When COVID-19 kicked the world off its axis in March of 2020, university students were sent home quickly — and the spring semester became a chapter in a somewhat dystopian novel. Everyone was hoping for a quick resolution, but reality set in.
Summer internships were disrupted in big ways — over 35% were canceled outright, according to a study conducted by Yello. For others, virtual internships and virtual campus recruiting were about to become the new normal.
At Cisco, the entire company looks forward to our interns’ arrival, and when the pandemic hit we had to decide whether we’d do things differently or throw in the towel as well. And since we never do anything like anyone else, creating the ideal virtual internship experience became our mission.
Working remotely was already part of our corporate culture at Cisco, and we were the company that enabled the network to handle the new work-from-home surge as well as the software that was bringing people together on that network. The tech wasn’t the challenge — it was the other implications.
However, our business partners were 100% in — and thought Cisco should set the standard for what the best virtual internship experience is like! Within 48 hours, we had the green light to revamp our entire internship program.
Once that was decided, we knew that communicating with our interns would be really important. As they watched their friends and classmates lose opportunities, they looked to us to make things okay in a not-okay world.
Then we started to create our plan for our first class of virtual interns at Cisco, where every. single. offer. was honored.
Rally note: The Cisco team has been leading the industry in creating exceptional internship experiences and campus recruiting initiatives. The team won Best Recruitment Marketing Campaign (among many other awards!) at this year’s Rally® Awards for their #WeAreCisco National Intern Week campaign in 2019.
A 3-Point Plan for Conducting Virtual Internships
1. Setting up a home office and building community
Our first priority was ensuring that the students were set up for success. We evaluated the expense that our interns would have to put towards setting up a home office: a chair, desk and good internet access.
For those who would’ve received relocation, they were compensated via a cash bonus for their remote housing. Pay remained the same (or was adjusted for market pay if they were outside their country of offer), and sometimes increased if they had moved to a higher-cost location for shelter-at-home.
Next, we thought about how we could build community. Most of our events would have to happen online. We wouldn’t be able to have team activities like intern dinners, bowling or going to sporting events together.
So we focused on building an online community. Using Webex Teams, we created team chat rooms that students could use to connect before their virtual internship started. They were excited to build relationships with each other and their new teams!
2. Online onboarding
We carried the online engagement approach through to onboarding, with an e-learning module that aggregated different elements of what it was like to join Cisco. One section discussed the benefits and resources that would be available to them as an employee. Another had all the tools, systems and processes they’d need to be productive.
We built our onboarding program like a game — you’re getting in a car for a road trip: pick your avatar and drive to different spots on Cisco Island. Don’t miss Server Mountain or Cloud Lake!
We partnered with our learning & development technical team to put it together. When you first come on board as a remote employee, scheduling every minute can feel intense and overwhelming. A self-directed approach allows for free space for exploration. It made time for the students’ curiosity.
I think by now we all know that remote vs. in-office work and learning are not apples to apples. We knew that the interns would need a little time to digest and learn at their own pace.
3. The Cisco Disco
No internship — virtual or otherwise — is complete without a little fun!! Our “Cisco Disco” became a favorite: everyone logged into Webex wearing hats and sunglasses and we danced to crazy music. We also had dog parades, coffee talks, happy hours and an executive speaker series.
Because they’re also working remotely, it was actually easier to get some of our top executives to share their time to speak with our interns. During this time, our CEO and executive team have also been doing weekly company check-ins. As a whole company, we talked about a number of different topics each week. On one call, Dr. Fauci and a team of 3 doctors joined us to discuss medical and mental health, debunk myths and share how to stay safe.
We also had thought leaders like Brian Stephenson from Equal Justice Initiative and Darren Walker from Ford Foundation join us to discuss racial injustice.
Our interns joined in and participated in these conversations along with 75,000 employees around the world. We got an amazing response from our interns. They felt included and a part of the Cisco fabric, even though they were working remotely.
All-in-all, the virtual internships have been an incredible success. Low-friction onboarding, trained hiring managers and purposeful culture integration all contributed to a virtual internship experience worth repeating.
So now that the virtual experience needs to continue past the summer, how do we repeat it? After all, campus recruiting looks a lot different when we’re not on-campus!
Virtual Campus Recruiting
Usually our campus recruiting strategy would include a good balance of in-person events and conferences, like the Grace Hopper Celebration, and events associated with the National Society for Black Engineers and the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers. Typically, recruiting events would be supplemented with digital marketing.
But in today’s world, our strategy must be 100% digital.
So we needed to think through how to create a conference booth setting in a virtual space. Continuing to showcase who we are from a company culture perspective, even while communicating with talent remotely, became our new goal.
Content like photography and video is more critically important in a virtual environment. Our employees help set the tone and provide that content. We showcase employee stories on all our social media platforms including Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
We’ve also been creative in finding new strategies and exploring new channels like TikTok. We post using the hashtag #WeAreCisco, and create challenges for our interns to create their own videos. Their creativity has been phenomenal! It’s a fun and engaging way to showcase our company culture, and what it’s like to do a virtual internship with Cisco.
LinkedIn Live is also a relatively new channel for us. Although it’s typically been a place for professional hiring, we’re seeing a lot of university candidates moving onto LinkedIn as well.
Rally note: The Cisco team won best use of Organic Social Media at this year’s Rally® Awards for their use of LinkedIn Live. Learn more about this in the Rally blog, What Makes the Cisco Employer Brand Team so Successful?
This new digital-first strategy uses the same foundational elements that we’ve always seen success with: employees telling our story. We’ve just given them new platforms by which to do so.
Your best asset is your interns themselves!
Through this process, we’ve learned that the best asset we have in creating amazing virtual internship experiences and attracting new candidates is our interns! All we had to do was harness their energy, passion and ability to tell a story.