The nine-to-five in-office workplace isn’t coming back. Remote work is now globally pervasive, and a Gallup Survey last fall revealed that working from home — including various hybrid arrangements — is trending permanent. As of September 2021, 45% of U.S. employees were working partly or fully remotely, and 91% of them planned to continue some level of remote work post-pandemic; in fact, 58% would consider leaving their current jobs if access to remote arrangements vanished. When combined with evidence showing that remote workers are as or more productive than their in-office counterparts, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay.
With this shift comes the need for managers and leaders to master virtual mentorship. Four decades of research leaves no doubt that employees with access to positive mentoring relationships accrue numerous personal and professional benefits. And when mentoring is a discernible element of a company culture, retention and advancement of talented new employees is enhanced. But how can managers shift their approach to initiating and nurturing these relationships when prospective mentees aren’t physically present?
Many individuals incorrectly presume that physical proximity is essential in developmental relationships. But like work itself, mentoring is defined less by the medium in which it is accomplished than by the outcomes delivered. Commitment, trust, relationship quality, and mentor competence are the real ingredients of developmental growth, all of which can be applied to virtual mentorship.
Virtual mentoring is rife with distinct advantages for the new environment of remote and hybrid work. Recent research on virtual developmental relationships indicates that this form of mentoring can be more egalitarian; visual status cues signaling organizational status and physical stature are minimized in video-based conversations by reducing all parties to a voice and screen of equal size. Moreover, where cross gender mentoring may feel fraught, the opportunity for virtual engagement can decrease anxiety about in-person meetings. Virtual mentorship also removes the hindrances of shared space and geography, since online options allow more flexibility in mentor/mentee schedules and locations. The ability to record and transcribe mentoring sessions can enable mentoring partners to refer to and reflect on a past conversation and, if shared, enables others to learn vicariously. Finally, wide availability of translation apps and closed captioning on most virtual platforms now extends a mentor’s impact to a global population of prospective mentees and more inclusive of those with disabilities.