Mentoring in a Remote Work Environment

The sudden shift to a remote workplace offers opportunities to reassess the mentoring process.

Mentoring is integral to business success for many companies as senior and junior staff members share professional insight. From college interns to recent graduates, young colleagues gain their first professional experience through mentoring. Yet the recent COVID-19 health crisis has sidelined the one-on-one mentoring process as companies have closed their door to work remotely.

While many managers across industries are exploring the long-term effects of the new remote workplace—however temporary—they also are examining the effects on mentoring. The current situation presents an opportunity to reassess the benefits of mentoring at different career stages in a remote work environment?

What’s Lost/What’s Gained?

We generally think of mentoring as senior staff teaching junior staff. Yet younger staff often come to their first job with technical knowledge and life experiences that can inform senior staff, while senior staff has more professional client-customer experience that can inform the younger staff. Mentoring is a mutual exchange of ideas in which all team members can benefit.

This mutual process generally happens in face-to-face meetings where ideas, tools, and information are quickly integrated into project goals. But when face-to-face is now through Zoom, the mentoring dynamics change—and personal interaction crucial to successful mentoring can get lost.

Managers can be busier and less apt to catch younger staff on the fly. The shift from in-person to virtual work has added a layer of uncertainty to the workday as people adjust to new ways of accomplishing existing goals. One-on-one meetings still occur, but collaboration now must be more structured and scheduled. Because working from home is less formal, meetings can often veer off topic as home-bound distractions intrude, presenting challenges to regular business hours.

Yet there are also gains as teams discover new ways to make the mentoring process nimbler. Working from home has forced deeper skillsets in online collaboration tools to increase efficiency. Different generations are sharing more—even teaching each other during meetings—and generally being more patient and empathetic with each other. Learning new digital communication skills is essential to moving forward in a remote workplace.

New Processes

The remote work environment also is inspiring managers to think more strategically about restructuring the mentoring process. Rather than taking mentoring for granted, companies are becoming more diligent about scheduling daily check-ins. Communication must be clearer—less nuanced, where simple facial expression or voice intonation help communicate an idea in a traditional setting. Now we have a greater need to establish virtual meeting etiquette—the culture of meetings—so team members know how to present themselves virtually.

Returning to the Office

Even when staff eventually returns to the office, it may not be business as usual. The health crisis has presented a learning curve that will be a valuable resource as teams readjust to their office desks. Managers may come back with refreshed insight into work processes while junior staff may have renewed appreciation for managing collaboration during a crisis. To assess the pros and cons of remote mentoring, consider conducting a re-occupancy e-mail survey among staff. Ask what worked, what didn’t work, what could be done differently. The results can help guide a new—and more mutually beneficial—approach to mentoring.

Key Advice

In the meantime, consider a few key points for up-and-coming young colleagues (and mentors) as your company navigates a remote workplace:

  • Take initiative, dig into figuring something out. Be curious. Do enough work or research to give your mentor something to react to.
  • Don’t wait to be told what’s next—engage with the work and figure out what needs to happen in sequence for all team members’ work to be completed. Work with your team to plan the steps from the beginning.
  • Seek out multiple points of mentorship. Build your network of folks who have knowledge that can help guide you. Different people are good for different things.
  • Set up a regular rhythm for short check-ins that make sense for the pace of work. Hold your mentor accountable to the rhythm.
  • Run the check-ins like a meeting. Have a regular agenda. Keep lists of questions. Be organized so you get the most out of your mentor’s time.
  • Be vulnerable and honest. If you’re not sure about something, ask for help.
  • Keep track of deadlines, due dates, and deliverables. Be clear what the daily priorities are. Read meeting minutes and review logs that others are keeping for items requiring action. Be clear on who will move them forward.
  • Make a daily effort to stay connected. Take the time to be involved in company initiatives, social events, or other industry-related activities (like writing a blog!).

HGA has created a hub for our insights and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic as architects, engineers, interior designers, and problem solvers. Follow the conversation here.