The rise of hybrid work has created significant upheaval within organizations, challenging established norms and inspiring the adoption of new practices.
This shift creates a prime opportunity to consciously create more human-centered practices that foster learning and growth.
As a leader concerned with organizational adaptability, change and learning, it’s crucial to take a systems view, which orients us to a holistic approach to integrating remote and in-person work. By emphasizing flexibility, trust, and a culture of continuous learning, we create an environment where employees feel empowered to explore new ideas, experiment, and collaborate effectively, regardless of their physical location.
This shift towards a more human-centered culture enables organizations to adapt and thrive in an ever-evolving landscape, where learning and growth are integral to our collective journey.
What does this mean practically for developing new – or elevating existing – mentoring programs?
In an increasingly digital world, mentorship has expanded beyond traditional in-person interactions. Fade away: the clichéd image of the wise elder colleague inviting you for a meticulously brewed cup of coffee in a boardroom adorned with walnut accents.
Virtual mentorship has gained significant traction, and comes with both benefits and challenges.
While it provides a convenient, scalable and accessible platform for mentorship it also presents unique obstacles that mentors must address to maintain a strong connection with their mentees.
This article explores some challenges that may arise from virtual mentorship. And we suggest three key strategies mentors can use to minimize these challenges and foster a robust human to human connection with their mentees.
Overcoming Communication Barriers:
Virtual mentorship relies heavily on technology for communication, making it crucial to address potential communication barriers such as poor audio or video quality, internet connectivity issues, and time zone differences. To create more seamless connections, mentors can:
a) Invest in reliable communication tools, such as high-quality video conferencing platforms, reliable internet connections, and clear audio equipment.
b) Establish clear communication norms: Set expectations for communication frequency, preferred methods of communication, and alternate communication channels to tackle potential technology-related hurdles.
c) Be mindful of time zone differences: Respect and accommodate time zone disparities to ensure both mentor and mentee can participate in scheduled meetings without inconvenience to either. Your organization should have clear parameters that govern acceptable working hours for employees across time zones.In addition, consider personal ‘contextual time constraints’ (such as child care) so that you can both protect no-pressure time slots for mentoring conversations.
Building Trust and Rapport:
Mentoring is almost always a voluntary arrangement…so trust is essential.
Trust and rapport are crucial for a successful mentor-mentee relationship as they create psychological safety., Virtual mentorship may present additional challenges in establishing a strong connection, given that physical cues and non-verbal communication, such as body language and facial expressions, may be less easy to read in a virtual setting. Being on screen can be more taxing and fatiguing than face to face (true for some, but not all people). Home-based or shared office environments can also serve up novel types of environmental distractions.
To address these challenges, mentors can:
a ) Create a strong container and the conditions for great people-centered mentoring conversations through shared agreements.
For example, how might you agree to respond when one of the following happens in the mentoring relationship?
- One of us is unwell
- Difficulty being on time
- The need for discretion
- Handling of negativity
- Not knowing the answer to something
- Making a mistake
- Being stressed and / or not present
- Our planned schedules change
b) Use video calls whenever possible.
Video calls can enhance the sense of connection by allowing both parties to observe each other’s facial expressions and body language, leading to better understanding and relationship-building. It also minimizes the temptation to multi-task. And, it may sound counter-intuitive, but in some more mature mentor-mentee relationships it might also become possible to move from video, to simply audio, after establishing the relationship over many sessions. When you are tuned into each other, and can recognize subtle changes in how you communicate, take time with answers, the depth you need for powerful mentoring conversations is present.
c) Create a supportive and inclusive virtual environment.
Foster an atmosphere of openness, respect, and trust by actively listening, providing constructive feedback, and acknowledging the mentee’s lived experience, challenges and progress towards any goals they have. Mentors who have invested in growing advanced communication and facilitation skills will be more likely to create this atmosphere in virtual environments.
d) Encourage a regular exchange of feedback and check-ins.
Like any growth-oriented relationship, the mentor-mentee relationship is co-created and will evolve over time. Schedule periodic check-ins to discuss progress, challenges, and goals. Ask mentees what they are getting from the relationship and how the format of the conversations is working or could change for the better. These conversations provide opportunities for mentors to learn how to adapt not only to their own perception of what is needed but to also be informed and encouraged by the mentee. Having trust and rapport that extends into the shape of the relationship will ensure that the mentee feels supported throughout the mentorship journey.
Checking-in keeps accountability in the right place. Checking-up blurs the accountability, and shifts you from mentor to manager.
Promoting Engaging and Interactive Learning:
One potential drawback of virtual mentorship is the lack of hands-on learning experiences and in-person interactions, which are especially valuable when the purpose of a particular mentoring conversation is focused on knowledge transfer or supporting just- skills development. Keep in mind that the mentors’ role is typically not to replace the role of a trainer. Mentors can draw on various strategies to promote engaging and interactive learning despite these limitations:
a) Leverage technology for interactive activities: Incorporate virtual tools, simulations, or collaborative platforms to facilitate active learning experiences that simulate real-world scenarios and promote skill development. Being fluid and creative in how to access and share information in online environments is a valuable core skill. In fact, many mentorships include a degree of ‘reverse mentoring’, where accessing those skills may come from the mentee’s experience rather than the mentors.
b) Encourage mentees’ independent exploration: Guide mentees towards relevant resources, such as articles, podcasts, or online courses, to enhance their knowledge and expertise outside of scheduled meetings.
c) Facilitate networking opportunities: Introduce mentees to relevant professional networks, online communities, or industry events to help expand their connections and opportunities for growth.
Virtual mentorship offers an amazing array of benefits – but also presents its fair share of challenges. By addressing communication barriers, building trust and rapport, and promoting engaging and interactive learning experiences, mentors can minimize these challenges and maintain strong connections with their mentees.
The most effective and influential mentors are those who grow their own capacity for more subtle and powerful interpersonal communications, and who invest in setting up the conditions that will help the mentoring conversations thrive. When organizations invest in developing mentors, they not only overcome the challenge of virtual environments, they ensure that mentors and mentees can navigate the mentorship journey together with confidence and produce powerful increased ROI.
If you are on the path towards becoming a great mentor, keep this in mind: being people-centered, having a clear mentoring view and being savvy about multiple ways to access meaningful growth opportunities can break down any distance between you and your mentee.
To create more impact in your mentoring programs, explore Ten Directions’ mentor development course: Becoming a Great Mentor™.
Ten Directions is passionate about encouraging more people-centered cultures of learning and growth and we look forward to collaborating with you.