or not. I started sending updates every few weeks to get ahead of this and let our interns know that we were still thinking of them and excited for the program to begin in the summer. We also held Q&A sessions with interns and their managers prior to their start date. This helped both groups feel prepared and set up for success! This was all while we were still navigating the programming details of transforming everything into a remote internship. Regardless of how far we were in our planning process, they were still in consistent communication with us.  

We didn’t want to assume anything like whether the interns knew how to download Slack or had used Zoom before. To rule out any opportunity for miscommunication mishaps, I over-communicated everything, and I mean everything. From how to sign-up for our lunch-and-learns to coordinating our welcome presentations to the whole company, I made sure that expectations were crystal clear and questions were always welcome. 

The simple step of adding an extra sentence or two of direction in a remote work setting can do wonders for avoiding those meeting hiccups!

The results

While I felt confident about how I ran our first ever remote internship program, whether it was a success or not came down to the interns and their feedback! At the end of the 12-week program, I sent feedback surveys to our interns and managers to hear their thoughts on how our first-ever remote program went. My main goals were to see what worked well and what would require improvement for the next time we implemented something like this. 

Boy, did the feedback make me smile. We overwhelmingly had positive reports from everyone across the board on the engagement, events planned, and learning takeaways! 

The feedback showed that 100% of our 2020 intern cohort would recommend the program to a friend.

These responses told me that we did something right. That our effort to bring intentionality and value to a remote program succeeded. If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of creating a virtual internship program, you shouldn’t be! 

The 2020 intern and mentor (virtual) celebration marks the completion of the program.

Yeah, they require more thoughtful planning, but by all accounts, this was our most successful intern cohort yet. Returning interns who had done the in-person program the year before told me that they felt closer to this (virtual) cohort than last year’s cohort! And let’s not forget about the work they did. Managers were over the moon about their interns because they produced meaningful work that left a mark on our company even though they never once met face-to-face. Interns worked on everything from developing an add-on for our product Local, building Tableau dashboards for our sales team, to publishing blog articles, and onboarding new customers! Overall, it was a total win.

Implementing your own program

A thoughtful, robust internship program needs clear ownership. It takes a village to support interns, but your program will be most impactful and consistent when it has clear ownership with one person in your organization. This helps ensure nothing falls through the cracks, especially in an online setting! 

Here are my parting pieces of advice for you to implement your own remote program: 

  • Plan to spend more time than you think you’ll need prepping for virtual events. Think about setting up those Zoom meetings and recurring calendar invites! 
  • No amount of communication is too much. Over-communicating should be an expectation!
  • Have your company rally around your interns so they feel 100% part of the culture. This will speak volumes for your engagement! 

The uncertainties we’ve all been facing since March 2020 haven’t gone away and likely won’t in the months leading up to your next summer internship program. That doesn’t mean that programs have to be canceled and offers need to be rescinded. It means there’s an opportunity for you to think outside the box and reposition your program in a unique, remote capacity!  

If you do it right, your interns will become your company’s biggest advocates. I wish you the best of luck in planning and implementing your internship program! 

Flywheel Careers

We’re a passionate group of friends and colleagues who are out to change the WordPress hosting world, and we have a whole lot of fun while we’re at it. From company outings to scooter races to just plain laughing a lot – we work hard and play hard – and enjoy the heck out of it. We’re growing quickly and need great people to help us build something amazing. Sound interesting? Join us!

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