How to mentor when you’re working remotely

Written on 
June 22, 2020

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As many people have discovered over the past few months, remote work comes with its own specific set of challenges. You might struggle adjusting to remote communication, feeling isolated from your team, or lack motivation without the camaraderie of the office. But if you’re a mentor, things can be especially tricky.

Mentoring isn’t just about offering technical advice or methodical suggestions – it’s an emotional process. So if you’re only able to mentor virtually, it can seem as though what you’re able to offer is massively compromised. You simply can’t offer the same fluidity of contact or connection as in-person support.

But that doesn’t make virtual mentoring impossible. In fact, seeming less reachable can force you to think more carefully about how and when you communicate. Here are just a few best practice pointers on how to mentor when you’re working remotely.

The challenge of remote mentoring

It’s no secret that remote employees are generally more engaged, more productive, and happier than their in-office counterparts – but there are drawbacks to working remotely, and a common one is feeling detached or unsupported. Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report found that employees who work remotely rather than in the office are more likely to miss “important social and collaborative opportunities that are integral to engagement and well-being.”

Mentoring is just one example of this type of opportunity. To provide the best assistance to the person you’re mentoring, it’s always better to mentor face-to-face. This makes it easier to read social cues, pick up on whether the other person is nervous, and see how they’re affected by what you’re saying. In-person mentoring also makes it easier to build rapport and create a relaxed, friendly environment.

By removing “real” human connection from your mentoring, it can seem like the entire experience will be clinical and impersonal – but this doesn’t have to be the case. The challenges that you might face in remote mentoring are actually pretty similar to “normal” mentoring – it’s just that the means of communication exacerbates them.

Three remote mentoring best practices

Mentoring remote employees depends upon building relationships, communicating effectively and checking-in – just as mentoring employees you actually see does. The key to remote mentoring success is to properly prepare in advance and create multiple avenues of support. Here are just three ways to do this:

1. Tailor your mentoring structure

From the get go, it’s super important to find out from your mentee what the right level of checking in is. Do it too much and they might feel like you don’t quite trust them, or doing it just because you have to – but do it too little and they may feel unsupported and at sea. “Mentoring relationships often fail because they can’t land in the sweet spot between overly casual and overly engineered,” says Nancy Halpern, the principal of a workforce consulting firm. So always take time to ensure your mentee is honest with you about how often they’d like to connect.

Once you know how often you’ll be in touch, figure out how and when you’re going to make these meetings work. Will they always take the form of video chats, or will you use phone calls, instant messaging, or even email? At the start, it’s a good idea to have an agenda and a plan – especially so mentees know what they’re going to get out of a contact – but stay flexible; you need to be willing to adapt if your mentee wants to shift the focus of a meeting.

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2. Make it easy to stay aligned

To be an effective mentor you need to be on the same page as your mentee – understanding the personal context they are facing. If the other person is regularly working longer hours, dealing with an overwhelming workload, or struggling to split time between work and childcare, you should know about it so you can proactively provide support. To this end, look for tools that make it easy to stay aligned and visible.

For visibility over things like hours, workload, capacity, activity and overtime, try using automatic time trackers like Timely. Bear in mind that some people find it hard to be open when they’re struggling, so being able to raise this yourself can be enormously helpful – and very beneficial for your relationship in the long-term. Calendar sharing helps you better understand your mentee’s schedule – and make it easier to arrange times that work for you both – and task managers keep individual bits of work visible. These tools act as useful supplements to real-time contact, helping to surface points to discuss in your meetings.


Timely makes it easy to keep in sync with your mentee’s hours, workload, activity and schedule.  

 

3. Create spaces to discuss

One of the most important things to remember about mentorship is that for it to be impactful, it must be personalized – and that applies whether you’re meeting in person or virtually. Take time to listen to your mentee and figure out what it is that they want from the mentoring process.

“Some people will be looking for personal and career advice; others want more practical help,”

Dr Michele Veldsman, postdoctoral research scientist and mentor at the University of Oxford.

At the start of each meeting, take some time just to chat to your mentee on a personal level: how they are, if they’re worried about anything, how they’re managing competing responsibilities and demands, what they want to do next. Also, ask for feedback – is there anything you haven’t covered that your mentee wants to talk about, or a better tool or format you could try together? This is often easier in writing, so you could ask your mentee to drop you a message after each session with their thoughts and suggestions. Not only does this allow you to better prepare for the next session, but it allows gives your mentee more thinking space to consider how to best use your experience and insight.

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