Given the recent spike in remote work due to the coronavirus, it’s fortunate that mentorship programs can readily expand beyond in-person coffee meetups and conversations. While meeting in person can be helpful for building a relationship, it’s not the only way to connect. Meaningful mentoring relationships for remote employees can flourish through calls, video chats, text messaging and other virtual forms of communication.

Even during more normal times, when work or education occurs on-site and not at makeshift desks at home, there are major benefits to mentorship programs that incorporate the ability to connect virtually:

  • Connections rely less on geography. This is helpful for global companies. It breaks down silos and allows farflung employees to form meaningful mentoring relationships. Virtual meetings also create opportunities for people in rural, remote locations to seek connection with a mentor whose desired skills or experience they may not be able to find in close proximity. Overall, introducing a virtual element expands the number of potential participants and increases optimal pairings.
  • Scheduling becomes simpler. No need to check the weather or traffic reports when the meeting occurs online. Plus, for mentors and mentees in different life stages—for instance, a recent college grad and a parent with a young baby—carving out a convenient time to virtually meet becomes a simpler prospect.
  • Relationships may feel more genuine. There’s no guarantee, of course. But freeing mentorships from sterile, structured environments (like conference rooms) may have a freeing effect, allowing participants to form more authentic and personal connections.

In years past, the thought of video meetings and other tech-based communication might have seemed a bit overwhelming. Not so anymore! These days especially, people are accustomed to finagling the lighting for video calls and responding to Slack messages on the go.

If you’re considering incorporating a virtual element to your mentorship program or establishing a virtual mentoring program, consider these best practices.

Tips for Impactful Virtual Mentorship Programs

First off, be aware that all mentorship programs—whether they’re virtual, in-person or some combination of the two—build upon the same fundamental strategies. That is, many best practices for developing a virtual mentoring program mirror familiar best practices for any mentoring program.

1. Establish measures of success.

Want to know if your mentoring program is successful or impactful? Start by determining the goals for the program—this could be the number of participants, the number of activities within the mentoring connection, retention rate of mentors and mentees and more, depending on your preferred outcomes.

The important thing is to set SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. These goals will lead into key performance indicators (KPIs). Examining these metrics—particularly over time—will help you assess the program and determine where things are running smoothly, and where tweaks are needed.

2. Set the stage.

For a virtual mentorship program, it’s particularly important to provide a framework. Establishing one ensures that everyone involved—mentors and mentees, alike—understands the expectations, objectives and goals for the relationship.

To that end, it’s helpful for mentorship programs to provide participants with guidelines on:

  • Meeting frequency
  • Mentorship duration
  • Mentoring best practices, including introductory videos/webinars that set expectations
  • Goal setting templates and guidance

Establishing benchmarks for success and creating check-ins such as surveys and checkpoints, helps prevent the relationship from sliding to the bottom of participants’ to-do lists. And, don’t underestimate the value of an introductory webinar or training session—this is helpful whether the mentoring is one-on-one, as a group or in any other format you choose.

3. Develop a robust communication plan.

Going from strangers to productive mentoring partners may be a bit more challenging when interactions take place virtually, and not in person. Help remote employees create rapport by providing:

  • Ice-breakers: The goal here is for people to get comfortable. What’s fun for one person may feel excruciating for another. So provide lots of options like: What’s your favorite movie? If you could have any restaurant in your home, what would it be? What’s the scariest thing you’ve done for fun? What was your dream job growing up? What value of the company do you find the most personally relevant?
  • Conversation starters: Once you’ve gotten a bit personal with an ice-breaker, the goal is to drive the dialogue toward something more practical. Conversation starters that further the mentor-mentee relationship might have a lot in common with interview questions. Think: Where do you see yourself in five years? What are some of your long-term goals? What is a skill that you would like to improve? What is something you’re frustrated by?

Then, make sure mentors and mentees are aware of the best way to communicate with each other on an ongoing basis—whether it’s to schedule conversations, share insights, ask questions or so on.

4. Reinforce accountability among remote employees.

A primarily virtual relationship means that participants won’t run into each other at company-wide meetings or while getting their morning coffee. And while email is great, vague “let’s set up some time” emails can easily get lost in participants’ inboxes. Participant engagement may be more challenging, at times, with virtual programs—skipping a video call feels less harmful than a no-show for an in-person meeting. It just means that as a program admin, you’ll need to be more aware of participant activity and prepared to nudge mentors and mentees when necessary to re-engage.

Implement simple, effective strategies to ensure participation. Try these options:

  • Establish benchmarks: Provide guidelines for how often participants should meet. Then, send reminders monthly or quarterly.
  • Offer incentives: Even grownups crave gold stars. Giving out a small gift card (enough to cover the price of a cup of coffee) after participants attend a session can boost participation.
  • Gather feedback: Instituting check-ins after mentor/mentee meetings allows you to check in on mentoring progress, as well as track the overall satisfaction of participants with their mentoring matches.

5. Choose the right remote mentorship tools.

You want to make the process easy on participants. To that end, suggest a variety of digital connection tools, such as Skype, Slack, Zoom and so on. If the mentorship program is through a workplace, the tool used in the office is likely the best fit.

If you’re looking to build in more customization and enable automation, consider mentoring software, which simplifies every aspect of a modern mentoring program, from setup through to evaluation of its success.

During ordinary times, mentorship programs offer significant benefits to employees and employers alike. Participants feel more engaged with their workplace and appreciate the opportunity for career development, which helps increase retention and productivity in the workplace.

But these are no ordinary times: The physical distance of work, along with the anxiety that accompanies the news, can leave remote employees feeling distracted and adrift. This makes mentorship programs more important than ever. Not only do they provide an opportunity to build connections, but mentorship relationships also provide a path toward frank, open conversations around personal struggles, shifting business priorities and beyond.

Want to learn how software can drive success for your virtual mentoring program?

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