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How startups can manage and get value from interns…

The word ‘intern’ conjures up a lot of emotion in people. It can bring back memories of endless coffee runs, a general feeling of demotivation or, in the worst cases, exploitation. Not that all the blame can be put entirely on those who manage interns. It can be difficult to trust new people, particularly those on irregular schedules and managing the expectations of employees is always challenging, not least the expectations of those who volunteer their time for free. Nevertheless, there are countless examples of positive intern contribution, particularly in small businesses and startups.  Communication, trust, motivation and goal-setting are essential to creating a productive relationship that both sides benefit from.

Fair payment for fair work 

The words ‘intern’, ‘work placement’ and ‘work experience’ have no legal status on their own in UK law, and hence employers are not legally obliged to pay minimum wage. However, if you can afford to pay your interns do so. has tracked paid and unpaid intern programs and found that employers with paid intern programs have increased benefits. The research showed that three times as many applications were received for these positions and hence intern quality was higher overall. The research also noted an increased conversion rate of interns to full-time hires, greater diversity, and a lower chance of bad publicity related to unfair treatment. Don’t forget the old adage – you get what you pay for.

Non-monetary motivators

But let’s be honest motivation is a complicated beast and money isn’t enough to keep people interested. A joint study by MIT and the Federal Reserve showed that high monetary rewards can actually decrease performance. Dan Pink’s influential TED talk interprets the results to mean that other motivators are at play and he suggests it’s about autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. This seems nowhere more relevant than with interns.

Learning and Appraisal

Mastery is Pink’s first key motivator. When an intern first joins have a thorough appraisal – figure out what they are interested in, what their study areas are, their previous experience and what they hope to achieve. Then let them know your expectations. Putting interns on projects in which they are interested or that are relevant to their studies will allow them to excel and they will be hungry to prove themselves and learn more. This is where you can create the most value for your business.

When deciding what tasks to set remember to give clear instruction and have defined expectations with set goals. Creating three levels of work will give structure and guidance to interns and will aid in evaluation. The first level should be a short orientation project – a short term assignment which shows you their capabilities and gives interns a feel for the company culture. Second is a longer-term project, something client-driven, which will add value for the company. The intern should be able to fall back on this project whenever there is a lull in other work. And third, filler work – menial tasks such as data-entry, post collection, filing and the like.

Autonomy and Confidentiality

Having a set task structure will allow you to give greater autonomy to interns. During the orientation project, the more feedback you give the better. At this stage it’s ok to closely monitor what your interns are doing. At later stages though, try to stick to the agreed performance appraisal framework. Give trust and respect.   One worry that employers have is confidentiality. Get the issue out in the open from day one. Talk to your interns and explain the importance of client confidentiality. And back it up legally – there is no problem with insisting interns sign a non-disclosure agreement.

A sense of purpose and teambuilding

Pink’s final motivator is a sense of purpose. This one is more complicated because menial tasks are of course part of the experience – interns have to be aware that they are the lowest rung in the hierarchy and should expect some boring tasks now and again. But it’s important to link even the most menial tasks to a bigger picture. Communicate why they are doing what they are doing and be aware of how frequently interns work on these tasks. Weekly team meetings in which everyone discusses what their current assignments will help you monitor the speed at which they progress and give you an idea of the variance of their tasks.

A sense of purpose can be strongly reinforced through performance appraisal. Appraisals should be on an agreed basis. Use this time to give advice to the interns, see if they are happy with the task and to understand what issues they are having. People are inspired and motivated by positive, constructive feedback and it will improve performance and engagement.

For more articles and advice on issues when starting your company, visit The Formations Company Blog.


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