According to LinkedIn, 94% of employees would stay longer at a company if the employer offered them more learning and career development opportunities. This underscores the importance of knowledge sharing. How can virtual mentoring be used effectively in a remote workplace?
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The growing trend of remote work
The popularity of remote work is growing all the time, and there is no indication that this trend will change. More than 16% of companies worldwide work entirely remotely (OwlLabs, 2020), while according to Gallup, 45% of employees in the US work at least partially from home.
What's more, most of them don't intend to return to the office at all! As many as 91% of those surveyed said they would like to keep the option of working from home, and 58% said they would consider changing their current workplace if their company decided to phase out the remote work option (Gallup, 2021).
The lights and shadows of the home office
Oh yes, we've all come to love remote work for its flexibility, convenience and time savings. Instead of rushing in the morning, we can get up later or take a long walk with the dog, and when we need to focus – we don't get distracted by all the office buzz. However, many organizations feared that remote workers would be less productive.
Meanwhile, productivity has increased thanks to home office popularity (Bloomberg, 2022). However, nothing is perfect, and the home office has its dark side. And that is the hindrance to interpersonal relationships and related activities, such as getting to know others in the company, knowledge sharing, or classic mentoring.
For experienced employees who can develop their competencies more independently and have been in the organization's structures longer, switching to remote working will be relatively easy. But what about juniors who are just beginning their career path?
Limiting day-to-day contact with senior colleagues and people from other departments makes it more difficult for them to adopt the company's values, feel a sense of belonging in the workplace and, above all, develop competence. That is why it is crucial to implement mentoring techniques in a remote workplace.
What is mentoring?
Before we go further, we will explain in a few words what mentoring is in general. In the context of an organization, it is a process of support, exchange of knowledge, and advice between two people, usually a more experienced employee (mentor) and a less experienced one (mentee). For example, suppose a Junior Java Developer joins a software company.
In that case, his mentor may be a Regular or Senior Java Developer who will show good programming practices, point out common mistakes, and tell more about ongoing projects and clients. The mentoring process is valuable not only for new team members but also an excellent opportunity to upskill your crew and tap into the vast knowledge potential of your more experienced employees.
It's important to remember that a mentor is not the same as a supervisor. Thus, forming a more open relationship between two people in the mentoring process based on the mutual exchange of feedback and guidance. The mentees can also be more honest when talking about their doubts and concerns without fearing that it will affect the evaluation of their work, as might happen in a relationship with a supervisor.
Especially since at the beginning of their career path, people do not yet feel stable in their position and are very concerned about doing something wrong. But on the other hand, a mentoring relationship is a safe space where one can learn from mistakes without stress.
9 essential principles of remote mentoring
While the goals and objectives of remote and in-person mentoring are the same, there are several significant differences in the process. The relationship between mentor and mentee is more natural when you can meet at the office anytime for a quick coffee and talk about what happened. Such a flow of communication is difficult to achieve in a home office setting, so it's crucial to establish rules to make remote mentorship effective and serve its purpose.
Virtual mentorship requires structure and regularity to be effective. Here, opportunities for quick catch-ups and informal conversations between tasks like in the office are missing. It's crucial, therefore, to establish a convenient meeting frequency that matches the goals and preferences of both parties. For example, in one mentoring relationship, longer meetings once every few days will work better, while another values shorter daily meetings more. Talk frankly about your schedule and choose the frequency and time that best fits you.
Also, determine what tools will be most suitable for you. For example, it's good to find a place where you can save helpful documents and inspiration, such as Confluence or Trello. At work, where you need to share a screen or collaborate on a task, apps like Zoom, Google Meets, or Skype will work well.
A simple phone or Messenger call might be a good idea if you want to create a more informal atmosphere and change the environment. It is an excellent opportunity to step away from the computer for a while, go out for a walk, and talk casually.
2. Plans and expectations
New employees coming to an organization have certain expectations about what they would like to learn and how they would like to develop their careers. But on the other hand, the company hiring the new people also has plans for their tasks and what they should be able to do.
Mentoring in a remote workplace should therefore have a specific plan that meets the needs of both parties. Thus, one of the first steps of remote mentoring should be an open discussion about what your meetings should be about and what the mentee would like to learn. It could be specific competencies, tools, processes, or the ability to do a particular task. Based on this, you will be able to create a plan for your meetings so that virtual mentoring brings the best results.
3. Measuring progress
Nothing motivates more than visible progress. For example, if your company organized mentoring in the office, all employees would see the new person learning, asking questions, and gaining skills. On the other hand, remote mentorship is challenging because this precious process is only between two people.
Positive reinforcement and recognition of progress are essential in remote workplace mentoring, so implement a system to measure and reward results. Create milestones for the process, such as learning skill X or doing task Y. Use regular meetings in your company, such as weekly or all hands, to praise mentees and mentors for work done.
