How to Mentor in a Remote Workplace

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Remote work is becoming an essential element of work. The 9 to 5 workplace is not coming back and remote work is all-pervasive. There is also evidence showing that remote workers are more productive.

So there is a need for managers and leaders to master virtual mentorship. Traditionally, for ages, employees’ in-person mentoring and relationships lead to many personal and professional benefits. When this in-person mentoring is part of the company culture, the enhancement and retention of talented employees are enhanced. So how do managers change their approach in this world of remote work, to initiate and nurture relationships without the real presence of the mentee?

Many people assume that physical presence is an essential prerequisite in developing relationships. However, mentoring is defined more by the outcomes delivered rather than the medium that is utilised. Commitment, relationship, quality and mentor capability are crucial to developing an individual.

Virtual mentoring offers unique benefits in an environment of remote and hybrid work. 

  • Virtual mentorship is more equal, with organisational status and physical stature minimised with all interactions reduced to a screen of equal size. 
  • It also decreases the anxiety about in-person meetings.
  •  It removes the obstacles of shared spaces and location as the online options offer more options for mentor/mentee schedules.
  •  Also, the ability to record the sessions enables partners to refer to and reflect on past conversations. 
  • Again, the wide availability of translation services extends the impact on a global scale to prospective mentees and even those with disabilities.

There are some potential roadblocks. 

  • It requires more intentionality than in-person meetings.
  • It requires more effort to establish trust and rapport.
  • It can also lead to an overload of emails and screen fatigue.
  • It can become more task-driven rather than relational support.

There is little formal training or education on this art of virtual mentoring. However, some skills can help team leaders succeed.

Build trust.

  • Establishing trust is the foundation for any development relationship. 
  • It requires more intentionality in virtual mentoring. 
  • Leaders need skills to reach out, demonstrate commitment and reliability in meetings and show genuine concern and compassion about the mentees’ work and life situations. 
  • Leaders should build active listening capabilities, be curious, and avoid assumptions about mentees’ concerns. 
  • Leaders should discuss how safe the virtual space is and deliver on promises made. 

Clarify rules of engagement.

  • Virtual mentorship requires more work setting expectations around communication capabilities.
  • Leaders should discuss the preferred mode of communication for both synchronous and asynchronous modes.
  • They should be flexible around meeting schedules. 
  • They should be more attuned to the needs of work-from-home realities.

Be intentional in forming relationships.

  • Mentors should work towards building rapport and removing biases early in their mentoring. 
  • Ask questions to understand mentees’ values, personalities and professions. 
  • Ask questions to understand better the deeper feelings, experiences and career dreams of the mentee.
  •  Be intentional about sharing similar experiences, career goals and relationships to develop a strong working relationship. 
  • Make effort to discover shared values

Balance authenticity with boundaries

It pays to remember that virtual mentoring happens inside homes and there will be glimpses into the personal lives of both parties. 

  • Mentors should welcome these moments as an opportunity to understand the mentee better, to empathise and normalise experiences by sharing their challenges. 
  • At the same time, mentors should preserve some relational boundaries like avoiding disclosures that may feel awkward and checking in on one’s preferences while sharing personal information.

When possible collaborate.

In-person mentorship offers many opportunities for working together on projects such as research, product development etc., Such opportunities can become a platform for teaching, coaching and networking. Look out for such opportunities in virtual mentorship as well. Deliberate collaboration helps transfer skills like project management, presentation skills, writing, and research.

Like any managerial skill, virtual mentoring offers an opportunity to develop new skills. With proper preparations and skills development, virtual mentoring can be quite effective. Whatever be the medium of virtual mentorship, by developing these skills one will be better prepared for virtual mentoring.

How to Mentor in a Remote Workplace
by Ellen A. Ensher, W. Brad Johnson, and David G. Smith
HBR 2022/10

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