From giving the right feedback to forming long-term relationships, here are 15 real ways for all managers on how to motivate interns.
Interns may be short-term employees, but with motivation and the right guidance, a manager can make them valuable long-term assets for the company. Sure, there is a high chance they may not stick or deliver results, but they’re enthusiastic, willing to learn, and sometimes really talented. Plus interns who have a good experience go on to spread good word about the company.
The ShilpaAhuja.com (SAM) Internship Program is currently in its 5th batch and its success is in the fact that many new applicants apply because my ex-interns recommended the program to them. As an intern manager, I have hired some of my interns as regular employees after the SAM internship program ended. In fact, I personally prefer hiring someone I trained right out of college more than hiring experienced employees and making them unlearn and relearn.
So I prefer treating my internships as training positions. That’s why I have created a must-read guide for all intern mentors and managers. These tips on how to motivate interns is based on my experiences.
15 Ways to Motivate Interns and Increase Engagement
1. Plan a Long Lasting Relationship
Think about why you should hire interns. The interns join temporarily, and the time it takes to train them isn’t worth it for most companies as once they are trained, it’s already time for them to leave. So think of what real long-term benefits your company will have if you hire interns. It could be to attract talent, or get youngsters’ perspectives, etc. This will motivate you to build a proper relationship with them, mentor them and keep in touch with them even afterwards.
2. Take Time to Get to Know Them
And that brings us to the second point. The first step to creating a long-lasting relationship is to get to know them well, take genuine interest in their work. Ask them about their skills, interests and what they want to contribute to the company.
If you take time to read their applications or understand their potential, they’ll feel encouraged to contribute, as they’ll get the idea that you chose them, not just found them.
In my beginning-of-program review call, I ask interns why they wanted to join, and if the work so far has been up to their expectations. I also ask them what projects they want to work on. Making them feel like a real part of the company will build loyalty and motivate interns.
3. Let the Interns Make Real Contributions
When I was an intern back in 2005, my main job was to put sheets in the printer, sit and wait for my next assignments, fold blueprints.
But one day I walked up to my hiring officer and blurted, “Give me more work, I’m out of work!” To my surprise, she was really happy at my enthusiasm and let me assist her in making a project report. That stint got me my first job as a project manager, based on which experience I got into Harvard’s master’s in project management program. That was a great leadership lesson for me – smart interns want to work on real things.
Give them work that matters. If you think hard, there are many tasks that a young enthusiastic person can do without getting bored, which the company actually needs.
Usually, they should be tasks that take too long (so they would be too expensive if you let a permanent staff do them) or need a fresh perspective. Examples include field research, consumer analysis, product testing, assistance in PR activities, social media marketing, etc.
4. Align Their Goals with Your Company’s
Every intern joins the company with their own goals. Aligning your company’s goals with those of an employee is one of the best leadership secrets. While some managers may think that personal goals can deter an employee from being loyal, a good leader uses personal motivations to the company’s advantage. They make sure the employees know why delivering results will benefit them too.
Understanding the intern’s goals or ambitions is key to aligning them. Plus, this will make the intern feel valued (because you care about their ambition) and that encourages them to work hard.
5. Set an Example for Them
The best way to motivate interns to be good employees is to show them how, by being one yourself. Interns watch closely.
So make sure you do everything you expect them to – respect your colleagues, be punctual, keep your promises, be honest and work smart. Be professional in your communication, take accountability for your actions, and admit your mistakes easily, where necessary. Interns love a good leader they can follow, and will appreciate having a good role model right in their first work experience.
6. Keep Them Busy
The best internship programs are those where interns have enough work so that they are never free! The trick to getting quality work done from interns is to split major projects into small, easy-to-understand tasks that you can create briefs and deadlines for. If these are repetitive year after year, it’s very efficient to make video tutorials or detailed written briefs.
Giving them enough work will not just motivate interns but also make them accountable. Set deadlines and follow up, encourage them to come to you as soon as their work is finished. Teach them good work ethics like replying to emails ASAP, and importance of deadlines, etc.
7. Help Them Broaden Their Horizon
If your interns are smart, they will want to learn from each other as much as from their mentor. They are here to work with people of all ages and from different cities. Smart people are curious, and they want to increase their cultural quotient.
I learned this from the Harvard application process, which tries to select students that can create a diverse class. Try attracting applicants from different colleges, education backgrounds or interests, to create an interesting group of interns who can learn from one another and also do complementary tasks. You can do this by promoting your internship program beforehand.
It makes for interesting intro sessions and brainstorming sessions, too. They contribute fresh ideas to the pool. Also, it’ll help you learn different perspectives from the younger generation.
