The pandemic forced thousands of companies to expand remote work. As leaders continue working on fully remote arrangements, in-office setups, or a hybrid of both, it’s important to keep engagement top-of-mind.
This includes mentoring programs. A remote mentoring program brings in-person mentoring – meetings, brainstorming, resource-sharing – online to encourage relationships that benefit individuals and in turn, the company’s bottom line.
With that in mind, I researched the practices different companies implemented, the tools available to make the transition easier, and pulled from my own virtual mentorship experience to come up with remote mentoring ideas for a successful program. Program coordinators – such as department heads or HR team members – and mentors stand to gain the most from these ideas while mentees can gain a better understanding of what they should expect in a top-tier mentorship program. These practices can apply to almost every industry, but software development and IT were top of mind during my research. Engagement is especially important as the industry faces a skills gap and a knowledge worker shortage.
As lockdowns began in 2020, leaders focused on immediate priorities like technology setups and updated project processes, but now it’s time to prioritize engagement in the virtual workplace. This is especially true in light of Gallup’s latest measure of employee engagement – which has fallen for the first time in a decade. According to their 2021 report, 34% of employees surveyed feel engaged compared to 36% in 2020 – itself a tumultuous year.
Virtual mentorship programs
Virtual mentorship programs can provide a crucial path to building relationships when team members aren’t under the same roof. In a hybrid workspace, there are fewer opportunities for the spontaneous interactions that connect team members and even spur productivity. Remote work makes it harder to have spontaneous interactions like you do when working in an office.
Conscious effort in virtual mentoring looks like scheduled mentoring sessions through video chats, phone calls, and even through chat applications like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Like in-person mentoring, virtual programs can help engage employees, which can in turn help with retention. A good program will account for any limitations from operating virtually, keep communication flowing, and take stock of successes or failures to improve the model. Virtual mentoring can reach beyond office walls to engage employees. How can you build a successful virtual mentoring program at your company? Let’s look at some best practices to consider.
The idea of establishing a virtual mentoring program can be intimidating – especially after a prolonged period of adapting other work processes to remote work. It’s important to remember, however, that remote mentoring is simply a conversion of regular mentorship activities and milestones to the virtual world.
Here are three tips for creating an awesome virtual mentorship program.
1. Define your mentorship
For leaders building a program, help guarantee that the mentor and the mentee find value in the time spent on Skype or writing down goals or reaching milestones in their mentoring journey by ensuring the mentorship is well-defined.
Whether by surveys or one-on-one contact, record what employees are most looking for in a mentorship. Some employees – especially new grads – may be looking for a mentorship that helps fill in the gaps of initial onboarding and training. Others may be reaching a plateau in their role and want advice on building out their skills to reach their next set of career goals. Others still may need accountability to help them stay on track with the professional development that helps them meet quarterly and yearly goals.
To facilitate matches for mentees, surveys or one-on-one questions should gather info like employee seniority, education and/or experience background, department, and career interests. How long has someone been working at the company? What was their major or type of company they worked at previously? What department are they in? Do they want to see what it’s like in other departments? Mentors should answer the same questions, save the last. Instead, ask their level of interest or experience with other departments to gauge their familiarity and relatability to mentees coming from a different department. This information can then be used to make matches based on similarities and interests.
When matched – through compiling and analyzing data from employees – mentors should feel empowered to build communication around both parties’ needs. For an employee with other departmental meetings and a homelife with kids, a weekly meeting may not make sense but a twice-monthly check-in where the mentee can share notes on progress, ask questions about scenarios that arose, or simply talk more about work from a bird’s eye level can provide the meaningful engagement needed to stick with the program.
Part of defining the mentorship also means knowing when the mentorship has run its course. Mentorship pairs will recognize this when they meet long-term goals and new goals no longer align with one or both parts of the pair. A mentee may move out of the scope of the mentor’s expertise, close the technical knowledge gaps, or otherwise they outgrew the current mentor.
2. Get creative with communication tools
My 10-year long mentorship didn’t start virtually, but after leaving the company I had in common with my mentor after two years, it was virtual or nothing. The usual tools like Skype (and now Zoom) helped us connect at regular intervals and phone calls subbed in for a lot of in-person meetings scheduling and distance made impossible. We even began a regular exchange of holiday letters that served as a tether in times where life and work kept us from more regular communication.
