As 2019 drew to a close, many people were eager to see the new year in, start their new year resolutions and get one step closer to their career goals with the same optimism and enthusiasm for the future. But when Covid-19 hit on a global scale these goals and objectives came to a standstill. It took time past all the health worries and shock of such life-changing events for anyone to even fathom how the world’s economy would be affected, let alone how businesses would be able to address their temporary or permanent closures to countless teams of people while still encouraging them to stay positive. With everything at stake there was just no roadmap guiding company leaders and executives in how to ensure they kept their employees’ trust in them. These were unprecedented times and employees began to question how important their roles really were.
Take mentors for example, aside from their day to day roles, they have always played an important part in the safeguarding and promoting of future careers. But how would they be able to fulfil their objectives when there were no employees to mentor? Was building trust in the business still their responsibility? And while they were worrying about their own careers, was being a mentor still a priority?
When parts of the business world started to stand still, others became crucial to the continuation society as we know it – food production and manufacturers, servers and stockers, and of course doctors and nurses were all at the forefront of this pandemic, keeping people healthy, supplied and sustained. But as some sectors of business were not able to continue in the same way, they sent employees home with laptops and internal networks that enabled them to continue their jobs, allowing their company to function in the most normal way possible. So, it begs the question, how does being a mentor fit into all of this?
By most expectations – and desperate hopefulness – this way of working was only really mapped out for a few months, with the world hoping that the pandemic would slowly diminish until it was nothing more than a sombre conversation down the line about how the world stopped in 2020. But here we are, with the end of the year creeping up and workers all over the world still confined to their home offices, hanging on to the virtually communicated trust in their company that their job is important enough to keep in the long term.
The uncertainty of the pandemic is worrying, and this is why now more than ever, business leaders need to look to the future of their companies and the people that will be equipped and eager to make the future look certain for them. Mentors may just be a huge part of the saving force to protect the future and reignite trust within an organization.
The thing with people who are mentoring others is that they already have resilience and understand how to adapt to new situations as they usually take on the role of mentorship due to their experience. So even the most inexperienced mentor – meaning they have recently taken on the role or are currently in their first mentorship - will still possess the qualities that are needed during this confusing time. This in no way means they have all the answers, but they are able to continue to guide their mentee through unchartered waters based on their knowledge of people and problem solving, and through a desire to help shape tomorrow’s leaders.
An experienced mentor will be able to see this as an opportunity to break new ground, develop their own skills and hopefully change someone else’s life while doing so. When working from home or away from the office, it means working away from other people physically which can take its toll on a lot of employees used to bustling offices, phones ringing and friendly catch ups over lunch. But for a mentor, this new experience can actually be beneficial by making schedules tighter and allowing more time for them to continue with their own work without the added worry of travelling or commuting and balancing their work/home life.
Remote working is one thing, but remote mentoring is another and even before the pandemic hit, virtual mentoring was used quite widely amongst organizations via their employee mentoring programs. So, in a lot of ways the transition to the “new normal” has been a lot easier than in other areas of work. This new opportunity has of course presented challenges but is one that if used to its advantage will open up more opportunities in the long run.
In this era of uncertainty, the one thing we have to be thankful for is technology. Sure, it has its pitfalls in terms of privacy and even breakdowns but being able to connect with someone virtually or remotely instead of face to face works well in terms of business – financially and fiscally. When people are able to join a meeting from thousands of miles away or receive documents at the touch of a button, we must appreciate that even when remote working can be lonesome and even disengaging, we are able to continue with work, earn money and keep the economy pushing forward. So how does this work in terms of mentorship and what is so different now?
Adapting to a New Working Environment – In terms of working from home the ideal set up is comfortable, professional and organized. Employees are being encouraged to create a workspace that allows them to concentrate on tasks in hand with limited distractions and one that doesn’t swamp or overload them. It is home working after all, and the idea is not to resent the place that one would usually feel most at ease.
So, in terms of mentorship, the adaptations on top of those above would need to be adhered to quite strictly, especially in terms of privacy. Think of a doctor’s office where the doors are always shut to protect patient confidentiality and discussions are kept at a low level of volume. Mentors need to find a space that allows them to offer the same level of discretion when it comes to Zoom meetings and phone calls if they are not able to work from their office. When guidance comes from personal experience, the level of trust someone has in their mentor would be severely affected if they encountered persistent interruptions when discussing sometimes intimate or sensitive details.
