CXR Spotlight on Genentech: Building community in a virtual internship program

When COVID-19 pandemic restrictions hit suddenly in March, they caused havoc across many talent functions – particularly campus recruiting. The university recruiting team at Genentech – like many organizations – was organizing their summer internship program, resolving final details, and preparing to host hundreds of university students. Then the world changed and so did their summer internship plans.

Maintain as many internships as possible

The goal for the Genentech team was to keep as many internships as they possibly could in a virtual environment. They formed a cross-functional team with people from benefits, on-site services, onboarding, recruitment & other divisions. They set a goal of making a decision on each internship at least 30 days before the first scheduled start date… which gave them another 30 days to finish the planning.

Genentech has interns year-round so they had to determine the best ways to handle those who were on-site in March as well as for the coming summer. They decided not to shorten internships, just move those to virtual that could make the transition. (Some internships that were focused on lab work or research & development, for example, didn’t translate into a virtual environment.) They also agreed to honor all relocation stipends.

The list of 279 summer internships was identified. The deadline was set. Then the challenges really began.

[CXR Members-Only: Watch the fall campus recruiting meeting where members shared results of 2020 virtual internships]

Building community virtually

Many internship programs are full of events designed to engage the interns and help them build community. Genentech is no exception. In prior years they hosted over 30 events that were loved by the interns, but internally it was hard to measure the actual success of those events.

They knew they would have to find some substitution in a virtual world. They also know that their campus recruiting team was stretched thin with the additional challenges of managing a new virtual internship. That’s when they decided to enlist the help of the interns themselves.

The Genentech House Cup was born

Each intern received a package that couldn’t be opened until an all-hands Zoom meeting. The interns didn’t know it but the big reveal would be that interns were divided into four houses. The campus recruiting team started that meeting dressed in costume, representing their houses and telling the story of a mythical land with four houses that each had their own characteristics. Reactions from the interns were instantly positive. When each intern opened their package, they were sorted into houses and got to use breakout rooms to meet their teams.

Now the interns were incentivized to participate in events and create their own as a series of challenges. Each completed challenge earned the house points and the winning house got to donate $1,000 in goods to the charity of their choice.

[College Recruiting & COVID-19: The perfect storm]

The House Cup was by far the favorite aspect of the program based on feedback surveys. And Genentech’s NPS score for the virtual internship program was 95. Interns commented that they admired Genentech’s culture, the work done and the people they could meet. The program was such a success that Genentech plans to keep elements of the House Cup for years to come.

Lessons learned on building community virtually

  • Don’t underestimate the number of staff needed to pull off virtual programming
  • Practice for large events – familiarize yourself with technology
  • Have a chat thread going with staff to interact “behind the scenes” during the event
  • Create a boilerplate slide to remind attendees about video conference etiquette
  • Don’t be critical if interns choose not to go on camera
  • Include unstructured events like an intern lounge which is staffed and there is no specific topic
  • Breakout rooms/small group discussions are helpful
  • Gamification of community building was a huge success

Lessons learned while creating a virtual internship program in less than two months

The Genentech team met everyday – sometimes more than once a day – to go through each individual internship. They quickly realized that the internships programs were very siloed – traditionally operating somewhat independently. However, the cross-functional team was able to break some of those barriers and open up communication channels where they didn’t exist previously.

“As a team we created playbooks to stay aligned on any timelines and communication templates to standardize communication across the board, specifically with external audiences, like our interns,” noted Clifton Tay, Head of University Talent Acquisition & Strategy at Genentech. “I think it was really critical to have an aligned message to every single person. The playbook will also serve as a reference point because we do anticipate our summer 2021 internships will again be virtual.”

The need for communication was probably the biggest lesson learned, but it wasn’t the only one:

  • Overcommunicate to all parties involved (and do it regularly). Include leadership teams that sponsor intern hiring, intern hiring managers, HR, onboarding, IT. Check-in more frequently in the first two weeks.
  • Ensure onboarding processes are tight and consider all necessary equipment
  • Create a playbook to stay organized: Co-create as a team playbooks to stay aligned on timelines, develop comms templates, and to use as a reference point
  • Be flexible enough to incorporate real life moments. In the summer of 2020 that meant including diversity elements to their development tracks; giving the interns an opportunity to meet with their Chief Diversity Officer and running a workshop on how to be an ally. 
  • Training and resources are critical: Require mandatory training for all intern managers. Make sure managers give interns flexibility as some may not have permanent workspaces. Set expectations  ahead of time on “work protocol” – times worked (time zones), camera etiquette.
  • Create a “temperature check” survey for interns: Simple survey that is not shared with managers but allows the campus recruiting team to check if the intern is adjusting well, getting along with their manager, and enjoying the experience.

In the fall of 2020, the CXR Campus Recruiting Community met and reviewed multiple virtual internship programs. Each was created and executed in a matter of weeks and, interestingly, each garnered some of the highest satisfaction scores of any prior internship program. The interns often felt they had more access to meet people and learn about the company in a virtual environment. It will be interesting to see how these pandemic-forced changes will impact internships for years to come.

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Barb Ruess

Barb's career in marketing and branding started with one of the very first job boards and has been focused on career search/talent acquisition in one way or another ever since. She has worked with CXR practically since its beginning and wears many hats from meeting planner to communications to marketing strategy and more.

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