This blog was written by Ellen A. Ensher, W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith, and was originally published by Harvard Business Review.
The nine-to-five in-office workplace isn’t coming back. Remote work is now globally pervasive, and a Gallup survey last fall revealed that working from home — including various hybrid arrangements — is trending permanent. As of September 2021, 45% of U.S. employees were working partly or fully remotely, and 91% of them planned to continue some level of remote work post-pandemic; in fact, 58% would consider leaving their current jobs if access to remote arrangements vanished. When combined with evidence showing that remote workers are as or more productive than their in-office counterparts, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay.
With this shift comes the need for managers and leaders to master virtual mentorship. Four decades of research leaves no doubt that employees with access to positive mentoring relationships accrue numerous personal and professional benefits. And when mentoring is a discernible element of a company culture, retention and advancement of talented new employees is enhanced. But how can managers shift their approach to initiating and nurturing these relationships when prospective mentees aren’t physically present?
Many individuals incorrectly presume that physical proximity is essential in developmental relationships. But like work itself, mentoring is defined less by the medium in which it is accomplished than by the outcomes delivered. Commitment, trust, relationship quality, and mentor competence are the real ingredients of developmental growth, all of which can be applied to virtual mentorship. Virtual mentoring is rife with distinct advantages for the new environment of remote and hybrid work.
Recent research on virtual developmental relationships indicates that this form of mentoring can be more egalitarian; visual status cues signaling organizational status and physical stature are minimized in video-based conversations by reducing all parties to a voice and screen of equal size. Moreover, in a post-#MeToo environment, where cross-gender mentoring may feel fraught, the opportunity for virtual engagement can decrease anxiety about in-person meetings. Virtual mentorship also removes the hindrances of shared space and geography, since online options allow more flexibility in mentor/mentee schedules and locations. The ability to record and transcribe mentoring sessions can enable mentoring partners to refer to and reflect on a past conversation and, if shared, enables others to learn vicariously. Finally, wide availability of translation apps and closed captioning on most virtual platforms now extends a mentor’s impact to a global population of prospective mentees and more inclusive of those with disabilities.
As optimistic as we are about virtual mentoring, we acknowledge that there are some potential obstacles. Virtual mentoring may require greater intentionality than mentoring in the face-to-face office, where there are fewer mentor-of-the-moment opportunities in chance hallway interactions or informal drop-by chats. It also may require more effort to establish trust and rapport in the relationship, since the full range of nonverbal cues and vocal nuance may be missing. As with many online collaborations, virtual mentorship can also suffer from email overwhelm and screen fatigue, which can cause the relationship to become more task-oriented and expediency-driven, rather than focused on relational support.
There is little access to formal training and education on the art and science of successful virtual mentoring. (Only about 30% of companies offered training in virtual mentoring pre-pandemic, but those efforts focused more on software and company policies than tactical interpersonal and social skills for virtual relationship success.) Fortunately, there are skills leaders can learn to succeed. As a start, we suggest sharpening these five virtual mentoring strategies.
Establishing trust is foundational to any developmental relationship and may require even greater intentionality in virtual mediums. Such skills include taking the initiative to reach out, demonstrating your commitment to and reliability in meetings, and showing genuine care, concern, and compassion about a mentee’s work and life situation. Actively listen, be curious, and avoid assumptions about a mentee’s aspirations or concerns. Talk about how to make the virtual relationship a safe space for both parties (this includes an agreement about confidentiality in terms of what will and will not be recorded or shared), and deliver on any promises you make. Your mentee can’t drop by your office to remind you about an introduction you’d promised to make, so earn their trust by following through without being prompted.
Clarify rules of engagement.
In contrast to the more informal nature of in-person meeting arrangements, virtual mentorship requires greater attention to setting expectations around communication logistics. In addition to deciding the frequency of communication, discuss preferred mediums for communication, including synchronous (e.g., video-based platforms that work for both parties, internal mentoring systems, and phone calls) and asynchronous (e.g., email, messaging, and social media platforms such as LinkedIn) options. Which feel comfortable for both parties, and what boundaries around times for communication should be honored? Additionally, when you or your mentee are working remotely, be flexible around meeting schedules and attuned to the demands of caregiving, homeschooling, personal commitments, and other work-from-home realities.
Be intentional when forming the relationship.
Research on building rapport and overcoming biases and assumptions in cross-cultural mentorships indicates that working to establish deep-level similarity is important. For example, consider using relationship-building tools in the early phase of virtual mentoring to better understand your mentee’s values, personality, and professional calling. Ask questions that go progressively deeper into the experiences, feelings, and life or career dreams of both the mentee and mentor, so you can feel a level of closeness and similarity. Be intentional about sharing and reflecting on your similarities, career goals, and relationship objectives to develop a strong working alliance. Thoughtful effort when developing the relationship and discovering shared values is the best way to mitigate implicit biases. These includes homophily in online relationships — the preference for interaction with demographically similar people — and defaulting to stereotypes around race or gender.
Balance authenticity with boundaries.
In one sense, virtual mentoring may lend itself to greater task-oriented formality around mentor-mentee pairings, scheduling, and topics for discussion. However, with much virtual mentorship taking place inside our homes, there will be inevitable glimpses into the personal lives of both parties, including unscripted intrusions by partners, children, and pets.
On one hand, great mentors should welcome these moments — including honest disclosures from mentees about the challenges of work-life integration — as opportunities to empathize, deepen understanding and connection, and normalize these experiences for a mentee by sharing one’s own challenges in this area. Alternatively, mentors should remember to preserve some relational boundaries. This may include avoiding disclosures that may feel awkward for mentees, being mindful of how one is dressed, engaging respectfully with family members (yours and your mentees’), and checking in on one’s comfort level before sharing personal information.
As relative power holders in the mentorship, mentors must strike a balance between keeping it real and undue familiarity or worse — becoming creepy.
When possible, collaborate.
In-office mentoring has traditionally afforded many opportunities for working together on projects such as research, product development, or client pitches that benefit the mentee, the mentor, and the organization. Such collaboration can become a platform for teaching, coaching, and networking with your mentee. Don’t overlook the potential for collaboration in virtual relationships, as well.
For example, one of Ellen’s healthcare client organizations encouraged virtual mentor pairs to present a project after a year of officially partnering together. One pair created a conference presentation on breast cancer research, while another set up a one-day mobile clinic for mammogram screenings. Deliberate collaboration promotes transferable skills such as project management, presentation delivery, writing, research, and giving and receiving feedback.
Like new managerial skills for remote work, there are new skills for virtual mentoring. With intentional preparation and skill development, virtual mentoring can be quite effective. No matter the medium for your next virtual mentoring relationship, we hope that by developing these skills you will be well prepared for a high-impact virtual relationship.