If you’re setting up a virtual mentoring program or transitioning an existing mentoring program online, you might have some questions about how to make it as meaningful as possible for the mentor and the mentee.
While certain mentoring activities don’t always translate well to virtual environments and need to be redesigned (for example, job shadowing), mentoring relationships can nevertheless thrive online. Below are some tips to make your virtual mentoring program most effective.
Make support for mentors and mentees visible and accessible.
The most well-run mentoring programs provide plenty of support for both the mentors and the mentees, and in the online world, it isn’t any different. Program participants will likely need guidance on their roles and responsibilities, help working out interpersonal issues, and other assistance to overcome obstacles.
This isn’t any different when mentoring online, and it should be easy for a mentor or mentee to reach a program administrator for assistance. Make them visible and accessible.
Opt for shorter meetings more frequently, rather than longer meetings less frequently
Online relationships are more vulnerable to falling by the wayside. One way to combat the potential falling out is to increase the cadence of the mentor and mentee meetings. More frequent check-ins can help mentorship pairs increase trust and rapport. Rather than an hour once a month, try half an hour meetings every other week.
Consider the possibilities that virtual mentoring can offer that the real-world can’t
It’s easy for mentoring program administrators to focus on the limitations of online mentoring versus face-to-face mentoring. However, there are lots of possibilities that virtual mentoring can offer that simply aren’t an option in the real world.
Program administrators of online mentoring programs have the opportunity to think outside the box to create a unique and meaningful experience for both the mentor and mentee.
For example, in face-to-face mentoring, it’s impossible to separate the individual from their race, gender, disability status, etc. But in an online world, it is possible. In such an online environment, mentors and mentees can focus more on the content of one another’s messages rather than their identities.
With a mentoring software such as Mentoring Complete, you can design mentoring programs that allow a similar structure virtually as in face-to-face mentoring. Connect mentors and mentees, and receive immediate feedback on how the relationships are developing.
Encourage asynchronous communication modes as well as videoconferencing
Face-to-face communication is usually treated as the ultimate in mentoring communication: with the richness of nonverbal cues, vocal tone, and facial expressions, there’s a lot of meaning conveyed through in-person communication.
Online mentoring programs are wise to provide plenty of opportunities to get face-to-face communication through using video conferencing software. However, the typical Zoom or Skype meeting doesn’t need to be the only way that mentor and mentee pairs connect.
Mentors and mentees can connect via text, email, Slack channel, voicemail, etc. in between face-to-face meetings. An obvious benefit of these methods of communication is that they don’t require the mentorship pair to be available at the same time.
A mentee can ask a quick question for just-in-time guidance from the mentor before an important presentation or assignment, for example. However, there are other benefits over face-to-face communication. For example, using written communication allows people more time to process and organize their thoughts, and can lead to deeper thinking.
Consider broader performance support rather than formal training
When a mentoring program is online versus face-to-face, there are opportunities to provide “just-in-time” information that the mentor and mentee need. This can be more useful than comprehensive training upfront at the program launch. For example, a PDF job aid that outlines the steps of the most frequently-used functions of the mentoring software is likely to be more useful than a webinar.
Don’t skip the steps of starting a mentoring program just because it’s online
When a mentoring program is transitioning online, it still needs to have the essential pieces in place that a traditional mentoring program needs to be successful. There needs to be a clear goal for the mentoring program and a way to evaluate the program’s success (for example, a mentoring program with a goal of developing the leadership skills of its mentees could track the promotions of the graduates of the program).
There needs to be buy-in at the executive level, as well as buy-in from other stakeholders such as the mentees’ direct managers. There needs to be training for mentors and mentees at the time of the program launch.
These are all essential parts of a traditional mentoring program as well, and it’s important to resist the temptation to cut corners just because the program is online.
Consider reverse mentoring
In reverse mentoring, the more experienced professional plays the role of the neophyte and seeks out advice from the early career professional. The term was popularized by Jack Welch in the late 1990’s when he pushed executives at GE to seek out younger mentors in order to become more tech savvy.
When moving mentoring online, the change might be more challenging for the mid- to late-career professional rather than the early career professional who is well-versed in online communication and collaboration. Consider what expertise you might already have in your mentoring pairs, and lean on it.
However, the best advice for mentoring in an online environment is to simply try it out! A willingness to experiment with new things and learn from the experience is most helpful.