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PHOTO: Frank Romero

With a large percentage of the workforce now doing their jobs from home, many traditional office programs are having to reinvent themselves. That includes mentorship programs, which have generally involved a face-to-face relationship between the mentor and mentee.

Effective mentorship programs are still very much possible in the new workplace environment, but who needs mentoring the most and who serves as a mentor can be very different now.

For one thing, mentorships in the current circumstances may be less of a tool for grooming career advancement in a promising worker, and more of a way to calm the fears of newly-remote employees.

“When an employee transitions from working in the office to remote, there is a multi-month adjustment phase,” explained Jeffrey Hammond, vice president and principal analyst at Gartner Inc. “You need to shift from ‘water-cooler’ mentorships that are somewhat serendipitous to more intentional engagement. For remote employees, it sometimes seems like they are ‘out of sight and out of mind.’ Employees that were already remote workers can help newly-remote employees adjust and understand that the withdrawal symptoms are not unique.”

In these cases, a fellow employee may be the best choice for mentor.

Benefits and Challenges of Remote Mentorship

Whoever the participants in a mentorship program are, there are definite benefits to be had, including talent development, increased self-esteem in workers, increased diversity and deeper engagement. This last benefit may be especially important in the new work environment, in which employees can easily feel vulnerable.

“An engaged workforce tends to be a more creative workforce,” Hammond said. “Mentors help mentees navigate corporate politics, keep them from going down blind alleys, and provide an empathic connection to the organization, instead of a bureaucratic, policy-based, or hierarchical connection.”

But Hammond stresses that organizations can be their own top obstacle to making mentorship programs work in a remote environment, and technology is often the culprit.

“In many cases, company-provided tools restrict mentoring flows in collaboration tools,” Hammond explained. “For example, can an employee set up a private group or channel, or does the IT organization set up teams and channels that reflect official corporate structures. Mentoring relationships often cross organizational boundaries and are self-initiated, so the collaboration tools should enable this.”

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More Remote Workers Could Inspire More Mentoring Programs

The new, larger remote workforce may inspire more organizations to adopt mentoring programs. In addition to targeting high-performing or high-potential employees, other factors could be a desire to better track worker challenges and problems, to increase internal communication, and to ensure productivity. In past years, mentoring programs were more typically found at larger organizations.

Success with these programs will depend on sustained commitment by both the mentor and mentee, but may actually be easier in the new work environment, said Mark Settle, a seven-time chief information officer and author of “Truth from the Valley: A Practical Primer on IT Management.”

Settle has server as a mentor in formal programs conducted by a variety of organizations and he has also served as an informal mentor to specific individuals within his various IT organizations.

“In principal, the mentor should serve as a non-judgmental sounding board for the mentee, giving the mentee an opportunity to think more creatively about ways in which they can develop their skills and abilities,” Settle said. “In some cases it can serve to reset the mentee’s expectations regarding their readiness for specific roles or advancement opportunities. The principal benefit to the organization is the retention of key individuals.”

The fact that a mentor and a mentee are now remote is not an obstacle to success, and in some cases may actually make the relationship easier, Settle said.

“I don’t think it makes a huge difference whether conversations take place in an office setting or digitally,” Settle said. “In the current situation in which everyone is working from home, digital conversations are actually becoming somewhat less formal and easier to schedule. It might actually be easier to initiate new mentoring relationships under our current circumstances.”

The key, Settle said, is that in this less formal environment that there is “a sustained commitment to periodic mentor-mentee interaction and a willingness on the part of both parties to honestly share their opinions and perceptions.”

Commitment by the employee is indeed the top challenge to many mentorship programs.

“The biggest challenge I’ve encountered is a sustained commitment on the part of the mentee to maintain the relationship with their mentor,” Settle said. “Once the novelty value of the initial few discussions wears off, many mentees simple stop scheduling meetings with their mentors.”

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