It's also a good idea to implement a rewards system, such as points awarded for participation in a mentoring program that employees can exchange for gifts, a development budget, or vacation days.
Cooperation on a project comes naturally when working from the office, as you can always ask the team member sitting at the next desk to help you with a task. However, when working from home, it takes a little more effort to implement a system of teamwork since, most often, only a short call is made to discuss the details, and then everyone works independently on their part.
However, it is worth implementing a simultaneous work system, as collaboration is a precious tool in the remote mentoring process. After all, the best way to learn new skills is through practice. Use video conferencing tools, share a screen and work on tasks together. It will be valuable for both parties: the mentee will see the remote mentor in action and gain knowledge most directly, and the mentor will get to know the mentee's working style better and be able to give ongoing feedback.
One of the biggest challenges of remote working is building relationships among employees. We usually get to know our colleagues in the kitchen over lunch, in line at the coffee machine, or when we see each other in the office in the morning and ask, "How are you doing?" In addition, remote meetings tend to be more goal-oriented, dealing with specific topics and rarely leaving space for small talk.
Meanwhile, feeling like we know the people we're working with is very important for well-being and is crucial for mentoring in a workplace. The remote mentor and mentee need to get to know each other as people and work-related topics. It's a good idea to start the relationship by discussing yourself in more than just a work context. Interests, free time, pets, books, dream vacations, thoughts, events – all these things build a sense that you know something about each other, which is the foundation of any relationship.
It's also essential to provide comfort: some people want to be closer and talk more about their personal lives, and others will feel more comfortable keeping a professional distance. In time, you will undoubtedly be able to find your balance.
Virtual mentorship is a very close professional relationship and should be built on trust. Show your mentee that you care about development and well-being. Be involved, ask lots of questions, and appreciate progress. Also, make sure your feedback is constructive and helpful.
It is difficult to talk about your doubts, problems, and mistakes, so if you are too evaluative, your protégé will become stressed and stop talking to you openly. On the other hand, take your role seriously and deliver on your promises – if you said you would send documentation or help with a task, make sure to do so. The workplace can sometimes stir up frustration and negative emotions, so if a mentee occasionally tells you about a rough day, talk to them about their feelings, but don't gossip about it.
7. Clarity of role
The mentoring relationship is specific – on the one hand, you are colleagues, and on the other hand, it is an arrangement similar to that between a student and a teacher. When mentoring in a remote work environment, it's essential to establish your roles and what they entail clearly.
Here's an example of something you might say at your first meeting with your mentee:
"Hi, it's great that you've joined us. My name is Kate, and I'll be your remote mentor. It’s the kind of person who will help to feel good within our company and learn new things.
I'll tell you what the values are in our organization, who is responsible for specific tasks, and what projects we do. I'll also share my experience to help you develop your competencies. You joined as a Junior Project Manager, and I've been a Project Manager for ten years, so that I can tell you a lot about the job. If you have any questions or concerns, you can always speak openly. I'm not your boss or anything like that, but someone you can learn from and get the necessary support.
We will meet regularly to discuss current work topics and how you can grow with us. We'll decide how often and when we can set up our meetings to make them the most convenient. We'll also talk about what you'd most like to learn and what you'd like to do with us. But first, let's get to know each other better!"
Structure and a plan are fundamental for remote mentorship, but they must not restrict the natural flow of the work. For example, if one day you were planning to talk to a mentee about web applications, but they had a challenging and stressful task to do today and feel that it doesn't go well - it's better to focus on how you can solve the current problem. It's a good idea to start each meeting with a short small talk or a question "How are you today?" and then respond to the needs.
The primary purpose of mentoring is to share practical knowledge and help the mentee develop their professional competence and career path direction. Still, the process is not limited to this. A precious resource a mentor can offer is knowledge about the organization and its values. Every company has its character, way of doing things, and approach.
These can be seemingly small things, such as what to do when someone doesn't respond on Slack, how others perceive when someone has a "do not disturb" status set all day, and who is the best person to ask for help with a particular task, how to let people know early about a planned vacation. Knowing these little practices will make new employees understand their work environment.
Virtual mentoring is crucial for modern companies
90% of workers who have a mentor report being happy in their job (CNBC, Survey Monkey, 2022). Employees involved in mentoring programs have a 50% higher retention rate than those not, and 93% of mentees believe their mentoring relationship was beneficial (MentorcliQ, 2021).
Mentoring in a remote work environment is not only a way to improve the satisfaction of your employees but also to improve their skills and take advantage of the vast knowledge hub you have in your company. So, if you're wondering whether it's worth implementing remote mentorship in your organization – there's only one answer!