In big offices, interns seem to be an integral part of the operations. Over the years, I have interacted with plenty of them – some worked in my team and some in other departments (just for my benefit to borrow their lunch money). It is fair to say that interns are per se very different from full-timers, and this often creates misunderstandings between us and them. However, there is a way to overcome this obstacle:
Build the bridge together
One of the common hurdles for interns is connecting to the rest of the colleagues with the demographical differences (my polite way of comparing a hatchling with a bunch of dinosaurs). The generation gap is real, and there’s only one sensible thing to do with a gap: you bridge it.
Any workplace is going to be a mix of age, gender, nationality, and age (did I mention ‘age’ twice? Never mind). Don’t let these differences become a hindrance – because diversity brings different contributions to the team (or, in different words, “Jurassic Park is thrilling, FarmVille is fun”). As long as both sides are willing to make efforts to adapt to each other, you will be fine.
My daily rituals with the interns include exchanging memes and making fun of each other. It is somewhat like getting to know a new cousin in your extended family (my polite way of saying how we insult each other, and sometimes our immediate family member: “yo’ momma is so fat, she never visits you at work because she is modelling for Jurassic Park”). Having them around brings joy (and more) to the workplace.
Give them challenges
Unfortunately, it is quite common for interns to be assigned with with menial tasks such as making copies and coffee, or renaming files. And sometimes offices hire interns as additional helping hands to clear simple administrative tasks that the full-timers do not have time for. This is a misconception between “temporary staff” and “interns”.
To make this clear: An internship is about a “sneak peek” into the workplace, with a possibility for the interns to join the company as a full-timer (or temporary staff) later.
If the interns are only getting menial tasks, they will get them done, sure, but they will most likely be disengaged and bored, and the company will not be able to push them to their full potential. This is then a “lose-lose” situation. It shouldn’t (and it doesn’t need to) be that way.
Internship, a two-way street
To start with, both the employer and the interns (and the staff) need to humble down and admit that none of them know for sure what the intern can offer. That may sounds like flimsy uncertainty, but look at the other side of the coin: imagine the possibility. Without stereotyping too much: interns have fresh eyes, they are skilled with new technologies and full of energy. There must be something good to be derived from this. Everybody is good at something.
The team leaders: It will be best for you to involve the interns in real projects. Throw challenges that you face at them, and listen to their unboxed ideas and perspectives. That could bring a lot of “first principles thinking”, and many companies need it. You may not get Elon Musk to work for you, but these interns may be a good substitute (that is, if you get them to work with you).
The interns: You may be a bit intimidated by your workplace. Everything is new, the boss is scary, colleagues are hairy. After you’ve passed that hurdle, take a proactive stance: ask questions, give suggestions, take a chance. How will the employer know what you can do if you don’t show it?
The team members: Remember, this is about building the bridge together. Acting like a boss is easy. Being a boss is not. Becoming a mentor, now that is hard. You do not earn the interns’ respect just for being old. And you aren’t of much use to them if you cannot coach them. You can make a real difference if you set the atmosphere right and include the interns. See the result by yourself. Plus, it is a good chance to practice your coaching skills.
This is how to turn a potential “lose-lose” into a “win-win” situation. If you don’t see the logic in there, you are probably still stuck in the first Jurassic Park.
I can say all of these things because I have been in both positions: the company’s and the interns’. My career began as an intern, and I learnt a great deal of things during my interning years.
This post is dedicated to my fellow interns (especially Vivienne Khoo, a.k.a. Jane Snow, who is probably drilling subterranean metro line after she completed her internship for Rail business in our Singapore’s office. May she be out from her hole before the next season of Game of Thrones arrives. Here’s looking at you kid (this is also for my seniors coworkers from the Casablanca years).