How to supervise interns in a virtual environment: Onboarding and orientation

By Rick Kempinski | May 12, 2020

This post is the first in a three-part series on how to ensure a successful virtual experience for interns and supervisors.

There’s no question that federal agencies face challenges in this new virtual environment. But they should continue to offer internship and fellowship opportunities, whether paid or unpaid. Internships introduce students and recent graduates to the government’s important work and encourage them to choose a career in public service. They also build future talent pipelines for the government and help agencies achieve their critical missions.  

The orientation and onboarding process

Onboarding is an important aspect of any internship. It introduces interns to your office, culture and mission, and gives you the opportunity to set expectations. Here are four suggestions to ensure these processes run smoothly in a virtual landscape.

Create an onboarding schedule.

Before your interns start, create a schedule for the first two or three weeks. This could include a detailed agenda for the first two days to help interns find a work rhythm. You want to set expectations from the start.

During their first week, have interns schedule meetings with you, their teammates and colleagues who can connect them to online systems they’ll use from home. Set up an informal virtual team lunch or coffee. And share a list of the people in your office and other departments across your agency for interns to meet with virtually. These conversations will help interns feel like they’re part of the team and enable them to connect the dots between their work and the organization’s mission.

Review the portfolio and project list.

Before interns start, assess how the virtual environment has changed your agency’s needs and affects the work interns can do. Then adjust their portfolios as necessary. Interns may have little or no work experience, so be prepared to give them portfolios and project lists with specific goals, timelines and milestones. A document clearly outlining their work will help interns understand your expectations.

Review the portfolio with your interns, then work together to create one-page “impact plans” outlining the work, and the professional development goals interns would like to achieve.  Communicate regularly as work situations and portfolios change.

Determine the best communication platform.

Discuss your interns’ communication styles and preferences and determine which technology platforms work best for communicating throughout the internship. Consider using video as much possible. It offers a more personal connection and enables you to perceive nonverbal communication. Also decide what’s best for pressing questions or comments—email, texts, calls or video chat—and explain your agency’s rules regarding technology platforms.

Set a meeting cadence.

Start with one-hour check-ins every other day for the first one to two weeks. Then switch to biweekly, 30-minute check-ins to review activities, answer questions, address challenges and discuss preparations for upcoming deadlines. This frequent cadence is helpful for interns who have never worked in a professional setting.

Read the following posts in this series on tips for keeping interns engaged and wrapping up the internship program.


Rick Kempinski