Think of mentoring and you’ll probably picture some silver-haired senior staffer talking through the challenges of climbing the career ladder with a bright-eyed junior employee over lunch. Tactile and cozy, this image of mentoring suggests it’s a lousy fit for mobile employees who rarely, if ever, come in to the office in person.
That’s a myth, says Beth N. Carvin, an expert on mentoring and CEO of Nobscot Corporation. “The biggest misconception is that relationships can not flourish without meeting in-person,” she wrote to Mobilizer in an email interview. “This misconception can result in company leaders neglecting remote workers and not including them in formal mentoring programs.”
More Important for Mobile Workers
Leaving your mobile employees out of your mentoring program is a big mistake, she feels, as distributed workers benefit particularly from having someone senior to turn to for advice.
“One of the challenges for remote workers, particularly in organizations with large numbers of in-office employees, is feeling that they are not truly part of the team. Remote workers often describe themselves as ‘step-children,’” she says and suggests that mentoring is a good way to make sure mobile workers feel like fully part of the family. “Having a mentor (or mentee) builds bridges between off-site and on-site employees. It helps foster a sense of belonging,” she says.
But that’s not the only benefit of mentoring for mobile workers. These out-of-office team members “also miss out on the spontaneous learning and communication that takes place throughout the day in an office. In-house employees are learning and bonding every day as they interact with each other, even over seemingly mundane tasks or while eating together. Mentoring can help provide informal learning opportunities that might otherwise be lost,” says Carvin. In short, mentoring is always a good idea but it’s especially important for mobile team members.
Doing It Right
If you’re convinced of the value of making sure you include your mobile workers in your mentoring program, how do you do it right? Carvin offers some suggestions, including allowing mentees to participate in the selection of their mentor and being 100% present when you’re communicating. It’s easy to be distracted by a beeping phone while you’re on Skype, for example, so “turn off your phone, your computer monitor, instant messaging programs, etc. so you can completely focus on the conversation.”
It’s also important to make room for the personal and spontaneous. “When you’re communicating exclusively via phone and email, the relationship tends to feel very formal, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” explains Carvin.
“Small talk is okay,” she says. “One of the most integral keys to a successful mentoring partnership is the relationship—one in which both parties feel trust for the other. If all you’re talking about is business, it may a challenge to build that bond.” She advises that, “the mentor in the relationship should take the lead on this initially, as some mentees may be too hesitant to stray from business discussions.”
While you should schedule meetings, it’s also important to allow for impromptu communications. “Mentees should feel confident to reach out to their mentors outside of normal meetings when they have urgent questions or issues,” says Carvin.
Take It Offline
Online mentoring of mobile employees beats no mentoring at all by a mile, but if the opportunity arises, it’s always good to have mentors and their mentees meet offline. If you’re at an offsite or event together, work in a time to chat face to face, suggests Carvin who adds, “you can also look for opportunities to participate in joint activities that you can both attend.”