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Remote Mentorship: Strategies for Successful Mentoring in Virtual Teams

Can remote mentorship programs be as meaningful as in-person mentoring?

Mallory Herrin, SPHR, SHRM-CP, CPLC
CEO and Principal HR Consultant at HerrinHR with 18 years of HR and Employee Services experience
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What is Mentorship?

Mentoring is a tried and true career development method where less experienced employees (mentees) are paired with more senior or experienced individuals (mentors). Mentors act as advisors or guide them on a career path through formal or informal programs. In addition to helping employees develop their skills and further their careers, mentoring can help new employees quickly adjust to a role or the company as a whole.

It’s a no-brainer – mentorship is a low to no-cost way for organizations to upskill and develop talent. A mentoring program also results in improved productivity, better employee relations, higher employee engagement, better functioning teams, and lower turnover. But what happens when an organization works remotely, and the mentor and mentee can’t meet in person? Or what if the parties are working in-office at different locations? Can mentorship still work when it is conducted remotely?

In this article, we look at the nuances of mentorship and mentoring best practices in the context of a remote workplace.

In This Article

Understanding the Dynamics of Remote Mentorship

Remote mentorship, an evolving concept in the modern workplace, challenges traditional mentorship paradigms by transcending physical boundaries. Unlike traditional mentorship, remote mentorship offers accessibility that is perfect for our post-pandemic digital age, but the lack of a physical presence can affect communication nuances.

That said, mentorship programs that happen remotely aren’t necessarily better than ones that occur in person. There are pros and cons to in-person mentoring, just as there are to virtual mentoring. What virtual mentoring lacks in physical presence, it makes up for in flexibility, convenience, and reduced costs to the organization.

We are in the midst of a global talent crunch. The current talent shortage has 75% of employers reporting difficulty filling roles. This is just 2% less than 2023 and still a 39% increase from just ten years ago. It’s not projected to get much better, either.

We are also in a skills crisis, with 50% of all employees needing to be upskilled or reskilled by 2025. In fact, research shows that by 2030, more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled due to this labor and skills shortage. The logical conclusion we must make to face this crisis is to focus our efforts on upskilling and retaining our current talent. Whether conducted virtually or in person, mentoring is an excellent way to do just that.

Because mentorship's primary function is imparting knowledge, we should focus on the outcome. What are younger employees benefiting from? Are there more benefits to working in-office where mentorship opportunities are more accessible? Can we simulate it well enough in remote mentorship to facilitate the same level of knowledge transfer?

What Younger Employees Gain and Lose in Remote Work

Younger workers who joined the workforce during or post-pandemic have experienced a radically different world of work. Fortunately, these digital natives are uniquely positioned to benefit from remote work environments.

They gain flexibility, a work-life balance, and opportunities to work with diverse global teams. There has been a perception of Gen Z in the workforce that’s tinged with negativity. Leaders don’t always appreciate the pushback this generation gives on things like working in person, paying higher wages, or providing more robust benefits and paid time off.

Frankly, it often comes off to those of us who have been around the block and paid our dues as an attitude of entitlement. Honestly, though, they aren’t asking for anything we wouldn’t want ourselves. Seriously, who doesn’t enjoy more money, better benefits, more time off, and a realistic work-life balance achieved through flexibility in remote work arrangements?

Losing Out on In-Person Relationships

Despite the benefits of working remotely, there are some drawbacks Gen Z will feel sooner or later. With hybrid work and fully remote operations, the chances to get more organic “face time” with colleagues and leaders are gone. This kind of chit-chat at the water cooler get-to-know-you spur-of-the-moment talk isn’t unnecessary or unproductive. Sure, it’s not precisely the responsibilities listed in the job description, but it’s relationship-building.

Building these connections, trust, and understanding can significantly improve collaboration, morale, and, ultimately, productivity. These organic interactions are absent in remote work, and an effort must be made to reproduce them on a call or video chat. However, informal virtual meetings can feel forced or awkward and be deemed unnecessary. Those new to the workforce may miss out entirely because they don’t know this exercise, albeit uncomfortable, is essential.

