Cast your mind back across your career and you can probably identify a series of seminal moments that were key to your success, whether that was receiving words of advice from a wise colleague; watching an inspiring leader in action; or having a chance conversation at the water cooler that opened a door to the future. One of the biggest challenges in the shift to remote working is the ability to mentor employees. Employees are no longer able to learn by observing peers and seniors in the physical workplace, and tens of thousands of people have started new jobs or changed roles during lockdown having never met their work colleagues. Whilst induction and training programmes can be carried out successfully online, there is no substitute for the physical workplace to build relationships, mentor talent and enable employees to learn from their peers.
The reduction in face-to-face mentoring puts companies at risk of losing their talent advantage, lowering productivity levels and obstructing diversity, and companies are exploring the most appropriate way to maximise the impact of mentoring in a virtual world. General Electric (GE), whose former CEO Jack Welch popularised the concept of reverse mentoring, emphasises the importance of building real, human connections alongside the teaching of critical skills, and their resource group meetings are held in person and virtually. Unilever has released several programmes focussed on looking after employee wellbeing as a response to the pandemic, and Sonika Sharma, Global Strategy and Communications Manager at Unilever, speaks of three core ways in which mentorship is more vital than ever today: it helps employees put things into perspective, provides an opportunity for them to reflect and improve, and finally, strengthens their sense of purpose and meaning, which is especially pertinent whilst tight restrictions on our freedoms remain in place and disconnection and isolation remain real risks of remote working.
The bottom line is that the future is a best of both worlds approach, where businesses do not try to shoehorn activities that are better done face-to-face into a virtual solution, instead allowing for a hybrid mentorship model to emerge. Mentees should be able to benefit both from the connectivity and access to multiple mentors that virtual solutions allow whilst also protecting the trust, focus and deeper connection that comes through meeting in a traditional face-to-face setting. For example, mentors and mentees could attend digital networking events together but also meet face-to-face for a coffee or lunch; and we would all do well to remember that mentorship functions formally as well as informally; it’s not only about scheduled meetings and events but also about what is learned by witnessing others on a daily basis – and seeing this progress is a point of pride for leaders.
To begin with: consider putting mentoring at the heart of your company culture; develop a hybrid approach to mentoring; and explore the role of emerging mentoring software. And remember the words of educational guru, John C. Crosby: ‘mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.’ In a virtual workplace his words are even more prescient.