Since the deployment of their Virtual Internship programme four years ago, global provider of unified IP business communication solutions, Interactive Intelligence, Inc.  extends the opportunity to a handful of interns each year to continue with their projects into the academic year on a remote basis.  This arrangement has provided attractive benefits to the company and participants alike.

Building a successful Virtual Internship Programme
A Virtual Internship Programme is not something that can just be thrown together, cautions Debbie Linville, corporate recruiter at Interactive Intelligence. It requires planning and discipline. But once the formula is right, it can be extremely rewarding.
Interactive Intelligence’s virtual route is a natural progression from the company’s traditional intern programme and has been a great success. The best part, according to Linville, has been the opportunity to identify some real star talent, which have since gone on to become valuable members of the Interactive Intelligence team.
Linville shares some of the factors which, in her opinion, have contributed to the programme’s success:
*  Choosing the right personalities: Consideration needs to be given to both prospective candidates and to the management that will be responsible. “The right virtual candidate is typically a self-starter, able to work diligently and independently” says Linville. “But the perfect candidate still needs to be managed correctly, so the management responsible is equally important.  They need to be able to identify and delineate appropriate tasks to be delegated that will suite the candidate’s skills and still allow them to add value. Managers also need to be able to be available from a leadership perspective for guidance, feedback and mentoring – all integral parts of any internship programme.”
* Setting the stage: Linville recommends hosting a virtual intern in the workplace prior to deploying them remotely. “By having the candidate on site, you can identify first hand if they have the makings of a virtual candidate. You will also have the opportunity to properly induct the individual into your corporate culture, and help them gain better insight into how your business operates.  In this way, when they are working outside of this environment, they will have the correct point of reference,” says Linville.
*  Open communication: Communication is fundamental to the entire programme. Managers need to be able to clearly define and communicate their expectations and candidates need to be fluent enough to provide feedback on their work and be able to articulate any problems or concerns.
*  Ongoing Involvement: Interactive Intelligence uses numerous means of keeping critical lines of communication open and virtual interns involved as much as possible.  For example, candidates keep their company e-mail accounts to ensure they are continually up to date with company news and events. They are invited to present on their projects, via video- or tele-conferencing at company meetings and encouraged to participate in various brainstorm sessions where possible.
Besides the obvious financial benefits around virtualisation, companies gain access to sustainable quality skills that – if used creatively – can add real value to their business plus relieve pressures from permanent staff.  They also get to preview the upcoming talent that is moving through the ranks.  By the time they are ready to enter the workforce, a virtual intern is an immediate asset to the business and starts contributing immediately – ramp-up time is nearly negated.
Interns themselves benefit enormously. Opportunity for work experience is extended into the academic year.  Working remotely means that an intern is not bound to specific set hours, but is able to work in and around their course schedules, free time and even part-time employment. It can also remove geographical constraints, allowing learners located outside of major metropolitan equal opportunity for exposure in the field of their choice.
Candidates are encouraged to work independently to complete these assignments. Becoming self-reliant and through making a positive contribution to the companies they are working for, is great confidence builders and an invaluable lesson in self worth. These kinds of life skills cannot be taught in any institution.
There is a drive among enterprises in South Africa to invest in the development of our youth. More and more companies are making themselves available to mentor emerging skills. This has seen a growing number of internships becoming available, particularly in those areas such as engineering and technology where skills are scarce.  With the opening up of Africa in terms of connectivity, enterprises will be able to offer virtual internships more widely as a means of facilitating this skills transfer, and as a means of bridging both geographic and economic gaps that exist in our country.
Linville's parting advice for organisations that are still hesitant about launching virtual internships? “Don’t rule anything out, be brave, and you will be surprised by the level of work done by students who work remotely.”