Remote work limits more than just in-person networking opportunities. It also limits the informal learning that occurs in physical office spaces. This dichotomy highlights the importance of structured remote mentorship for guidance and support.

An older professional giving in-person mentorship to a younger employee in an office environment.

Comparing Mentorship Opportunities: Remote Work vs. Shared Workspaces

Comparing remote work mentorship with traditional mentorship in shared workspaces reveals many similarities and distinct differences and advantages.

The Similarities

Regardless of the meeting mode (virtual or in person), remote mentorship offers the opportunity to connect with leaders and establish relationships. Leaders are able to build a more inclusive culture. Mentees grow their careers, develop their skills, and get more support for their overall well-being from leaders.

As for differences, well – different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

Where Remote Mentorship Excels

Remote mentorship offers greater flexibility and the potential to connect with mentors regardless of geographical constraints or time zones. This opens up a much wider pool of individuals for a mentee to connect with and learn from. The scheduling flexibility is greatly enhanced when the parties involved aren’t trying to connect in person as well.

Because a video call is a low-lift, mentoring sessions can be as short as ten-minute checkups or extended meetings that don’t require travel time. Depending on the communication tools the mentor and mentee use, it is still possible to collaborate or review work using shared workspaces and shared screens.

Where In-Person Mentorship is Preferable

Conversely, shared workspaces allow for spontaneous interactions and nonverbal communication cues, fostering a different kind of mentor-mentee relationship. Is that type of relationship better? Not necessarily.

The mentor-mentee relationship’s value and quality aren’t easily determined from an outside perspective. Understanding that off-the-cuff and more casual conversation isn’t as easily accomplished in a virtual setting just means that mentors and mentees will have to make an effort to build that kind of camaraderie and relationship with virtual mentorship.

The Role of Technology in Facilitating Remote Mentorship

Remote work wouldn’t be possible without the availability of collaboration tools like Zoom, Teams, Skype, Slack, etc. These tools are just as important when it comes to remote mentorship.

Sure, you could conduct your remote mentorship meeting via an old-fashioned phone call and call it a day. Still, you’d be missing out on the non-verbal communication that comes with seeing someone through a video chat. Yes, it’s still not as great as meeting in person, where you can catch more body language from the person sitting across from you. However, the ability to at least read someone’s facial expressions and hand gestures isn’t something to balk at, as it does add value to the conversation.

Using video conferencing tools to facilitate remote mentor meetings is crucial. Scheduling software is just as necessary so neither party misses these critical meetings. While I’m a big fan of the Outlook calendar, there are also Google calendars and even tools like Calendly to help both parties work out a date and time they are free to meet.

Instant messaging and collaborative platforms facilitate communication and help set goals, track progress, and share resources. The mentor and mentee shouldn’t have communication limited to just once per month video conference meetings. Instead, having the ability to send a message, email, or text quickly can enhance the effectiveness of the mentor relationship.

Performance management tools can help a mentor and mentee track progress on the mentee’s work and career goals. File-sharing platforms like OneDrive and DropBox allow each party to easily send and receive large files that could be useful to one or both parties. For example, perhaps a mentor has an e-book for the mentee to read, or the mentee wants to have their mentor go over the presentation they put together to give feedback.

The effectiveness of remote mentorship heavily depends on the judicious selection and use of these technologies.

A remote employee at home in a virtual meeting with his mentor.

Cultivating a Remote Mentorship Culture

Cultivating a remote mentorship culture within your organization requires intentional strategies to foster connection, trust, and engagement in a virtual environment. This involves establishing explicit communication norms, encouraging regular check-ins with remote workers, and promoting an inclusive atmosphere where feedback is welcomed and valued.

A strong remote mentorship culture supports continuous learning and development despite the lack of physical interaction and without the burden of proximity bias favoring face-to-face mentees.

The initiative must start at the top. Leadership should not only endorse remote mentorship but actively participate in it. This sets a precedent and underscores its importance within the organization.

Clear goals and structures for the remote mentoring program are equally important. This involves defining what the program aims to achieve, how it aligns with the company's broader goals, and the specific roles and responsibilities of mentors and mentees. Training for both mentors and mentees is also helpful in cultivating a remote mentorship culture. This could include learning new skills for communicating effectively in a virtual environment, setting and achieving goals, and giving and receiving feedback constructively.

