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How to Build and Run a Remote Internship Program

Internship programs are beneficial to the interns that participate and the companies that recruit them. Learn what goes into a successful remote internship program.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
Mar 17, 20216 minutes

Internship programs are beneficial for the organizations that offer them, as well as for the students who participate. While internships have traditionally been carried out in-office or through on-site experiences, there’s no reason you can’t build and successfully run a remote internship program at your company. After all, internships should provide participants with real-world work experience and learning opportunities. And in the current business environment, what’s more real-world than virtual work?

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Decide Where to Use Virtual Interns

Start by deciding which areas of your organization would benefit most from bringing in interns who work remotely. Consider departments and functions where staff can devote time to nurturing newcomers in the field even when the work is remote, and where interns can make real contributions to the organization while also gaining valuable experience.

  • Startups that can’t afford a full team of experienced staffers can often benefit from bringing in talented interns who can learn the business and contribute from the ground up. Those interns just might become full-timers when the company is ready to grow.

  • Departments that often fulfill remote jobs with recent graduates are ideal candidates for internships. Think of your internship program as an audition — these are candidates to consider hiring once they finish school.

  • Internships can be ideal for teams where innovation and new ideas are critical. Interns will gain practical experience and staffers can benefit from the insights provided by fresh perspectives from students on the latest practices and trends currently being taught.

  • It’s also important to remember and emphasize the learning element of internships — think about how you can ensure interns have meaningful work that connects to their area of interest (which can ultimately benefit the company's bottom line, too).

  • Give some consideration to the challenges of managing interns who are working remotely. It’s probably best to limit remote internships to those managers who have experience supervising remote employees, at least when you’re first building your program. After the program is up and running, those managers can help mentor others through the challenges of overseeing virtual interns.

Think of your internship program as an audition — these are candidates to consider hiring once they finish school.

Establish Remote Internship Program Parameters

When you’re building an internship program, it’s important to establish clear guidelines and parameters. Make sure that the scope of the program is clearly defined so that interns — and those who oversee them — all share a common understanding.

  • Internships should be limited to students who are formally enrolled in an internship course through a college, university, community college, or career college.

  • If your company has successful recruiting relationships with certain educational institutions, you may want to establish internships with those schools specifically. You may also want to offer a few “at large” internships that aren’t linked to a specific school.

  • Clearly define any other eligibility requirements. For example, you may want to limit the program to junior or senior students, or to people who are majoring in certain fields relevant to the work they would perform. You might also want to specify certain prerequisite classes interns must have completed in order to be eligible.

  • With remote internships, participants could potentially live anywhere in the world. It may be in your company’s best interests to consider limiting the program to people authorized to work in the country the business is based in, or even to specific states (for taxation concerns, as an example).

  • Equipment is also an important consideration for remote interns. You’ll need to specify what equipment (computer, phone, mobile device, webcam, headphones, etc.) interns must have access to in order to complete their internship duties.

  • Decide how many interns the organization wishes to have at any given time, and budget for compensation accordingly. Under most circumstances, businesses are required to pay interns — this can even apply to nonprofits.

  • The company should designate someone to serve as internship coordinator, who serves as a liaison to the educational institutions, oversees the administrative aspects of the internship program, and is the point of contact for internship applicants and participants.

  • Establish checks and balances to ensure that any school-specific internship requirements are met, such as providing internship advisors with updates on how interns are performing.

  • It’s a good idea to establish a maximum number of hours an intern can work each week, as well as a time limit on how many school semesters or quarters a person is eligible to work as an intern.

  • There should also be an abbreviated policy/procedure manual for interns. It should include a remote work policy as well as any other company guidelines that apply to interns.

Under most circumstances, businesses are required to pay interns — this can even apply to nonprofits.

Follow Remote Internship Hiring Best Practices

Once you’ve established the program parameters and determined the best use of your future interns, you’ll be able to start recruiting and hiring.

  • Wherever you decide to use interns within your organization, designate a few roles specifically as intern positions and tailor the job requirements accordingly. Creating intern-specific job descriptions will help ensure the internship experience is purposeful, productive, and focused.

  • There should be a formal application and screening process in place for your internship program. Not only will this help ensure equal opportunity and inclusion, but it can also help leadership make strategic decisions about which interns to bring in and where to place them.

  • Determine what level of pre-employment screening is necessary for interns, in consultation with your legal counsel. You may want to require background screening, along with some type of pre-employment assessment.

  • Post information about the internship program on the careers page of your company website, including eligibility requirements, whether there are current remote internship openings, and any other relevant information, along with an online application form.

  • Spread the word to educational institutions that offer programs relevant to the type of internships you have available. Reach out to the academic department heads and career services directors and encourage them to let students know about the opportunity.

  • Screen and interview internship candidates based on position availability, offering roles to qualified candidates in a manner consistent with your organization's needs.

  • Provide interns with a streamlined version of your company’s virtual onboarding process, ensure they have access to the remote team collaboration tools they’ll need to use, and then start integrating them into the team!

  • While helping interns build connections with their teams is important, it’s even more crucial for remote hires. Make a point to create space and opportunity for interns to connect with each other on a regular basis.

Creating intern-specific job descriptions will help ensure the internship experience is purposeful, productive, and focused.

Consider Compliance Before Moving Forward

As with all business decisions, compliance is an important consideration when you’re building and implementing a remote internship program. Review key tips for compliant intern hiring, and consult with legal counsel to be sure that your organization is hiring interns the legal way. Even if you already have an on-site internship program and you’re sure it’s compliant, different factors may be at play when it comes to remote interns. Do your due diligence before getting started and you’ll be well on your way to successfully operating an effective virtual internship program.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.