Remote mentorship: poisoned chalice or blessing in disguise?

20. 6. 2022 - aktualizované 20. 6. 2022 5 min.

Remote mentorship: poisoned chalice or blessing in disguise?

autor

Judith Crosbie

US-based freelance journalist.

Roly Walter has had a mentor for a year and a half whom he’s never met in person. As the chief executive officer and founder of Appraisd, a UK-based performance management platform, Walter was keen for someone to bounce ideas off and eventually found his mentor — the business partner of a friend. This was at the height of the pandemic and meeting face-to-face wasn’t an option. “We have long, wide-ranging discussions every two weeks and yet we’ve never met, we do it over Teams or Zoom. I’m sure I’ll meet him one day but we just haven’t had to,” Walter says.

Walter is just one of many workers who was forced to rethink mentorship as the Covid-19 turned our professional lives upside down. Today, the worst phase of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, but it has nonethless ushered in a new era of work. A recent Gallup survey shows in February this year, 39% of US employees were fully remote and 42% had a hybrid home-work location. Going forward, 24% employees say they will stay fully remote while 53% will work a hybrid schedule.

And it begs the question: With the traditional office model receding into the past, is it the end of mentoring as we know it?

From depth to breadth

To Dr Belle Ragins, a mentoring expert and professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, setting up mentoring relationships in a remote work environment requires a different approach.“With remote work situations, the door to developing the face-to-face relationships has closed. People now need to be more intentional,” she says. ”I call it intentional mentoring or purposeful mentoring. Intentional mentoring is when you really think about the relationships you have, what they can provide to you and the relationships you need to develop to fill career and personal needs.” What this means, Ragins adds, is that employees need to take a more proactive approach to creating and sustaining their networks of mentoring relationships.

“Intentional mentoring is when you really think about the relationships you have, what they can provide to you and the relationships you need to develop to fill career and personal needs.”

People now have the potential to access mentors from anywhere in the world but the type of relationship they develop is different. Ragins says that while the pool of potential mentors has widened, what is lacking is the depth. “That’s more difficult to establish because it involves trust and it involves that interpersonal connection.” To her, it’s vital to “purposefully nurture them to help them blossom into close mentoring relationships.”

The idea that remote mentoring requires a different type of effort is echoed by Kristen Fyfe-Mills, director of marketing and strategic communications at the Association for Talent Development, a US professional body for human resource managers. She points out that both parties have to be comfortable with the remote environment to make the mentoring relationship work. “Many believe that non-verbal communication can be lost when using platforms like Zoom. This doesn’t need to be the case if mentor and mentee have set clear expectations of what the mentoring engagement is seeking to accomplish.”

Mentoring with structure

Technology can be a hurdle when setting up a remote mentoring relationship, but it can also provide a structured solution, says Walter, whose platform allows meetings to be logged and followed up. “You’d be amazed by how many people feel empowered when they see a button that says ‘start a coaching program’ or ‘start mentoring.’” Even though they might have been told the same thing by email or in an HR meeting, having a system to support it makes all the difference, he adds.

But when it comes to the effectiveness of remote versus face-to-face mentoring, the jury is still out, says Jim Link, chief human resources officer at the Virginia-headquartered Society for Human Resource Management. “We’ve heard some anecdotal evidence that mentoring itself is less engaging when it’s virtual,” he says. “Of course, you always miss some of the social components of the workplace if you’re doing it virtually and for some members that social component as part of the broader culture of an organization is extremely important. Then sometimes it’s harder to show empathy and empathetic leadership in a virtual environment compared to a real one, just because we can’t always read body language well or look for those other subtle non-verbal clues that we often get in a face-to-face interaction.”

“Sometimes it’s harder to show empathy and empathetic leadership in a virtual environment compared to a real one, just because we can’t always read body language well or look for those other subtle non-verbal clues.”

To Walter, however, the benefits of remote mentoring outweighs the downsides. “I’ve had many more mentoring sessions with the people in my company than I would have done if we were all working in the office,” he says. “It means they can happen anytime. Someone can just ring me and ask for a bit of advice. And it will be confidential, they don’t have to go and find a meeting room.”

“I’ve had many more mentoring sessions with the people in my company than I would have done if we were all working in the office.”

Mentoring for diversity

The move away from mentoring in the office could also help women and ethnic and sexual minorities. In a 2019 survey by Chicago-based leadership consulting service Heidrick & Struggles, 30% of women said mentoring is extremely important, compared to 23% of men. For minorities, 32% said mentoring was extremely important compared to an overall 27%.

In the office, senior leadership is often white, able-bodied, cisgender men who tend to pick mentees who are younger versions of themselves, says Ragins. “That’s another possible advantage of virtual mentoring, that those issues are a little less salient,” as it has the potential to shake up the traditional office dynamics.

Remote mentoring has also shaken up the traditional structure of mentoring, says Fyfe-Mills. “It isn’t always a relationship between a more senior professional and younger professional. Many organizations have found reverse mentoring to be a powerful tool,”** she adds. ”With multiple generations in the workforce, creating a culture where employees can learn from each other and grow skills and knowledge will empower organizations to unleash the potential of their workforce.”*

“With multiple generations in the workforce, creating a culture where employees can learn from each other and grow skills and knowledge.”

Group mentoring

There is yet another by-product of the shift to remote, namely the burgeoning approach of “mentoring interactions.” It’s a new phenomenon that Ragins is both researching and using herself. It involves “mentoring episodes,” which are short-term interactions with people who aren’t your mentor, she explains. Ragins has a group mentoring session once a month between her students and women academics from all over the world. “We are all academics, at different stages in our careers and we get together once a month, and everyone has a dilemma. They share their dilemma, and the group helps them solve it.”

She also conducts another mentoring group with her doctoral students and academics from other universities. “The technology allows you to draw on resources geographically and there’s no way that we would get people to fly in to do this normally,” she says. ”But these women will spend once a month, Friday afternoon, from four to five just to meet with my doctoral students.”

Is mentoring here to stay?

Whatever form it takes, mentoring — and remote mentoring — will endure. In a 2019 survey of 3,000 working Americans by Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, 76% of respondees said mentoring was important but only 37% had a mentor. As businesses struggle to engage and retain staff, it’s predicted that mentoring will become more important. With younger workers entering the workforce with their adept technological skills, the development of new forms of mentoring will continue.

Ragins is confident that the future is looking good for mentoring; after all, it has been around for millennia now. “People have a natural motivation to develop mentoring relationships,” she says. “Remember the idea of mentoring goes back to ancient Greek times, well before we even had offices.”

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Remote mentorship: poisoned chalice or blessing in disguise?