Recognizing and rewarding the contributions of both mentors and mentees also drives the right culture for an effective virtual mentoring program. This can be through formal recognition in company meetings, newsletters, or performance evaluations.

Challenges and Solutions: Navigating Remote Mentorship Pitfalls

The challenges of remote mentoring include limited nonverbal communication, technical issues, and difficulties building rapport and trust.

Rest assured, you can overcome these challenges.

First, it’s crucial to establish clear communication channels. Before engaging in a mentorship relationship, the parties involved should discuss their preferred communication methods, video conferencing platform, and the frequency of communication.

Next, the parties need to be very clear in their expectations. The mentor needs to set expectations for the mentee – the kind of commitment and effort the mentee will bring to the table in exchange for the wisdom and time of the mentor. The mentee must also be clear about what they want to get out of the relationship. What specific goals and objectives is the mentee trying to accomplish? What kind of timeframe is desired? Empathy, flexibility, and understanding will also help both parties.

Technology can be fickle. Schedules can change. Whenever possible, the parties should make an effort to accommodate each other (especially for last-minute surprises) without sacrificing the effort and commitment they have agreed to give to the relationship.

Measuring the Success of Remote Mentorship Programs

The success of remote mentorship programs can be measured through various metrics such as the achievement of set goals, feedback from participants, and the overall impact on career development and job satisfaction.

Using technology to track these goals and their completion is excellent but not necessary. Something as simple as a handwritten list of goals can be just as effective. The key component of measuring success here is establishing how you will measure the success of the mentorship program before commencing it. This is another area where you need to remain flexible. As the program evolves, continue to evaluate its success. Survey those involved to understand their perspective, what they think is working, and what could be improved.

Regular assessments and adjustments based on metrics and feedback ensure the continuous effectiveness and relevance of the mentorship program.

Conclusion: Can Mentorship Happen Remotely?

Whether effective mentorship can occur remotely has been a topic of much debate. As an individual who serves as a mentor (remotely), my answer is that yes – it absolutely can happen this way. While remote mentorship lacks physical interactions, it can still provide significant professional and personal growth opportunities. With the right tools, strategies, and commitment, remote mentorship can be as impactful as traditional mentor programs.

Remote work isn’t going away. We know we need to upskill and develop our employees to achieve our goals and retain top talent. Remote mentorship is an excellent means to do this, as it represents a critical component of modern professional development, offering unique opportunities and challenges. As the workforce evolves, embracing remote mentorship and continuously refining its practices will be vital to nurturing talent and fostering future success in a global, digital landscape.

Mallory Herrin, SPHR, SHRM-CP, CPLC
CEO and Principal HR Consultant at HerrinHR with 18 years of HR and Employee Services experience
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Mallory Herrin is the CEO and Principal HR Consultant of HerrinHR, a leading human resources consulting and outsourcing firm that provides expert HR solutions to small and mid-size businesses. With over 18 years of HR experience and dual certifications from HRCI and SHRM, Mallory has established herself as a thought leader in the industry.

Mallory is a certified coach and author of Intentional HR: A Revolution in Strategic Thinking, a book that has garnered widespread praise from HR professionals. She frequently speaks at HR conferences and is a recurring guest on podcasts, including HR Insider.

Mallory’s insights and expertise have earned her numerous accolades, including being named one of the Top 10 Most Influential People in Executive Hiring and one of the Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, 2022. She was also recognized as one of the Top 10 Unstoppable Entrepreneurs to Follow in 2022. Her work has been featured in both local and national publications.

With Mallory's strategic approach to HR consulting, businesses can expect to receive innovative solutions that help them achieve their goals while maintaining compliance with all relevant regulations. She is committed to empowering organizations to make positive changes that enhance their culture and bottom line.

Featured in: Intentional HR: A Revolution in Strategic Thinking (Book) 2020 North Texas SHRM Conference Good Morning HR Podcast HR Insider Podcast By The Books Podcast

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