The coronavirus pandemic has made work and personal lives more blended, and a lot has changed for both employees and employers. There is more on people’s minds, and more disruptions and distractions that can take up mental energy. People also don’t have the same allegiance or loyalty to their employers that they once did since they’re no longer physically interacting with their managers and colleagues.
As a result, a mentorship program – a bridge that can connect colleagues to one another – can be grounding and help build connection and meaning for work. In a hybrid work model, however, having rapport and fostering relationships are going to require more forethought.
What is the hybrid workplace?
A hybrid workplace is one in which employees split their work time between being in the office and home (or really anywhere else outside the office).
Nearly two years ago, when many workers packed up their things to hunker down and work from their homes, what seemed to be something temporary – the hybrid workplace – is now starting to look increasingly more like a future work model.
An Accenture study in May 2021 found 83 percent of workers believed a hybrid model was the most optimal way to work. And while many companies have shown that remote work has increased productivity during the pandemic, there are still a lot of differences and complexities that need to be managed in a hybrid workplace.
Whereas before, young people entering the workforce had the opportunity to interact with their colleagues and build close bonds, these people are now excluded from those experiences. And underrepresented workers may miss out on career development opportunities, exacerbating a pipeline problem that has long afflicted diversity and inclusion goals at companies. “If you are a member of a group that’s marginalized or underrepresented, it’s already hard to be visible,” Evelyn Carter, director of diversity and inclusion at consulting firm Paradigm, told Fortune. “It’s especially exacerbated right now.”
Tips for Navigating the Hybrid Workplace
Since it appears the hybrid workplace may be the new normal of work, we’re going to have to learn how to exist in it. With small changes, organizations can make a big difference in strengthening relationships between colleagues and teams, while working remotely:
Acknowledge multiple work environments
Employers can start with simple steps, like acknowledging that people are now working and trying to navigate multiple work environments. Sometimes, people are having calls with colleagues in the office while others are at home. If people’s children and pets sometimes pop up on video calls, that shouldn’t feel as if it’s an intrusion. People need to feel that it is OK that they cannot completely separate their work and personal lives.
Emphasize the right connection tools
How does this happen? Many of the tools for shifting to a successful model are already used every day – from emails to video calls – but we just need to be more intentional about how these tools are used, and when they’re used in a hybrid workplace. For instance, does every meeting need to be in video format? If not, perhaps a quick phone call might be better, to give people a break from “Zoom fatigue.”
Focus on engagement
Companies that fail to embrace this new reality may find that they’re losing great talent. This can be seen in the staggering numbers of women, particularly mothers, who have left the workforce in droves since the pandemic began because of challenges finding childcare. Since March 2020, nearly 1.8 million women have dropped out of the U.S. labor force as of July 2021. If you notice any of your employees struggling in their performance, try bringing up your concerns and truly listen to them. In times of crisis, people have various reasons why their performance at work might be compromised, from family matters to health challenges. Remember that you’re not there to fix all of their problems – checking on employees’ overall well-being and helping them manage their workload may be the support and compassion they need to navigate work-life challenges.
How does mentoring need to change?
While building relationships is trickier in a hybrid workplace, it’s not impossible.
“Mentors play a pivotal role in safeguarding retention and building organizational commitment, particularly in times of crisis,” David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson, both professors at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in Harvard Business Review. “To retain high-potential junior talent and ensure strong post-pandemic succession planning, consistent and committed mentoring relationships are vital.”
Whether it’s conversation starters, goal templates, articles or forums, give your mentors and mentees the resources needed to be productive within their mentoring relationships. By providing the right tools, you can help remove barriers for your participants.
Best practices for mentoring programs in the hybrid workplace
Below are a few best practices for mentoring programs that can help employers create a structured path that makes it easy to follow for both the mentor and the mentee.
Remote work has no doubt made life easier to manage during unprecedented times. Companies should remind mentors and mentees that there are multiple communication mediums from which multigenerational workers can choose. Provide guidelines on how to use the modalities for connection, from Slack and Zoom to texting, remind mentors and mentees to think about a convenient time that works for both parties that wouldn’t interrupt their work. (Reminder: it takes workers about 23 minutes to return to their work after a distraction, like a digital message.)
People want human connections and authentic relationships. Encourage both mentors and mentees to discuss whatever is on their mind, whether it’s professional or personal. Why should we have to keep things separate if our lives are blurred together right now? Much of people’s personal lives are on display during video calls.
Without having the restrictions of a physical office, companies should think about casting a wider net so that workers who may not otherwise meet can have a better chance of forming meaningful mentoring relationships. Make the application process as easy and seamless as possible, and actively recruit employees into the program. Historically, women and employees of color have felt excluded or removed from informal mentoring relationships. With the added layer of being remote and/or in-person, it’s even more important to be intentional with program promotion efforts.
Many mentorship programs spend a lot of time ramping up, pairing mentors with mentees, but what people do after they’re paired up is left more up to chance. Instead, companies should think about mentorship programs like any other program where participants know how to “win” in their mentorship relationships. For instance, how is progress tracked? The program should have check-in goals and benchmarks so that both mentors and mentees can see and share their progress with others.
The way we’ve worked has drastically changed, and the way we view our priorities have certainly shifted. Why wouldn’t that be the case for the way we form and build relationships? It might take a bit more forethought and planning to make mentorship relationships work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean effective mentoring in a hybrid model should be anymore elusive. In fact, during this time of digging deep, these relationships may prove to us that being human is what has anchored us all along.