As employees trickle back into offices around Australia, most workers are happily embracing the new flexible hybrid and work-from-anywhere workplace models, allowing employees to work from home, the office or just about anywhere. Yet, while the surroundings and immediate work environment might have changed recently (for at least some days of the working week), some things remain the same; most notably the need for career planning, opportunities to network, and mentorship. Many successful companies have long embraced a mentor-mentee program, and for good reason – studies show that 67% of businesses report an increase in productivity due to mentorship, with employees benefiting from accelerated learning, among other things. Perhaps unsurprisingly, around 70% of Fortune 500 companies reported having a mentorship program pre-COVID. While historically mentoring programs might have allowed mentees to spend an hour with a peer or a day with a life coach, companies have been forced to translate this important workplace tool in a hybrid workforce where face-to-face conversations are limited and “in the office” days don’t always coincide for mentors and mentees. Read on to find out why mentoring continues to be important and how to do it well in a hybrid workplace.
Mentorship is a fundamental support system at the best of times; it’s even more essential when employees may be battling the loneliness of working remotely, and are navigating new ways of interacting with colleagues and management. CEO Marianna Tu and board member Michael Li of New York-based not-for-profit mentoring organisation America Needs You (ANY) recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review that, in the face of these new challenges, “mentorship can anchor us.” Mentoring programs perform a win-win function. A great mentor is someone who can help guide an employee’s career, assist them to learn and grow, act as a sounding board, assist in the transition to various stages of work and life, offer advice, support and guidance, and provide behavioural feedback. For mentors, having a mentee can improve communication and leadership skills, while boosting confidence and work satisfaction. It also has broader business implications: happy employees are shown to be productive and loyal, which is particularly important at a time when unsatisfied and burnt-out workers are fuelling the prospect of the Great Resignation, possibly leading to talent wars across Australia.
Researchers David Megginson and David Clutterbuck identified two fundamental components for effective mentorship: clarity of purpose and building rapport, including developing mutual trust and respect. But these two goals can be difficult to achieve in a virtual world. Questions to ask in your own company when setting mentoring guidelines can include: How do we communicate openly and freely when we’re meeting for the first time via a computer screen? What are the right questions to ask (and when is the right time to ask them) when working from anywhere? How does one build professional relationships for advancement when management is not in the next office? How can we foster the connections that are critical to retaining employees? And how do we build a culture that supports inclusion when isolation is the new norm? “Coming together online doesn’t need to be the watered-down version of being together in-person,” Tu and Li write. “Some things are actually better because of – not in spite of – being remote.” They discuss how when meeting someone in person, we often form immediate assumptions about somebody, perhaps based on their shoes, gender or height, while remote mentoring “can promote equity and build relationships” free from these biases. They also note that, traditionally, mentors and mentees are paired together simply because they’re in the same office, but when you take geography out of the equation, employers have the opportunity to foster meaningful and valued mentoring partnerships, prioritising “shared interests and values over logistics.”
Phone, email, Zoom, Skype, Slack, Teams… Workers and employers have different preferences for managing communication in the new hybrid workplace. Professional mentors suggest keeping mediums flexible when communicating to promote inclusion rather than exclusion due to factors such as age, access and knowledge of new technologies. Always provide support and training, and set guidelines that cover the terms of communication and engagement. “There’s no denying the appeal of that face-to-face connection,” says Nick Wayland, a practised mentor and founder of global travel database TravMedia. “But adopting technology to mentor staff over the last two years has actually improved communications through our company. This medium is definitely one of the positives to come out of the pandemic. Tech has been the saving grace.” According to Tu and Li, the key to mentoring success at ANY was not only embracing technology, but also encouraging employees to be, well, people. “We named new virtual norms that embrace a holistic approach,” they wrote. ”Such as ‘you never have to apologise for interruptions from children and pets’, to ease the stress of digital interactions.” Their team also encouraged mentor-mentee partners to talk about things other than work. “One of our most impactful virtual mentoring activities at ANY is having one person speak for three uninterrupted minutes about their life story. These 180 seconds are profound; many cannot remember when they truly listened or were listened to for that long.” Software programs such as Art of Mentoring and Mentorloop also help kickstart and build customised mentorship programs, match mentors to mentees and, encouragingly, nudge participants to catch up, which is particularly useful when both parties may not have the same in-office days.
In a hyper-competitive world, it’s easy for mentoring programs to become stale and bureaucratic. Jethro Gilbert, founder and CEO of First Boots Expeditions, says removing mentorship meet-ups from sterile, structured environments (bye bye, boardroom!) may encourage a more freeing effect on participants, allowing them to form stronger authentic connections. The mentor and mentee could consider meeting in a café or catching up for a ‘walk and talk’ for some of their sessions to reduce the formality of the meet-up and create a more free-flowing conversation. “I’ve seen cookie-cutter mentorship in the past, and it doesn’t do anything to build skills or leadership,” says Gilbert, who has a background in the military and has extensive experience running mentorship and leadership programs. “Not everything can be planned or written up on a whiteboard – sometimes we’re challenged most and develop most when we’re inspired and things are unexpected.”
We all loved the first online happy hour we attended with work colleagues, the virtual equivalent of Friday night drinks at the pub. But many workplaces saw attendance plummet as employees suffered from videoconferencing fatigue. Instead, employers should focus on building individual relationships that lead to tangible career growth, and invest in one-to-one communication online as the key to building mentorships. Wayland believes that meaningful and regular communication builds trust. “For the TravMedia team, consistency in mentorship is a key motivator, particularly with our team spread around the world,” he says. “We had mentorship programs in place before, but now they’re much more regular. Checking in and sharing knowledge is essential to keep everyone happy and inspired.” He adds that for TravMedia, the hybrid workplace model is also fuelling a hybrid mentoring program, with individuals still encouraged to communicate virtually, but they also have the chance to do it in person, taking the best of both worlds of the new hybrid work model.