Upwork predicts that through 2021, 1 in 4 Americans will be working remotely. And that number is expected to change very little over the next four years.
Remote employees who are trying to advance their careers via mentorship might find this disheartening, even demoralizing. After all, how are you supposed to find a mentor over Zoom?
That’s where virtual mentorship comes. Remote mentoring programs facilitate mentor-mentee relationships, improve employee mental health, and reduce churn all at the same time. Curious about how it’s done? Read on to find out!
What Is Virtual Mentoring?
Virtual mentoring refers to any programs that remotely connect mentors and mentees. Remote-first workforces have been adopting virtual mentoring programs because of their ease, low costs, and greater freedoms. They’re often used during remote onboarding processes to help new recruits feel more comfortable in the digital workplace.
The Benefits of Virtual Mentoring Programs
There are several reasons companies are turning to virtual mentoring programs, all of which have second-order benefits for mentors, mentees, and the broader organization.
Creating A Sense Of Belonging to avoid remote work loneliness
Culture-building is a daunting mission already — it gets even more so in a remote-first workplace. However, mentor-mentee relationships can create community and camaraderie in organizations. Employees are always grateful (especially when first joining a company) to get a run-through of the culture and policies. For example, Automattic pairs new recruits up with senior employees to make the onboarding process easier.
Improving Employee Engagement
Remote employee engagement describes the relationship between an employee and the company. This often boils down to how committed an employee is to an organization itself. With economically challenging times on the horizon, firms will probably have to cut back on some benefits. In cases like these, a virtual mentoring program can be the solution to falling engagement. Remote mentoring is a reminder of future possibilities, like promotions and network expansion. In fact, retention rates are over 20% higher for employees who have been mentors or mentees.
For years, marginalized employees have been overlooked for promotions and opportunities. With a virtual mentoring program, mentees can collaborate with their mentors to create those opportunities themselves. Also, it's an opportunity for marginalized employees to develop work relationships they might not have otherwise had. That might be why 32% of minority employees say mentorship is extremely important to their careers.
Plan For The Succession Of Employees
According to a study by Microsoft, over 40% of employees worldwide are considering a career change — that probably includes some of the company’s highest performers. A virtual mentoring program provides a buffer in the face of mass employee exits as leaders can look to mentees as successors. Nearly 90% of mentees will become mentors themselves, creating a cycle of mentoring that benefits everyone.
Virtual vs. In-person Mentoring
Both mentors and mentees often have concerns about what is lost when mentoring goes remote. While some spontaneity and networking potential is lost, virtual mentoring also comes with a myriad of other advantages over in-person mentoring:
- Deeper work relationships. A remote mentoring program allows you to pair mentors and mentees from around the world. Since borders are no longer an issue, employees can find mentoring partners that truly fit them — instead of whoever is closest by.
- Lower costs. Deploying a virtual mentoring program is more affordable than doing one physically in-office. You’re also not limited by the number of chairs or desks or other office equipment in the room, and you don’t have to book a coworking space or meeting area either.
- More authentic settings. In a remote mentorship meeting, it’s just you in your home office, balcony, or backyard. The lack of boardrooms and lounges contributes to a more genuine, less formal atmosphere.
How To Do Virtual Mentoring Well
Running a virtual mentoring program isn’t easy work, and a lot is riding on you to get it right. Fortunately, there are a few guidelines you can keep in mind to ensure your mentoring program meets the status quo.
Finding Good Mentors
Mentors make up half the mentoring relationship, so they have to be high quality and a good match for the mentee. Choosing the wrong mentors could reverse all the benefits mentioned earlier. For example, a strong mentor might possess the following traits:
- Strong communication skills.
- Professional with domain depth and experience.
- Consistently available to mentees.
Before the first session, all participants in the mentoring program should be told what they are supposed to prepare. This could be a list of initial mentoring goals, questions, and ideas. To make the process easier for both the mentors and mentees, provide expectations and guidelines for success in the program. Answer these questions for them:
- What will be the measures of success?