In a virtual mentorship program, physical mail can promote engagement within the mentorship. A number of companies specialize in delivering handwritten notes and with the help of HR to place the order, mentorship pairs don’t need to share personal information solely for the sake of the mentorship program. If standard mail isn’t for you, a message through an already established LinkedIn connection can achieve a similar effect while staying within the bounds of professionalism.
No matter what methods you use, be sure to create a back-up plan for when communication tools fail. Unexpected software updates causing lag or spotty WiFi don’t need to cancel a scheduled mentor session. Have a plan in place – a standard phone call, different video conferencing service, or switching to a mobile device with cellular data – before sessions to make the most of the time.
Another best practice that combines defining the mentorship and communication is to use an app like Clockwise to find the best times to meet and to protect time spent on deep work. Clockwise gets to know each person’s schedule and can provide the information needed to choose the best day and time for a mentoring session. By protecting time for deep focus, it also helps prevent focus time interruption from scheduled meetings and mentoring sessions.
3. Check in and provide resources
In well-organized programs, mentors and mentees should expect support in the form of resources, regular communication, and action when needed. Program coordinators – whether department heads or HR employees – can keep participants informed in a few ways. A regular email newsletter with updates on the program – number of participants, mentorship spotlight, etc. – can keep the program on everyone’s minds.
Program coordinators can also set up regular check-ins in the form of a survey. For more visibility and engagement, consider a Geekbot integration with Slack. With preset questions and a set time/day for gathering responses, mentorship participants can rely on a regular schedule for check-ins while sharing their progress with other team members.
Check-in questions could include:
- What is one lesson, breakthrough, or idea that has stuck with you since your last mentoring session?
- What is one goal you would like to make before your next mentoring session?
- On a scale of 1 to 5, how well did you do on achieving your last goal?
Since mentors and mentees meet with different frequencies, plan check-ins for longer intervals like monthly or quarterly. This way, participants don’t feel like they’re providing the same answers twice and there’s enough time to implement lessons learned from mentoring sessions.
Remote Mentoring FAQs
You’re ready to set up a virtual mentoring program – or revamp your current structure – but you have questions. I put together some common questions about structure and participation to help you build a strong program for mentors and mentees.
How can I increase participation in the program?
Team members stand to gain from mentorships both professionally and personally. Selling them on this promise may be difficult, however, with the regular pressures of a busy workload. Department heads and/or HR team members can help make the sale with incentives. Whether it’s a credit toward an industry conference or certificate program, a cash bonus, or some other benefit, incentives can help push many team members over the edge to sign up.
How long should a mentoring program last?
This can depend on the bandwidth of the department heads or HR team members leading the effort. A program can follow a yearly cycle – similar to open enrollment for benefits – where mentorship matching is open to all team members with new hires added to the mix as they join. It can also be a quarterly effort using campaigns to encourage team members to sign up. The actual mentorships may end sooner or continue longer than the formal program. Participants should know this upfront so they can feel empowered to keep a mentorship going when it is beneficial or cut it off when it no longer serves both participants.
What kind of resources should a program provide participants?
Questionnaires at the beginning to help participants as well as templated discussion questions for mentees/mentors to go through allows for each party to not only practice clear goal setting but also dive deep throughout the program.
How often should participants schedule check-ins?
This is a timeline that program leaders can leave to participants after deciding on an overall length of the program. Weekly or even monthly check-ins are most likely to fit everyone’s schedules while a program length of a quarter, six month, or even a year provides ample time and space for participants to customize their communication.
Mentoring for the future
With now two years’ worth of graduates entering the workforce, turnover stemming from early retirement, and career changes prompting workers of all ages to move into different technology spaces, leaders have a lot on their plate. Aside from compensation and benefits, there should be more to engage employees and mentoring not only captures employee attention but helps build a stronger company overall. While coronavirus and social distancing edged companies into needing a virtual version of a traditional mentoring program, there is an unexpected opportunity in expanding the pool of participants beyond the confines of four office walls.