Understanding the basics of a good internship program is easy: give your interns meaningful work, make them feel like valued members of your organization, and supply them with the skills they’ll need throughout their careers. Yep, it all sounds simple, but actually making it happen is another story.
You can spend tons of money on fancy retreats, team-building activities, and training (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but luckily there are also some programs that are super simple to implement that pay a big dividend in intern satisfaction.
Job shadowing generally only requires an investment of employees’ time—it can often be accomplished in as little as an hour—and yet it lets interns understand the bigger picture of your organization and industry. Our very own Editorial & Social Media intern Shane Zackery shares some thoughts on the job shadowing experience and how your company can incorporate this practice for interns and new hires.
During my internship at AfterCollege, I got to shadow people on other teams for short periods of time during the day. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about AfterCollege from people that I don’t usually get to interact with on a daily basis.
Since I am the type of person who loves to absorb and interact with everything in my environment, there was a lot about the structure of AfterCollege’s job shadowing that appealed to me. Most significant was the fact that I was pretty much told all of the basics and then set loose on an office of entirely willing professionals.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can definitely say that there were a few things that made my most recent shadowing experience more enjoyable than those that I’ve had before. Job shadowing at AfterCollege left me with some takeaways that I feel are important to share with those of you who are thinking about adding a job shadowing component to your internship program.
Is your job shadowing program optimal for the eager interns or newly hired minds in your office? Here are some of my tips for producing the most enjoyable shadowing experience for your participants:
- Make shadowing optional for both parties.
The thing that I appreciated the most about AfterCollege’s shadowing program was the fact that the shadowing was completely optional. This meant that I wasn’t going to be forced into learning about things that I didn’t care about.
It also meant that anyone that I chose to shadow knew that I was doing it due to genuine interest and not in order to fill a requirement.
If shadowing is mandatory and neither party actually wants to participate, then the experience becomes a huge waste of time for everyone involved. As we all know, our time during working hours is precious. It’d be a shame to have to waste it against your will.
Requiring that job shadowing be mandatory makes it feel like homework.
I think we all know how everyone feels about homework.
Instead of the shadowing session being a break in the day to do something new and exciting, it becomes a groan-worthy chore.
Outside of the core learning objectives that are a part of your training program for interns and new hires, give them a choice in what they learn and who they learn it from. Let them run wild! Do it this way and I promise that you’ll have a team full of inquisitive people and perpetual learners.
- Share past shadowing success.
As a naturally curious person (with a bit of an aversion to authority), I always want to know why I’m being encouraged to do something and what the logic is behind the objective.
Why am I doing this? Why is this important? How is this relevant to what I’m doing here?
When introducing your program to your interns or new hires, share with them any feedback that you’ve gotten from prior participants. Let them know that those who came before them found shadowing incredibly helpful and useful to them in their new role. Even allow them to connect with past shadows to get the low-down on the perks straight from the source.
If it’s your first year of having a shadowing program, let your shadows know that you want to try something new, and that their experience will be a benchmark against which future iterations of the program will be measured.
Us interns like to know that we are spending our time doing something valuable. Knowing that our experience is going to help optimize a process for the company in the future gives us a sense of importance that could add a lot to the overall evaluation of the interning experience.
- Encourage curiosity.
After learning about the benefits of shadowing in my current position, I got a breakdown of the rules.
There weren’t too many of them. I was to get a glimpse into the roles of other people in the office through Lunch and Learns (something that we do here at AfterCollege where someone in the office presents on their position, experience, and career journey, followed by delicious food!) and then choose someone to have a more in-depth session with at my convenience.
The rest of the guidelines for my shadowing experience were very flexible. I was allowed to choose whatever structure made the most sense for the parties involved (one shadowing session was really hands-on while the other was more like a one-on-one info session). Anyone or anything that piqued my interest was up for grabs, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with my day-to-day work.
For my sessions, I chose our interaction designer and our vice president of engineering. What they do doesn’t have any large impact on the content that I produce—I was just extremely curious about what it meant to be those things in general and at AfterCollege.
Part of building a strong company culture means that you are aware that your employees have interests outside of what they do day-to-day on the job. For example, I happen to be intrigued by UX/UI as well as software engineering. Allowing me to indulge in those interests as the editorial and social media intern may not make me better at my job, but it does make me feel like AfterCollege cares about me as a person, not just as a cog in the content machine.
It may be tempting to limit employees to only shadowing others in their teams, but I encourage you not to implement these types of restrictions. At AfterCollege, we wouldn’t be as good at what we do if we didn’t understand at least a little bit about what everyone does here and how all of our duties complement one another. If you are a company that believes in cross-functionality, allow employees to get to know the basic ins and outs of roles beyond their own desk.
- Emphasize intrinsic value.
Underlying all of the tips above is the importance of how you measure the value of job shadowing. Don’t think about how much it costs you in terms of things like worker productivity, but in the intrinsic rewards of fostering teamwork, being a catalyst for mentorship, and laying the foundation for intersectionality.
The outcome of job shadowing may not always be tangible. Therefore, try not to require some type of tangible proof that the shadowing did its job.
For example, some job shadow programs require participants to produce a report or assignment based on what they learned.
That may work in some cases, but as an intern, I’d rather that my supervisor realize that I’m here to learn for the sake of learning. Adding homework to the experience takes some of the fun out of it (again, homework. Cue eye-roll).
Try getting feedback in the form of a survey instead. You can also have your intern talk briefly about shadowing in a final presentation about the internship as a whole.
As I’ve said before, interning is about sharing and teaching just as much as it is about learning and implementing. There are a lot of questions you should ask and answer for yourself before jumping into job shadowing.
If you are considering creating such an opportunity, remember this: shadowing is more than just sharing space with someone. Make sure that you are capable of offering a comprehensive program and that you have willing participants who are eager to share their wisdom with those of us who are just entering the professional space.
The next step: If your company hosts interns, speak to the coordinator of the program about creating opportunities such as Lunch and Learns or once-a-week shadowing. Make sure that both interns and employees know about this opportunity.