- How frequently should you be checking in?
- Where will you be communicating?
- How long is the mentorship program going to last?
During the session, both parties should discuss their objectives and needs. Even if the company runs the program, let the mentors and mentees know that topics outside of work are fair game. For instance, if a mentee is experiencing time management issues outside of work, their mentor is free to advise them about it.
Best practices for virtual mentoring sessions
Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to get into some virtual mentoring best practices. By following these tips, you can ensure a seamless and enjoyable mentoring experience:
Set Up Ice Breakers And Conversation Starters Beforehand
The first meeting between mentors and mentees can be awkward. To alleviate this, it helps to provide conversation topics to get the discussion going. These can be anything from:
- Work history
- Professional ambitions
And more. The goal here is to set up a launch point for the conversation, but let the mentor or mentee take it from there.
It’s also an excellent idea to have the mentor and mentee create short introductory video explainers about themselves and send them in advance. You can do this easily with apps like Kommute, Loom, and other asynchronous communication tools.
Here’s a quick set of conversation starters, courtesy of Chronus:
- What are you working on today?
- If you could learn one new skill this year, what would it be?
- If you had a talk show, who would your first three guests be?
Send Out Reminders To Enforce Accountability
Accountability and consistency are number one for remote employees in any virtual mentoring program. Remove friction from the mentoring follow-up process by automatically scheduling meetings with tools like Donut and Doodle. Pre-scheduled Slack or Teams messages will also do the trick.
Set Boundaries To Keep The Mentoring Program Healthy
Discussing issues from outside of work within a mentor-mentee relationship is totally acceptable — as long as both parties agree to it. If the mentor or mentee is uncomfortable discussing specific topics, those boundaries should be set as soon as possible. This keeps the mentoring relationship healthy.
Get Feedback and Iterate Constantly
To best serve your remote employees, you should constantly gather feedback about the mentoring program and try to implement it next time around. Not only does this show that you care, but it also gives you the data points you need to improve. You can use Google Forms, Trello, or just a simple email to collect feedback privately or publicly.
Tools to Use for Virtual Mentoring
If you’re putting together your own virtual mentoring program, you can leverage a mixture of general and case-specific tools to create an experience your remote employees will love
In a remote-first company, the ‘asynchronous-by-default’ philosophy is typically the way to go. However, when it comes to mentorship, face-to-face live communication is incredibly important. The best strategy is to continue using the platform your company already employs:
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Meet
As remote work grows in popularity and best practices become policy, several mentoring software platforms have arisen, each offering something unique:
- Traqq — lets you monitor employee activity so mentors can follow up.
- Together — lets you create 1-on-1 or group programs that integrate with apps like Zoom.
- Insala — an all-in-one software that contains matching criteria and multi-program functionality.
Your Remote Employees Deserve Virtual Mentoring
In uncertain times, you want to give your employees all that you can in exchange for their efforts. Virtual mentorship is one of those things — it’s also unique in that it has a positive ROI for the company, the mentees, and the mentors. Everybody wins with virtual mentorship!
For more information on the tools and apps you can use to take your remote mentoring program to the next level, check out our Toolkit!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is mentoring remote workers important?
Developing a robust mentoring program in a virtual environment is important because of all the unique challenges remote workers face. Close to 20% of remote workers cite loneliness as their biggest challenge! Mentorship increases retention, improves long-term mental health outcomes, and provides career advancement options to historically overlooked groups.
How does virtual mentoring work for remote workers?
Virtual mentorship can take many forms—from the traditional manager-employee dynamic to the reverse mentorship, where the mentor learns from the mentee. Usually, remote workers get their mentorship through a dedicated platform like Together or Insala.
How do I find a virtual mentor for my remote worker?
Anyone at your company can be a virtual mentor for your remote worker. Prioritize people with strong communication skills in senior positions. A good mentor is also reliable and readily available to their mentee. While mentor-mentee pairings in a similar time zone are ideal, they’re not necessary.