Virtual summer internship programs: Erin Pierpoint discusses how BMS made the shift to virtual amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

A lot of the students had turned down other offers to accept an internship at BMS, we wanted to do everything we could to avoid rescinding those offers. Erin Pierpoint
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the U.S. in March, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) Worldwide Director of Diversity Recruiting Erin Pierpoint and her team knew they had a big decision to make regarding their summer internship program.

Many companies were weighing whether to shorten or cancel their programs — but by the first week of April, BMS decided to move forward and revamp their program to be completely virtual.

Erin said it was important for the team to honor the BMS mission — and the offers they had extended to the students.

Erin added it was essential for BMS to continue to stay invested in early career talent and the communities where they live and serve. “A lot of the students had turned down other offers to accept an internship at BMS, we wanted to do everything we could to avoid rescinding those offers,” said Erin. “It required a good bit of creativity because our offices have been closed, which means only business critical personnel are working in labs, and many of our intern roles are lab based.”

Erin and her team started out by meeting with key stakeholders to solicit feedback.

“We wanted to make sure we were able to drive a consistent message that our goal is to honor offers,” she said. “So, we made ourselves available to answer questions and give suggestions on what that message was.”

Next, the team deployed a communication plan that explained to the students what the program would look like.

We wanted to make sure our students were receptive to a different experience than what they were originally counting on. Erin Pierpoint
The first piece was a poll on their willingness to work virtually over the summer. “We wanted to make sure our students were receptive to a different experience than what they were originally counting on,” said Erin. “We also didn't know if they had backup offers that were not being impacted by COVID-19 and would allow them to get the hands-on experience they were looking for.”

The team found that 90 percent of the students were still interested in doing the internship.

The second piece was a survey about the logistics of the program, which included questions about whether interns had the equipment required to complete the internship.

“We planned on leveraging a virtual desktop, so we needed to know if they had a laptop or desktop capable of downloading that,” Erin said. “The results from that were overwhelmingly favorable as well.”

Over-communication with the interns was key, said Erin, so once the team had their survey responses, they shared a full overview of the program and how it was changing.

Many managers at BMS had never managed virtual employees before, so Erin and her team created a training program.

We gave our managers guidance to ensure they were connecting with interns daily. Then we started pulling apart complex projects and helped managers understand how to ensure interns would know what their deliverables were going to be. Erin Pierpoint
They trained approximately 250 managers on the programming and shared tips on how to manage and communicate with a virtual intern.

Erin's team did research through the Ivy Research Council to inform that training — which showed students want a five- to 10-minute connection with their manager every day as well as a 30-minute connection every week.

“We gave our managers guidance to ensure they were connecting with interns daily,” she said. “Then we started pulling apart complex projects and helped managers understand how to ensure interns would know what their deliverables were going to be. We also shared ways for hiring managers to keep track of goals and objectives and what the interns wanted to focus on from a development perspective.”

The team took key steps to ensure the interns would receive a robust summer program from their homes.

“We are hosting a monthly speaker series of leaders who will talk about the business, and to provide structure, each month this summer will center around a specific theme,” said Erin. “We also launched a mentorship program and LinkedIn community for all of our interns so they can network and stay connected.”

Next, the team created Yammer groups for interns to communicate about different topics, including books they're reading and current events.

To make sure interns reach their learning and development goals, Erin's team will also offer two instructor-led virtual training sessions and gave the interns access to LinkedIn Learning.

“All of this will benefit managers as well, we want to make sure the interns are continuing to deliver work like they would be if the program was onsite. It was a win-win for our business leaders and our interns,” she said.

Before the program kicked off on June 1st, the team sent out welcome packets to every intern.

“The package included some BMS branded items and a note recognizing things were different this year, but we're excited they chose BMS,” she said. “We also created a team montage welcome video that was released right before they started.”

After some initial pushback, the new program has been received well across the organization.

These interns chose us for a reason, because experience working at BMS can go a long way to help them land a full-time job. Erin Pierpoint
Erin said that, because the team began making decisions early on in the pandemic, there was concern that a virtual internship would be unnecessary by summertime.

“We had some dialogue about what would happen if we ended up being back in the office by June,” she said. “But after consulting with our internal environmental health and safety team and with guidance from our CEO on the return to work plan, we did not feel certain that people would be back to work by June 1st.”

She said they hope if the office does open back up at some point during the summer, they can bring the interns on-site to do final presentations and have the interns meet with their key stakeholders.

Erin shared that the biggest challenge along the way has been finding alternate assignments for lab-based interns.

“These interns chose us for a reason, because experience working at BMS can go a long way to help them land a full-time job,” she said. “Some schools require internships to be completed before students graduate. So, the hardest part was to decide, in lieu of 10 to 12 weeks of hands-on experience, what we could offer in a virtual setting that would still make an impact and allow some of these students to graduate.”

Erin said the team worked with certain schools and got creative with their solutions. For example, one of their interns will be doing his BMS work in his school's lab.

She's most looking forward to how the energy from the interns will drive flexibility and innovation throughout the program.

We can help those managers by providing additional support, guidance, training, and tips for success. That will help us end up in a place where we can look back and know it was a fantastic summer. Erin Pierpoint
According to Erin, the interns have already started sharing ideas on how to collaborate virtually and sharing tools and suggestions for videos and how to capture and share presentations.

“I think they'll step up to the challenge and wow us this year,” she said. “Even though they're virtual, it's going to be a phenomenal experience for our managers and interns. I'm excited to be able to tell that story once the internship is complete as well.”

Erin has found that transparent communication with their stakeholders and students has been key throughout the entire process.

“Be clear with students and let them know their experience is going to be different and the outcomes may be different, but we're here to support them every step of the way,” she said. “Then, it's important to share that same communication back to the key stakeholders.”

Erin also said not to be afraid of tweaking expectations and get creative with what success looks like.

“Delivering a great experience virtually might look different from when that experience was onsite, and that's okay,” she said.

Lastly, she suggested offering additional touchpoints and programming for stakeholders.

“It's not always easy for managers to manage a virtual new hire, especially those new hires who don't have any previous work experience,” said Erin. “We can help those managers by providing additional support, guidance, training, and tips for success. That will help us end up in a place where we can look back and know it was a fantastic summer.”

Erin Pierpoint has been a member of the Talent Marketing Board since 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.