The following blog post outlines some best practices for supervisors who are responsible for supporting and motivating interns during their internships. Here we focus on two aspects.
The first aspect considers the preparatory steps involving an assessment of supervisory resources and constraints, as well as the organizational practices that can support or disrupt internship experiences. This exploration is important as supervisory or organizational constraints and practices will influence the extent to which supervisors can support and motivate interns. The second aspect summarizes recommendations for the creation of rewarding internship experiences and learning opportunities which can be influenced directly by the supervisor – in close cooperation with the interns and team members who are involved with the internships.
1. Supervisory and organizational considerations
- Identify critical support factors and barriers
Leadership style and supervisory support play an important role during all stages of an internship. This has been examined in a variety of studies also in relation to internships. The research by Matthew Hora and colleagues (2020) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently found that supervisors played a significant role in driving intern satisfaction and career development. Positive supervisory behaviors such as good communication, being available, and providing feedback were particularly relevant.
Supervisors are more likely to motivate their interns when they remember that interns are often still learning their new professional roles, in contrast to many qualified and fully trained contract workers. Role-modelling supportive leadership provides interns with more insights into how one can manage tasks and people effectively. As a first step then, supervisors need to identify what they can offer in terms of support, how they can motivate interns and which barriers they may need to tackle first in their team or organization in order to effectively manage their interns.
Similarly, it is worthwhile to explore potential barriers or constraints. Only once this assessment has been conducted will supervisors have a clear sense of where they are at in terms of resources, projects, and time. And once they have a clear picture of these aspects, they can set appropriate schedules, tasks and also expectations for themselves, their interns, and their teams. Setting realistic expectations and creating an appropriate support framework will be critical to ensuring that interns are appropriately informed, supported, and remain motivated during their internship.
- Align HR practices to promote a positive experience
In many organizations, HR practices can have a variety of unintended consequences if they are not aligned with the intended employee experience. For example, processes such as allocating or revoking email access can readily influence how included, respected, and appreciated employees feel. Not having the means to communicate with other colleagues at the beginning, or being kicked out of the system on the last day of work – all of these unintended effects can lead to a negative experience for the intern. As a result, it is important to consider the employee experience, or in this case the intern experience, from the recruitment stage, their onboarding, and their offboarding phase. Some guidance has already been published to help employers navigate some of these HR-related challenges (Jeske, 2020).
Ensuring that interns are automatically added to team networks, connected with mentors, and invited to social events are another aspect that is often overlooked. Many interns – same as employees – are not added to important mailing lists and teams, which then complicates their entry and also participation during their time with the organization. Keeping these elements in mind will ensure that they feel included and valued from day one, rather than stumbling along for a few days or even weeks until they have caught up with their colleagues. Similarly, appraisals and promotion rounds should also consider the support that supervisors, mentors, and team members provide to interns.
2. Internship content, learning and experience
- Create immediate learning opportunities
In addition, supervisors can play an important role in assigning interns meaningful work – that is, work that is meaningful to the intern (not just the organization). Communicating task importance and including interns in communication about larger projects means interns understand their role and are hopefully motivated by the fact that they are part of an important mission, project, or initiative. Similarly, while many interns may be working remotely and thus independently, it can also be very motivating for some interns to be involved in team projects.
An important way to motivate interns is to ensure that their assigned tasks enable them to work towards their learning goals (which are ideally captured in a learning agreement at the beginning of the internship). Learning goals may include gathering experience by completing certain tasks, learning specific software, or trying out new roles. When interns have extensive expertise to contribute, assigning larger projects to them – where they take responsibility for the entire project – can be an important means for them to motivate them as well. Such projects give the opportunity to apply their skills, try on different roles, and thus prove themselves. This can be an important experience and may also help them to demonstrate their potential suitability for future employee roles. Such opportunities may therefore represent important motivators for interns.
- Take an interest in and support interns’ future aspirations
Many organizations recruit interns to increase their talent pool. However, in some cases, organizations do not offer relevant development opportunities during an internship — effectively dissuading interns from considering a job offer in this organization. When such opportunities are provided, organizations have no guarantees that interns will stay. Internships are an important time of self-reflection and interns may revisit their career goals. This may lead them to seek career opportunities in other fields, organizations, or sectors. In this case, one may assume that supervisors have nothing to gain from supporting these interns during their learning and career journey. However, this is not necessarily the case.
While it may be counterintuitive, supervisors, mentors and teams should strive to support interns who are interested in careers within – but also outside – their organization. As Ryan Bonnici (2018) recently stated, “employees want development, not lip service.” Supporting these interns as well as those interested in staying with the internship provider is a good opportunity for supervisors to identify what other organizations are doing when it comes to talent management, where current developmental approaches might need further investment, and how to possibly optimize intern retention as well as employee recruitment in their own organization.
So rather than rejecting interns who are interested in careers outside one’s own organizations, supervisors may be able to learn a great deal from these interns and their competitors. The term ‘boomerang employee’ (see Erickson, 2013) has been introduced some years ago to describe employees who return to a former employer. Interns who have had a positive internship experience will not only be more willing to promote the internship provider. In addition, they may also be open to opportunities presented in the future.In becoming employees at a later stage in their careers, they bring talent and insights from other work experiences back to the organization where they completed their internship.
In conclusion, a few factors come into play when we consider the circumstances and behaviors that will support and motivate interns throughout their internship. This short blog post provided some starting points for new internship supervisors.
Want to read more? Here are some useful resources
Ryan Bonnici (2018, September 11). Why I encourage my best employees to consider outside job offers. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-i-encourage-my-best-employees-to-consider-outside-job-offers
Lucy Crowley (2020, September 3). Exploring Remote Internships: Part 3: Virtual Mentoring Tips for Success. Intuition, LLC. https://www.intuition.com/exploring-remote-internships-part-3-virtual-mentoring-tips-for-success/
Tammy Erickson (2013, December 19). Never say goodbye to a great employee. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2013/12/never-say-goodbye-to-a-great-employee
Matthew T. Hora, Matthew Wolfgram, Zi Chen, Jiahong Zhang, and Jacklyn John Fischer (2020). A Sociocultural Analysis of Internship Supervision: Insights from a Mixed-Methods Study of Interns at Five Postsecondary Institutions. WCER Working Paper No. 2020-8, University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/abstract/wcer-working-paper-no.-2020-8
Debora Jeske and Carolyn M. Axtell (2018). The nature of relationships in e-internships: A matter of psychological contract, communication and relational investment. The Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 34(2), 113-121, https://doi.org/10.5093/jwop2018a14
Debora Jeske (2020, August 13). Running Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Employers. Guest contribution published by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://blog.ccwt.wceruw.org/running-virtual-internships-key-tips-for-employers/
About Dr. Debora Jeske
Dr. Jeske is a work psychologist in Berlin, Germany, and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland. She has written a number of practitioner-oriented articles and blog posts about virtual internships.
By Dr. Debora Jeske