The full guide to mastering remote work internships

Human Resources

Doing an internship while working from home? The dream of many students is the bane of remote companies. Internships are a great way to get some more helping hands, while also creating growth and learning opportunities for people who need it. Especially as you, as a remote company, have the ability to give opportunities to anyone, it's definitely something you should look into. How remote companies can structure and create remote internship positions.

Finding remote interns

It's easy to get overwhelmed when thinking of all the difficulties and hurdles that hiring a remote intern could bring with it. The more important that we don't lose our heads and plan for a large pool of potential applications. What seems like a nice problem to have can become overwhelming really fast.

As a remote company, it's not practical to try and get interns from a local university or similar. Instead, you should see if you can leverage leading job boards like AngelList and WWR to get the word out there. This will lead to a larger and more diverse pool of applicants.

As a remote company, you also have more power to give chances to people that would traditionally not get a chance to enter the industry. A good idea is to work together with communities that are serving underrepresented people in tech and see whether you can work on a location independent internship scheme.

While internships are traditionally something for college students or new grads, it's no shame to see whether you can help career changers or other people from different backgrounds breaking into the industry. As a remote company, you are looking for responsible and self-directed people, which is something that is often built with experience in life and career. Don't shy away from the 'underdogs'.

The gist is, a Stanford grad can get an internship anywhere, so can a student from MIT. As a remote company, a lot of people will want to get an internship that allows you to 'work from home'. It's important to look through the haystack and not shy away from gems, even if they don't fit the traditional internship criteria of FAANG or the Bay Area.

Selection criteria for remote internships

As already mentioned, you need independent, self-starting people in a remote team, and internships are no different to that. While a talented college student may have these attributes as well, they are often something that develops with experience and time. If you are looking at an application, don't dismiss people with uncommon backgrounds – they often have the experience and expertise to work on something without handholding.

Any intern should still have access to a mentor and receive advice when needed, it's, therefore, better to hire in certain timezone clusters – namely near a mentor with a maximum of +- 4 hours, so at least a half-day of overlap can be arranged. That limits your application pool a lot, depending on where your mentors are located, which can be a good thing if you are totally overwhelmed with applications.

With international school systems and even different national schools running different forms of exams and grading, school grades are usually not something you should look at when it comes to evaluating an intern. If you have a small selection of people, references are what you would want to look at instead. Be it from professors, former bosses, coworkers or even people in the larger network – getting a second opinion can be very valuable here.

Furthermore, if you are used to only looking at bullet point CVs, you will very quickly realize that there is not much value in those anymore. With interns, you are getting a lot more value from cover letters, questions or even challenges, than you'd get from a CV. A CV is important for context, but the cover letter is what's going to tell you about the person. Emphasize the importance of those, as you'll otherwise see different cultures handle the cover letter process differently.

You should also mention and customize your selection process in the case that you are looking at the possibility of full-time employment after. A transition to FTE is not only attractive to applicants, but also a great evaluation time for you to see whether someone is a fit. Again, with candidates that you'd usually not consider, this is a great chance to allow them a foot in the door.

Onboarding remote interns

So, you've hired your first intern! That's great, but now the real work begins. Onboarding in a remote team is extremely importand and the first week of an internship is crucial. Depending on your hire, it's their first dip into a career, working life, remote life or a new industry. That's huge, and also anxiety-inducing!

Be sure to have a checklist ready on day number one. It's even better if an intern can do their first few tasks as self service, before the mentor is ready to catch up. You can try something like Todoist to share tasks beforehand. It's good practice to have review calls at the end of the first few days with a mentor, to be sure all concerns can be handled properly.

The first week should stand for exploration and getting comfortable with internal workflows. Especially if it's one of their first internships in that industry, a lot of things that can seem trivial will be not as self-explanatory as a think. As a result of that, you should plan a lot more mentorship resources at the beginning of an internship, as you may think.

Before you start with an internship project, it can be a good idea to do something easier instead. That might be writing a short article, documenting the onboarding process, fixing a little bug in the code or creating a simple design, anything is up for grabs.

By the end of the first week, you should set eyes on the actual project that the intern is going to work on. There are a lot of best practises for internship projects which aren't exclusive to remote work, but having something that doesn't need to much input from other teams is even more suitable here: It leads to shorter communication cycles and a better end result if the intern is able to concentrate on their core exercises and communication, instead of trying to lift blockers.

Supervision and mentorship of remote interns

Mentors are always hard to find, so be sure to have a waterproof mentorship program for your interns. Set goals beforehand, prepare a great project, set up a timeline and agree on a set of milestones.

A mentor isn't supposed to feed solutions to interns, but instead is the connecting point between interns and the rest of the team. Interns may have slightly obvious questions, and a mentor is there to guide them towards finding the solutions for those. A mentor is also a point of contact for concerns and issues. Interns may have difficulties finding their way into different teams, and a mentor can help them with guiding towards the right point.

A key cornerstone of a successful mentorship should be a regularly scheduled 1-on-1 call between intern and mentee. This usually happens on a daily or bi-daily basis during the first few weeks and can be scheduled for once per week in the later stages of the internship. During the 1-on-1, it's good to keep an agenda to go through the most important parts of the internship:

  • Overall feeling
  • Current status of the project
  • Blockers and difficulties
  • New insights
  • Plan for the next week

Apart from that, it's a good idea to include interns in regular team discussions. Even though they might not regularly be able to contribute, it's still a good sign to include interns in discussions and give them the same voice as regular employees. It also helps the team form an image of the abilities of each intern.

If interns are regularly collaborating with other members of the teams, try to collect feedback every month or so and compile a review with things that went well, and things that can be improved to help interns shape their abilities in communication to become better team players.

Overall, it's important not to forget about interns. Even if they are working self-directed, it's extra important to see what they like, dislike, which skills they are picking up and how they are collaborating with others. That may not be a full-time job for a mentor, but takes a good chunk of time out of every week.

How to evaluate remote interns

An internship usually lasts 3 - 6 months, depending on the time and plans of an intern. At the end of that, it's good to evaluate interns and their time at the company, to make a mental note, but also give final feedback and reference letter to the intern.

There are certain aspects that you can look at here:

  • How did the internship project pan out?
  • What has been the feedback from the team over the months?
  • How was the mentor's/supervisor's feeling?

If the intern is going back to school or has agreed to take another position, this evaluation can end up in an HR file. If the intern is available for hire, this may end in a hiring decision that the mentor can take with the department heads.

Internships are a great way for young people to break into an industry of their choice. As a remote company, you are in the best position to look for unique and diverse interns from a variety of backgrounds, instead of only taking summer interns of the local universities. Due to the nature of remote, it's also important to keep interns under control, while also leaving them their space to grow. In the end, a good internship program may be the path to a better talent pipeline for your company.

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