8. Keep It Flexible & Help Them Stay On
Every intern’s work requirement is different. Some have their classes going on and want to work evenings and weekends, some are pursuing part-time college, while others want to work full days during the summer break. Some can work from home while others’ home situation doesn’t permit a lot of work.
Keeping a flexible schedule for them helps them maximize their contributing hours. For example, I let my interns know (in their acceptance email) that I am okay with them taking time off for exams, school work or mental health days.
Often times, an intern’s workload expectations don’t match with the internship after they join, and they want to quit or work slow. It’s a good idea to understand why they are leaving or missing deadlines. Give them the benefit of doubt, help them stay on instead of quitting by encouraging and mentoring them. But yet, respect their decision and privacy.
9. Give Individual Work According to Their Strengths
Every intern is different, and wants to be treated that way. Once you get to know the strengths, skill-sets and expectations of each intern, it’s going to be easy to give them projects they find interesting and challenging too.
They will be more likely to give their best if they know you’re trying to give them the most suitable work. However, explain to them the importance of being flexible in a work environment, and that not all the work they get can be of their choice.
10. Provide Timely Feedback
Give feedback to interns, both written and verbal. For example, I conduct 3 calls for all interns, in addition to anything scheduled to discuss everyday work. These include:
- A beginning-of-program review call for intro, expectations & help with first few tasks.
- A mid-program review call that helps them keep a track of their work so far and next targets.
- And an end-of-program review call in which we discuss feedback for each other, and I mentor them/ give them advice about their future career, if requested. I tell them how their work was overall, and also get their advice on improvement of the internship program.
Feedback is important for every employee, but more so for interns, as they have little to no knowledge of how well they’re doing in the real world. Set meetings or get on calls with them to clear their doubts or improve their work. Encourage them to ask questions. Be patient if they ask for clarifications again and again or suggest a bad idea.
11. Try Bonding Activities
Young employees love activities that help them work with or get to know their peers. This is the #1 feedback I have received on ShilpaAhuja.com internship program. Interns want to have more group projects or excuses for them to create contacts in the industry, or get to know more people their age from different colleges/backgrounds.
Bonding activities can be a Starbucks trip, pizza evening, or a fun on-campus activity like a girls vs. boys game. You can ask their suggestion for internship activities. If you have remote interns, host a Zoom call for introductions, or a group project where each intern has to get a survey filled by other interns/staff about a company task.
12. Create Healthy Competition
Healthy competition should motivate interns to keep up with the best among the team, instead of feeling discouraged. The way to create healthy competition is to applaud good work in front of everyone and discuss mistakes privately. A competitive environment helps young employees deliver good results – and fast.
For example, you can fill in your shared task sheet for each intern who completes the task so they can all view and get an idea of what’s left, etc. It can also create healthy competition as no one wants to be left behind. You can also announce task deadlines on a WhatsApp group and applaud those who are first to complete or have done a great job.
13. Give Encouragement
Everyone, not just interns, wants to work in a positive work environment. Interns are youngsters and are used to getting marks or grades for their college assignments. When they join an office, they’re mostly unaware that in a job, the not-getting-fired part and salary are usually considered enough encouragement by managers.
So it’s a good idea to give them a bit of encouragement here and there, like I give them a ‘star’ and a great, good (or sometimes not-great!) rating on their work so they know how they’re doing. Try to improve not fire, tell them if they’re doing something well, and give soft constructive feedback when they need improvement. Tell them why the work they’re doing is important to the company.
14. Make Them Feel Heard
Interns’ ideas may be raw and mostly impractical or already tried, but it’s still important that they feel encouraged to speak up. The best time to get their ideas is actually towards the end of the internship, when they know enough about the work to give good ideas. Ask them for any improvement tips on the internship program, learn about their experience.
Listening to an intern’s ideas is not just good courtesy. Think of it as an industry-relations building activity, too. Ask them their future plans and keep in touch with them, because you never know when you’ll need their help – they may go on and join a client and recommend your company, or even get you a job at their next company in the future. So it’s definitely a good idea to encourage them to pursue their dreams.
15. Let Their Benefits Extend Beyond Internship
I think this is similar to the first point, so it has all come full circle. Since I already mentioned that creating long-term relationships is a great way to motivate interns, this mentorship will extend even after they leave.
Guide them for the future in the exit interview. Advise them to improve their skill-sets to be more employable in future. Help them build their online presence and give them personality development tips.
Never hesitate to introduce them to your connections if they request it, and to give them a recommendation in the future. Give them advice to further their career or higher education if they need it. Create an environment where they can come to you for any professional advice. They’ll always return the favor in some way or the other.