When COVID-19 shut the doors to much of the world’s economy earlier this year, internships also took a hard blow as companies canceled their planned internship programs. However, at AArete, a Chicago-based global consulting firm, we decided to re-structure rather than hit the cancel button. In fact, because we knew a lot of consulting companies were cancelling their programs, we made the decision to take on even more students than we’d planned on accepting.
Our virtual internship program began in May with 17 interns from 10 educational institutions working in eight states. By the time the program was set to wind down in late June, it had become clear that the interns were gaining valuable knowledge and experience. Likewise, clients were experiencing added value. As a result, we extended the program from a shortened six weeks to the originally planned 11 weeks — after which most of the interns received formal offers to continue on with AArete as analysts starting in 2021.
The program was — by both pandemic and pre-pandemic metrics — a resounding success. Interns were able to succeed on the same day-to-day tasks virtually that they would have had in-person, including pro-bono work for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls to assist them in their annual fundraising in a virtual environment, as well as a number of other projects involving strategic cost reduction, procurement, data and analytics, technology implementation, research, and data gathering.
“The interns achieved success despite, or maybe even because of, the program’s unconventional format. In fact, by some metrics, this was our most successful intern class,” noted AArete’s CEO Loren Trimble. “We had our largest team of interns yet, with broader geographical diversity than would have been possible had we met in-person in Chicago.”
Concentrating on Communication
In past years, interns were able to pick up on the company culture simply by being in the office, meeting new people every day, or being on client locations, working side by side with their teams. Team leaders quickly realized the importance of keeping these qualities in the remote experience, so they established proactive touch points between interns and people in many different roles throughout the company.
To “bring our culture” to the interns, we scheduled more formal interactions with more people at all seniority levels of the firm. The interns probably had more exposure with more leaders than in other years. We felt we were able to further demonstrate company culture with events like virtual breakfasts and other social events like mentorship and buddy programs.
Determining the right amount of communication, involving everyone — including interns, intern buddies, engagement teams, managing directors, senior leadership, and clients — was critical and required some initial adjustments. If we had known at the start of the program that the interns would lean heavily upon their peer group of other interns for support, to ask questions, compare notes, and build relationships — and if we had known the internship would be remote — we would have made introductions among the interns much earlier before the formal program started.
Additionally, when we started back in May we thought the program would only last six weeks, so we accelerated their formal training in the first week rather than trying to intermix it throughout the normal course of the internship’s 11 weeks. With the knowledge that we would actually have more time, we would have provided the formal training more consistently through their entire experience.
The feedback of our interns testifies to the success of the program. In particular, interns voiced appreciation for the well-structured communication plan, from social events to check-ins and one-on-ones with others across the company.
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One intern noted an important lesson she learned specifically because she wasn’t in the same room, or building, as her supervisors: It’s OK to ask for help, as well as to communicate areas of confusion when they occur rather than wait.
Working virtually, it was important for the interns to proactively reach out to supervisors and each other for help, updates, and networking. This is imperative in a situation in which you can’t simply look up from your desk or go get coffee and find those once-spontaneous interactions. However because of this, the interns found that they were able to have virtual face time with a broader array of people within AArete, especially in an industry in which, during normal times, employees are often out of the office on assignment.
One of our interns, Leah Carson, mentioned that since colleagues were traveling less, she was able to see what consulting really boiled down to. “This internship was a good reality check that is not the only part of consulting,” Leah explains. “The fact that I really enjoyed the actual work I was doing made me even more excited for when things are more normal and I’ll get to experience the more exciting aspects.”
Overall, we were incredibly impressed with how the internship played out for the interns, the company, and clients. We have also all learned the value of pivoting to adapt to the constraints of today’s world, rather than pull the plug when faced with a new challenge. Most importantly, we didn’t just provide a substandard attempt at carbon-copying an experience from in-person to online.
By refocusing on important areas such as communication and learning and adapting along the way, we were able to offer an experience that by some metrics surpassed the past. We’ll take the lessons we learned into account when we plan next summer’s internships, be they virtual or in-person.