INSIGHTS & IDEAS >> Leadership

What I Learned Managing An Internship On A Virtual Team

Virtual Team Internship

I believe internships are often the best way to get started in a marketing or communications career after schooling is complete. 

Almost twenty years ago, I began my career in marketing and communications with an internship at the Toronto office of a global public relations agency. Over the course of my career, I have supervised, mentored and coached dozens of interns. At its best, there’s a symbiotic process to internship with the intern and their supervisor — teaching, growing, making mistakes and having successes. I count former interns as friends to this day. Many of have gone on to have incredible careers. Collectively, my husband took to calling them Leona’s Intern Army.

These internships on my team were done in a traditional office setting where we had proximity in our favor. Status updates, check-ins, questions and improptu teaching moments all come naturally when the intern, intern supervisor, management and extended team are physically in the same place.

But what about internship with a virtual team like ours at MMK Marketing? 

I have a long association with the program advisory committee for the Post-Graduate Public Relations and Event Management Program at Loyalist College (my alma mater). In February, I was giving my annual guest lecture and did a short blurb about MMK Marketing.

I was pleasantly surprised when a student, Karen Minnis, approached me with her card and expressed interest in completing her field placement requirement with MMK Marketing. I asked to her to do her own research about us and then ping me if she was still interested. 

Entry-Level Talent and Virtual Teams

True confession time. Our virtual team has tried a couple of times to work with entry-level staff with mixed results.

The requirement for supervision is the major kicker. On a virtual team supervision is different than in a co-located (physical) office.

On our virtual team, there isn’t that level of supervision per se. MMK requires team members to be self-starters and get their work done without supervision. Yes, management is accessible via multiple channels to help and support the team. We answer questions, troubleshoot, counsel, guide and instruct. What we can’t do is stand over someone to make sure they do their work.

In my traditional office days, I observed and supervised directly:  

  • I’d notice when our intern was withdrawn. And then think to myself, “I need to take them out for a coffee and a chat”
  • I’d notice our intern off in another part of the office socializing with other interns multiple times a day. And I’d have a quiet word with them
  • I’d notice our intern had a deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. I could immediately ask why and then help her figure it out

As a manager, I structure our project work for success. I assign trusted associates and partners to work on projects and set expectations. Next, I hold team members accountable for delivery, quality and ongoing communication with me, their colleagues, collaborators and clients. It is a grown-up kind of team and not for everyone.

Being a high-performance team working virtually, we learned that our team is not the optimal environment for someone fresh out of school working their first corporate or agency job. 

And then, quite out of the blue, I was approached to consider taking on a different kind of intern. 

Individual Characteristics Are the Deciding Factor

As I outlined above, MMK’s virtual team isn’t an optimal environment for inexperienced entry-level talent. But what about experienced entry-level talent? That’s exactly what Karen offered. Karen had twenty-five years of work experience in a social services environment before she decided on a career change and became a student again. I saw potential in a mature, capable intern candidate with an entreprenuerial spirit and positive attitude to boot.

I arranged to speak with Karen and then I talked with Monica about the potential to take her on as MMK’s first-ever intern.

Obviously, we understood the benefits of having an intern. In the process of completing her academic requirements for hands-on learning at field placement, Karen would receive practical experience with owned, earned and paid media tactics for MMK Marketing and our clients. MMK would receive the benefit of another set of hands to pitch in on project work. 

I knew having an intern would mean extra work for me. And I also know that if anyone is to succeed at MMK as a virtual intern, they need the right mix of experience, attitude and skills.

So after discussions with my colleagues, and soul-searching on my side, we agreed to have Karen join us for her field placement. I signed on the dotted line for four weeks of intense work, learning and teaching. 

Focus on Orientation and Kick-Off

I’m a firm believer in good starts. Ahead of Karen's internship I identified two projects which I felt were achievable in four weeks and would give Karen some portfolio pieces. 

On the first day of her internship, we set up her up on MMK's cloud-based toolset. Microsoft Office 365 for Business and Slack for starters. Followed by Trello and HubSpot. That's a lot of software all at once for anyone. The first day, we got her set up, helped her gain a working knowledge of our team software, introduced to the team, and organized.

And because I've always believed in throwing interns in at the deep end (while remaining close by with lifelines and rescues if needed), Karen made her first contribution to a client project on her first day. 

We scheduled our monthly MMK Team coworking day for the second day of internship. Karen made the trek into Toronto from her home north of Belleville to meet the team face-to-face, attend our all-hands discussions, enjoy a celebration, and get a feel for the individuals with whom she'd be collaborating. 

It was an intense first few days, but well worth the investment to get a virtual intern started on the right foot.

Communication, Check-ins and Ongoing Support

All interns face a steep learning curve. For a virtual intern working from her home office, that learning curve was unique. Without in-person supervision, I implemented processes to make sure Karen got what she needed, felt supported, and that she was using her time productively. We used a shared folder on OneDrive for files and a shared task list on Box.  

We couldn't have had a succesful field placement without Slack. Karen and I were in close contact from day one, establishing a routine where she was able to get her family off to school and work in the morning and then check-in with me. We spoke a couple of times a day. I haven't figured out how to get Slack to tell me how many messages we sent back and forth. Thousands.

Fortunately, I had to be in Belleville for a meeting at Loyalist College last Friday, so we rented ourselves a coworking space and spent the better part of an afternoon working (chatting and laughing) together. 

It wasn't easy, for Karen or for us, to move into this new world of interning. But the end results off the work Karen helped with was excellent, and the experience of exploring the virtual internship was a good learning for everyone involved. I’d be remiss if I didn't call out our incredible MMK team members who helped coach Karen as she contributed to project work. Nancy, Andrew, Paulina, Alexa, Chris, Stephanie and Rob, thank you!

The Verdict: Would We Offer an Internship with our Virtual Team Again?

Yes, if...

  • The intern supervisor has time to dedicate to the internship (at least an hour a day, more hours earlier in the internship)
  • The intern can committ to full-time to the internship, understanding that the nature of virtual work may mean longer days (especially earlier in the internship)
  • You have agreement from your team that they will (a) support the intern with productive learning/teaching/feedback and (b) have reduced access to the intern supervisor during the internship 
  • You find the right candidate who “fits” with your team, culture and workstyle AND has the desired skills and experience

Think you’re up to the challenge of working with MMK? Get in touch. But first, check out what we look for.

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