Setting up a space that limits family members or perhaps disruptive pets from intruding can be quite difficult at this time, but it is important for all mentors to view this aspect of home working with strict professionalism.
Setting Expectations Early on – This would be done first in any mentorship, but the parameters may now be set differently to usual. When a person seeks out a mentor they would discuss their goals and what they want to get out of the mentorship, and a mentor would typically set some guidance regarding contact, how often they would meet, what constitutes “out of hours” and what timescales they need to see the program through. This is of course a two-way discussion. However, when all parties may be working remotely, the parameters need to be set jointly and as a partnership.
Each person will be remotely entering the other’s living space and it needs to be convenient for both people, so setting times to benefit everyone involved must be mutually decided. The lines can become blurred for many people already working from home, where they are expected to answer calls at all hours of the day – for the most part, this is an innocent mistake as it becomes harder to differentiate the work and home lives of other people. So, setting the boundaries early on are crucial for a mentor to work without resent.
Aside from this, expectations of the future are currently quite difficult to map out. Some mentorships can last a year, with direct observations from line managers at the office, networking with different departments and meetings taking place every month, all contributing toward the experience. When no one is certain if remote working is here to stay, planning for meetings in six months or views to succession within a year is just not foreseeable in the same way it used to be. So, setting expectations will also involve putting a mentee’s mind at ease as to why the program is worthwhile, and that there will be experience to gain, even though the how might not be too clear in the short term.
Forging a Connection Remotely – This can be challenging from the start, but it does not mean it’s impossible. Getting to know people usually takes place face to face in a working environment. Employees would commonly meet training teams, managers and other team members, build rapport and slowly start to create friendships and long-lasting professional relationships.
When face to face contact is limited or not even possible at all, for a lot of people the thought of putting themselves out there over a phone call can bring on feelings of anxiety. Afterall, nonverbal communication accounts for around 60-70% of all communication, therefore it can be difficult to really figure out who someone is just from hearing their voice. For employees seeking mentors for help with their communication and networking skills, jumping into a fully verbal mentorship with someone they don’t know can make things trickier.
Video calls can help with this, and body language will hugely contribute toward easing the first meeting along with other nonverbal communication. Although it may not be a natural setting to meet someone, a mentor in this instance will have the ability to break the ice and start to forge the connection and trust from their mentee. The connection has to work both ways though, a mentorship should be mutually beneficial and not a one-sided conversation, especially when carrying out the program virtually. So, mentors need to ensure they are getting as much back as they are putting out. By creating a warm welcome, inviting their mentee into their home through virtual means and taking the time to listen to their worries, using both verbal and nonverbal communication to acknowledge what is being said, this initial step should help to put them at ease. At this point both parties should be able to start gaining something from the mentorship.
Prepare for Technical Problems – A breakdown in technology shouldn’t mean a breakdown in communication, but unfortunately when we have to rely on computers, phones and networks to communicate, we must expect things to go wrong. Not everyone is an IT wizard or has the tools to be able to fix huge problems when working remotely, but from a mentor’s perspective it shouldn’t mean that the mentorship has to wait until the problem is solved.
Becoming someone that can be relied upon is a big task during these times, especially when other workloads are equally, if not more important. But mentors understand that without their guidance, or if they start to push back meetings, the trust they have worked to gain from their mentee can be gone just as fast, and a technical failure is not an excuse to put things off. Having a back up plan for communication such as landline phone numbers, good old-fashioned email or other platforms for instant chat should be set in place at the beginning of the program. A mentor who wants the best out of someone and wants to be part of that journey is able to think outside the box and get creative when things start to go wrong, especially technology.
Aside from wanting to enrich someone else’s life, or help them along with their career goals, becoming a mentor is a self-fulfilling exercise that has so many benefits. It helps build leadership skills, learn new perspectives, enhance communication skills and as discussed above, it allows a forum for problem solving and planning ahead. When it comes to promotions, a mentorship is not only there to help an employee climb the ladder, but to make career goals more accessible to both parties.
During the covid-19 pandemic, mentoring offers something new and meaningful to the employees who were sure their career development had ground to a halt. It means the world still turns and that there is support out there for people uncertain of what the future holds for them. The world needs motivation now and people need a confidence boost, but employers also need people they can trust.
When it isn’t so visible to them to see which employees have high potential, or monitor and develop those that were originally working hard toward a goal before remote working stepped in, a mentor is able to provide insight as well as deliver the motivation and confidence boosting morale to employees that are searching for a way to kickstart their careers again.