Remote Control: Intern From Anywhere

How to find, land, and conquer a virtual internship


No wheels? No problem. If you can’t hoof it out to an entertainment hub like New York or Los Angeles, you may be able to build your portfolio and make industry connections without leaving your dorm. Virtual internships allow willing workers to land gigs with employers around the world and complete assignments at your own pace.

In years past, remote internships were only offered by a handful of companies, but a study by of more than 300 human resource and recruitment pros shows that these programs are becoming more common. One-third of employers across all sectors hired virtual interns in 2012, a figure that’s up from 20 percent just a year prior.

Experts are quick to point out that virtual internships (and telecommuting positions in general) aren’t the same as in-person gigs and frequently require different soft skills and technical capabilities. Here’s how to rule the realm of remote internships.

How They Work

Primarily available in internet-friendly fields like social media, marketing, public relations, web design, digital art, fundraising, and video editing, remote internships can both open doors with companies you may not have physical access to otherwise and allow you to build up work experience without leaving campus says, Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success

Where you see freelancers is where you’ll also see [virtual] internships pop up,” he adds. “If you look at the types of jobs and things that freelancers are doing, those are the types of jobs that will be [virtual] internships for students because those are the types of jobs that can be done at home.”

Like their in-person counterparts, virtual internships can be found through college career centers, job-listing sites, and through employers directly. Virtual internships come in two basic formats—programs that require workers to “clock in” on their home computers at set hours and programs that don’t. While the latter option comes with the perk of greater scheduling flexibility, the freedom to work at any hour of the day means that if you get stuck on a problem, you may not be able to move forward until the boss is back in. Programs that can be completed on an intern’s own watch also require discipline and the ability to stay focused amidst all the distractions of home, says Lauren Berger, CEO of the internship info site and author of the book All Work: No Pay.

If a student successfully completes a virtual internship it says a lot about that student and their ability to self-motivate,” she explains. “You hear a lot about executives that work from home and the struggles that go along with that and I think the same things can happen to virtual interns. I really think that being a self-starter, being passionate about the company, and being able to self-motivate is really important.”

Playing up your discipline is one way to sell yourself to virtual internship employers, as is touting your communication skills, adds Berger. Without the ability to communicate in person, interns working remotely absolutely must have sharp writing and speaking skills as well as the drive to keep their superiors updated on their progress.

I always like when [intern candidates] ask about how we communicate because that is very important,” says Berger, who also offers remote internships through “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s a virtual internship, there’s not going to be a lot of communication,’ and that is not the case. I talk to [my interns] six or seven times a day. If anything, you over-communicate because it’s virtual and you want it to be as in-personlike as possible.”

Know the Tools

Different employers will want to communicate using different tools, which means that it behooves anyone eyeing a virtual internship to be familiar with all of them. Skype is a perennial favorite for both audio and video chats, but some employers also request (or require) employees to use platforms like Google Chat, Google Hangouts, HipChat, GoToMeeting, or ooVoo to keep in touch throughout the day.

Timothy Michael Harrington, CEO of the children’s educational media company Happy Medium in New York City, currently employs one part-time animation intern who works remotely. In order to get projects from Harrington’s Manhattan office to the intern’s computer in Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin, Happy Medium relies on file transfer programs.

[Virtual interns] need to be familiar with what’s now called Google Drive [formerly Google Docs],” he says, adding that media professionals who will need to exchange large files on a regular basis should also be familiar with Dropbox and WeTransfer. “I think if you understood those suites of programs, you’d be off to a good start.”

Just getting work materials obviously isn’t enough. Virtual interns will also need to be extra vigilant in chronicling how they spent their working hours and what they accomplished. While some employers may do this through task spreadsheets or verbal updates presented in periodic meetings, others rely on project management software. Cleveland State University graduate Ashley Bennett, who completed a semester-long internship with the New York City digital marketing firm SurchSquad in 2010, recommends that virtual interns familiarize themselves with project management programs like Basecamp, Freedcamp, and Wiggio that companies use to track task completion and manage remote teams.

Even if tracking your work isn’t an explicit job requirement, keeping tabs on your projects and progress can provide concrete evidence of your accomplishments, which could be useful to both your internship supervisor and future employers.

If you create a Google Drive spreadsheet, you can both have correspondence with your employer that way and everyday you can say this is what you worked on and your employer can check off on it,” Bennett says. “That way you have something that goes back to reference everything you’ve done during the internship.”

Get Noticed

One major obstacle that even the most seasoned remote workers must overcome is staying on the boss’s radar. A study by Stanford University shows that despite the fact that telecommuters were more satisfied and productive when working from home, they were less likely to be promoted. One way to stay in the limelight is to think beyond your immediate job responsibilities, says Alex Abbott, editor and website manager for Metrowize, a lifestyle publication that offers both in-person and virtual internships.

My favorite thing is when an intern just provides some ideas for either how something can look better or work better, how something can function better on the site,” he says. “We’ve gotten a lot of really good ideas from our interns that have helped grow us as a brand.”

For example, an intern last year suggested that one way to better promote Metrowize would be to offer additional giveaway entries and extra guest passes to those who share the brand’s events and contests through Facebook and Twitter. The move resulted in a 200 percent increase in social media activity around the brand’s giveaways and an offer for the intern to freelance for the company once the internship was over.

Adam Itkoff has hosted four virtual interns for his music management and eco-fashion brand, Origami Everything, and recommends meeting with your internship coordinator face to face at least once if possible.

If somebody is sitting in their dorm room and plugging away ten hours a week, but they don’t really talk about it with their peers, they’re not really active in terms of meeting members of the company, they actually don’t want to go above and beyond, the internship is going to be hugely limited,” he says. “Virtual only goes so far. … Nothing is as powerful as human-to-human interaction.”

Be Social

One reason remote workers are more overlooked for promotions is that it’s oftentimes harder to make social connections when working from home. Even if you don’t want a job with the company you’re interning for, finding mentoring relationships and establishing industry contacts is vital for securing your place in that field. While interns who are physically in the office may be able to make those connections organically, virtual interns will need to be proactive about it.

The key to finding a mentor is “being open and asking questions and not being afraid of the feedback,” says Jaki Lauper, founder and host of Jaki’s Buzz, a video production and radio voiceover company that also produces a talk show. Located in New Haven, Conn., Jaki’s Buzz has hosted eight remote interns. “Mentors are all around, just be open to it.”

Creating a plan for expanding your industry connections is also helpful says, Itkoff. Virtual interns can connect with both their coworkers and industry players outside of the company by reaching out through LinkedIn or emailing future mentors directly. From there, Itkoff recommends introducing yourself and asking for a five-minute phone meeting so you can ask questions about how that person got to their current position.

You’ve got to be willing to be outgoing, reach out to people, ask for people to be your mentor, ask for people to give advice, ask for their perspective,” Itkoff says.

And do it soon. The faster you can make those connections and establish a foothold in your field, the better. Since many internships are part-time and only last a few months, there isn’t a lot of time to familiarize yourself with the industry or the people who make it run. 

You want to really dig your teeth in once you start,” says Abbott. “Immediately start trying to learn the flow of things and don’t wait for your managers to tell you what to do. It’s important to ask questions.”

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