Virtual Summer Internships: What’s Changed

Virtualising Summer Internships: What’s Changed, Ideas And Tips

One of the upsides of 2020 was that the Early Careers (EC) industry rapidly innovated and busted myths about what was possible in a virtual environment. When it comes to virtualising internships specifically, we learned a lot and achieved great things.

We thought it would be helpful to distil some of our observations and provide a number of tips for employers throughout the UK and Asia preparing for a second year of virtual and remote summer internships in 2021.

Interns have specific needs compared to experienced hires or even graduates.

Internships are a two-way street – the employer is testing out the intern, and the intern is testing out the employer. As they are experiencing their first taste of the working world, interns must make an impact in a short amount of time in an (almost entirely) remote environment. From an organisation’s perspective, they want to ensure that interns perform, have fun and importantly want to return as a graduate.

When the pandemic arrived around March 2020, employers in the UK and Asia rapidly virtualised their summer internships in a matter of months. Three trends emerged, shared in a previous blog post:

  1. Condense and simplify

  2. Focus on access and insight

  3. Enhance connectedness and build capability

In 2021, companies are no longer looking to ‘condense and simplify’ but instead ‘expand and restore’. There’s a renewed feeling of optimism and confidence in what can be achieved after the relative success of 2020 internships and 12 months of new capability in a virtual world.

Further, we’re seeing companies continue to focus on ‘access and insight’ into the company, as well as ‘enhancing connectedness and building capability.

At DBL, we’re psychology and behavioural science geeks.

We approach the design of development programs – including virtualising internships – through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT – Ryan & Deci, 2000). If we want people to change their behaviour, the three core psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and connectedness must be met.

In that light, here some ideas and tips to help design your virtual or remote internship in a way that helps to meet these needs – gleaned from the past 12 months of helping companies around the world to do the same:


When interns join an organisation for the first time, their sense of autonomy may actually drop. Particularly as they transition from the autonomy of managing their own responsibilities (such as studies, personal life) in a very structured and stable environment – to entering one where they are being managed, are expected to follow someone else’s agenda and where the environment is less stable, and no two days are the same.

Interns are also at risk of cognitive overload as they have to get to grips with new tech and systems, in addition to getting to know their business and what their role will be in the coming weeks.

Top tips to support Autonomy:

  1. Embed self-directed, blended learning throughout the internship experience so that interns are able to take control of their development.

  2. Add elements of choice into the interns’ agenda e.g. voting on module topics, selecting from options for social engagements, and so on.

  3. Empower interns to host their own events – perhaps in partnership with current graduates or employee network groups.


Research supports the notion that the transition from education to the world of work is one of the hardest in our lives (e.g. Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Luckily there are core behavioural skills that can aid this transition, and ensure your interns hit the ground running.

Our programs reached 120,000+ students, interns and graduates with around 50 employers around the world last year. The most in-demand skills and modules included remote self-management, remote personal brand, remote networking, adaptability, remote teamwork & remote social intelligence.

Top tips to build Competence: 

  1. Provide your interns with training on the core behavioural skills to aid their transition from education to the world of work, with a focus on the remote context.

  2. Have a specific focus on resilience, wellbeing and belonging – empowering interns to understand the role they have to play in looking after their own wellbeing to ultimately be a high-performing intern.

  3. Be crystal clear on the expectations of the interns from day one, removing any uncertainty about what is being asked of them. Remotely, they don’t have the benefit of being able to lean across and ask an intern sitting next to them or walk past their manager’s desk, to double check their understanding. This also goes for the managers of interns so they can be of the best support possible to the interns themselves.

  4. Use action-learning and accountability groups to ensure interns apply their new skills straight away and are supported by their peers.


Our Future Talent Pulse research last year, along with research from the likes of WEF, McKinsey and so on showed that (unsurprisingly) many of us are feeling less connected at the moment. Young people are particularly concerned about how they make an impact and form a network so early on, and virtually.

There’s also a strong belonging and inclusion reason to stay laser-focused on connectedness – interns are on the lookout for whether they belong and feel that they can thrive at your organisation and they may well be currently juggling less than ideal home environments or other pressures at this time.

Top tips to enhance Connectedness:

  1. Think about all the possible ways that you can make an intern feel connected to their peers and to your organisation. This includes peer networking, exposure to managers and senior leaders, contact with alumni (graduates) and much more.

  2. It’s the little things that matter – don’t underestimate the impact of a welcome pack or care package that your interns receive, either before they start or during their first week. Having everyone in branded hoodies, shirts, or with branded mugs is a small but powerful way to foster some sense of belonging.

  3. Create other forms of support such as mentors and buddies – these are invaluable in navigating the working world & the specifics of your business.

The entire early careers industry has an important and big opportunity to really make an impact with remote and virtual internships in 2021. Building upon the success of 2020 and with 12 months of new virtual capability and skills, we look forward to seeing what’s possible!

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Kusia Pell

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