Take the lead with initiative and relationship-building strategies such as the “Walk-Around.” From The Intern Files: How to Get, Keep, and Make the Most of Your Internship, by Jamie Fedorko.
Believe it or not, at some point in your life, you’ll want to be busy. It may not be today, but when you find yourself stuck in a cubicle for forty hours a week with nothing to do, AOL Instant Messenger will get old. How many times a day can you and your friends talk about how boring work is and how wasted you’re going to get later that night? Sure, that’s always at least mildly appealing, but it won’t fill up forty hours.
As you are aware, companies sometimes don’t know how to make use of their interns in an efficient way. But this definitely doesn’t mean that you should ever slack off. So if you find yourself constantly being told that there’s nothing for you to do, you have to learn to take initiative.
Once you get a sense of who might really be a good person to get to know, ask that person more frequently if he or she needs anything. This is called the walk-around. When there is nothing to do, you’re not doing your job. There’s always something to do. If there’s a moment when your supervisor says he or she has nothing for you, walk through the office and ask people if they need help with anything. Start with the people who you think really want to use interns for more in-depth work; that way you can show them what you’re capable of, not just how quickly you can make copies. It’ll only take a little while for you to figure out who wants to help you and who wants to enslave you.
If you really enjoy a particular project, make that known. For example, if you worked on some Internet-based research and you actu¬ally liked it, tell your supervisor, “Just so you know, I really enjoyed researching all those new cars and their demographics today. If you ever have a similar project, I’d love to help you out again.” By showing a touch of enthusiasm, you’ll increase the chances of your name popping into someone’s head when they need something done.
But you have to start slow. Never try to go too far above and beyond in your first few weeks. Slowly acclimate yourself to your surroundings and the work at hand before you attempt to become Super Intern. If you attempt to stretch yourself too thin, there’s a good chance you’ll falter a bit. You have to really know the environment and the politics of your office before you try to take it to the next level.
After a few weeks have passed, you’ll learn that working hard means being at least slightly annoying. Your coworkers might have thought you were a pain in the ass the first four times you asked if you could help out, but when they finally needed help, they remembered that annoying intern. That’s when you get to prove what you’re capable of. By next week, you’ll have a corner office — definitely!
Once you’ve successfully annoyed every employee in the building (this includes, but is not limited to, everyone from the janitor to the CEO), do whatever kind of mindless work your company needs. You know, jobs like updating databases and press clippings. However, press clippings can only be done once a day, and the database is only as large as the company, so you might have to get creative.
Check to see that all equipment within the department that you’re interning for is running well. Does the printer need paper? Are any com¬puters down? Are the fax machines actually sending and receiving, or are they making erratic, bizarre noises because there’s something wrong with them?
Check on supplies. Does anyone need more pens? What about file folders? Is Andy’s desk a complete mess? Politely ask him if he needs some file folders or envelopes. Check the supply closet, if there is one — what needs to be refilled? Paper, glue, air filters (hey, you never know)? Refill these without asking. Go to the company’s main supply room and get what’s needed. If you need to go and buy a few things, tell your supervisor that you need paper and ask for some petty cash so you can go out and get it. Your effort will be appreciated — sometimes — or at least occasionally.
File cabinets are always a great place to spend some meaningless time. Wherever you work, it is inevitable that there will be at least one cabinet or area that is loaded with files, which need to be alphabetized, placed in chronological order, and organized. That cabinet, drawer, or area will be the area that everyone else avoids, so people will definitely notice if you organize it.
When in doubt: Clean! Honestly, there may be nothing that employees appreciate more than interns who aren’t above doing a little dirty work. As an intern, it’s your job to embark on the tasks that others don’t have time to deal with. Getting your hands dirty is always appreciated. Clean up conference rooms, your intern area, wherever — so long as you’re not fiddling with other peoples’ personal materials.
Usually a company’s interns share an area or a few cubicles; clean and organize them! Make them look perfect so that when there is actually real work to do, it can be done without having to get supplies or straighten up your desk.
If there really doesn’t seem to be anything in the entire office that you can either help with, take care of, clean, organize, brew, or scrub, just get on your computer and do something to look busy — in a work-related way, obviously. Research within the area or field that your company deals with. Maybe you’ll stumble onto information that your company can use at some point.
If you work in the music industry, research relevant artists. Maybe a few weeks later, your company will want to work with an artist who you researched, and you’ll be able to blow away a few people with how much you already know about that artist. If you work for a media outlet, research and recommend potential stories. Maybe they’ll use them, maybe they won’t. Can’t hurt. If you work for any kind of financial group, be aware of exactly what’s going on with the market that day.
The point is that there is never nothing to do. If you find yourself using your spare time to nap, eat, chat, or view things online that you should save for your personal time, you’re either not working hard enough, or there’s really no reason for you to be there. Why aren’t you working hard enough? If it’s because you’re a slacker, keep slacking off and see where it gets you. If it’s because you despise your internship, address that issue with your school and see if it’s too late to make a change. If you’ve tried everything in your power to make work for yourself, and you still can’t find anything to do, you probably are at a company that doesn’t need you, in which case you should have a formal meeting with your internship supervisor to discuss the matter. It’s perfectly possible that they haven’t realized you’ve exhausted all the things to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jamie Fedorko, author of The Intern Files: How to Get, Keep, and Make the Most of Your Internship (Copyright © 2006 by Jamie Fedorko), steers prospective interns along every step of the journey. He’ll help you with the basic stuff — hunting down internship leads, acing the interview, and making a great first impression. But his book takes it one step further, into understanding office politics and social etiquette, dealing with impossible bosses, making the most of time-wasting assignments, and drawing a line between being helpful and being a doormat. Hilarious, wry, and wise, The Intern Files will teach you how to enjoy the view from the bottom of the ladder — and start climbing rapidly to the top.