Promoting Mentorship in Remote Teams

by Amy Steinberg Published Sep 17, 2019 Last updated Sep 17, 2019

Mentorship lies in very specific moments, a light bulb going off for an employee that their supervisor or colleague wants to help them succeed. Much of what we think of traditionally as mentoring behavior is tied up in spontaneous conversations over coffee or across a cubicle wall, without planning. When your work is distributed across a remote team, however, it can feel like efficiency strips away the potential for mentorship. After all, what we save in productivity by mostly working on our own may also mean a decrease in some of those important collaborative moments that build the next generation of leaders.

While it does need to be more intentional, it is entirely possible to retain and even improve mentorship within your remote team. Here are some concrete strategies for making time and space for mentorship without compromising the excellent efficiency gains and other benefits of working remotely.

Set Aside “Office Hours” for Instant Messaging or Calls

Many individuals are reluctant to bring up anything via instant message or phone call unless it rises to the level of an urgent request, partially out of fear of interrupting something important that the other worker is doing. One way management and other high-level professionals can get around this reluctance is to set aside a “Q&A hour” once a week, or a set of “office hours” where you will always be available in Slack or by phone or via Google Hangouts. Share out the hours widely or have them pop up any time someone scrolls over your name in the instant messaging app your team uses. Having these hours doesn’t cost you anything – most of the time, you’ll be able to work right through them – but by making it clear that you don’t mind being interrupted for bigger-picture questions, you pave the way to more mentoring relationships.

For instance, if a worker has received two pieces of constructive feedback about their reports, they may know how they could have addressed the situation better but not be sure how to avoid causing the same problem in future contexts. A Q&A hour would give that professional time to reach out for bigger-picture advice from a supervisor or experienced colleague, who could coach them toward better future outcomes. Think about mentorship as the opportunity to make the worker, not just the work itself, better and more prepared.

Video One-on-Ones with Big-Picture Agendas

While meetings without agendas aren’t likely to have consistent mentoring effects, consider having video one-on-one meetings with any direct reports or individuals you wish to mentor. These meetings can include some catch-up and updates, but make sure that the meeting agenda includes big-picture requests.

In these one-on-ones, ask questions about what the individual likes most about their work, what they wish they could learn more about, and where they see themselves in 5 or 10 years. If they don’t have clear answers, that is not surprising; many people can’t forecast so clearly. This is a great opportunity to explore their strengths and passions and guide their professional learning and skill building down a particular path.

Encourage Workers to Attend Conferences and Networking Events Together

When teams don’t meet in person often, it makes sense to double-down on investment in professional development. Encourage teams to have an in-person meet-up when they will be attending the same conferences or networking events and catch-up informally; the company can make this happen by sponsoring a happy hour at the conference, which may have the added benefit of pulling in curious clients or potential future professionals. This in-person time is nice and doesn’t require people to travel separately for professional development and for team meetings.

Build In Structures for Constructive Feedback

As mentioned briefly before, much of how mentorship happens is through constructive feedback. Simply correcting errors and concerns at work may be the core of helping a single work product improve but taking the time to offer larger-scale feedback is how your employees grow. A remote team may need specific ways for this to happen or it will simply fall by the wayside. Does a video debrief make sense after a major project? Are in-line comments in a shared document helpful? Should there be a feedback email or an update to the workflow made after every project? You know your work best, but if there is no specific place where big-picture constructive feedback and coaching occurs, it probably won’t happen. 

At Yearly Reviews, Consider How Your Remote Team Defines Advancement

Take this time, with employees who are excelling and don’t require a particularly large amount of critical feedback, to discuss what they want next from their work. Do they want a lateral move toward other kinds of projects? Do they want to take a certification test or class that might afford them new opportunities? Offering them these options and seeing what appeals to them can really help you give them excellent opportunities. These options build loyalty to your company and keep your employees comfortable with the new challenges offered within your organization.

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