Missing the Watercooler Moments: Guidance on Effective Mentoring Remote Workers

August 3, 2021
Missing the Watercooler Moments: Guidance on Effective Mentoring Remote Workers

Prior to COVID-19, few Americans had much experience working from home or managing remote teams. Indeed, according to the Nation Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), “three-quarters of working Americans did not work remotely at all, and only 6% primarily did remote work”. In 2020, the pandemic forced roughly one-third of all workers to shift to work from home. But while vaccination rates are increasing to finally end this awful pandemic, remote working is here to stay, permanently changing the nature of work for millions of employees. For millions of workers, this is a good thing! Studies show that younger people especially want greater flexibility when working, suggesting a generational shift. 

With the greater flexibility and convenience of remote work comes tradeoffs. Employee mentorship has become much more difficult because there are no longer the watercooler moments that happen when sharing an office space. But mentorship has never been more important than it is today! Mentoring young professionals is essential to help them be prepared for a rapidly changing world. Indeed, especially during times of crisis, employees depend on guidance from their peers to help them grow as individuals. When looking forward, leaders must learn to mentor their employees whom they no longer share an office with.

Missing the Watercooler Moments

Casual and unplanned employee interactions can be very valuable as to spur insights, mentorship, and even friendship. Absent these interactions, or watercooler moments, employees can feel more isolated and lonely. Email and texts are an opportunity to stay in contact with remote workers, but they have their limitations. Research has shown that non-verbal communication accounts for 70-93% of all communication, highlighting the need to see the person you are talking to. 

Zoom can be a useful tool to allow face-to-face communication, but it needs to be used intentionally. People can feel uncomfortable staring at their counterpart though a screen excessively, as it can feel forced or robotic. Allowing house pets to wander through the screen or having a more interesting background can lighten the mood and allow for more easy communication. 

Mentorship vs Evaluations

Providing feedback and guidance to employees is essential for employees to grow and improve.  Many professionals support SMART employee evaluations (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) when providing feedback. SMART can be very helpful because the criterion for evaluation is clearly stated and understood by both parties. 

Mentorship is different from evaluations, however. While evaluations are meant to be as objective as possible, mentoring is personal. Evaluations are about accomplishments while mentoring is about relationships. Mentorship is about individual professional growth rather than tasks completed. Mentorship requires an understanding of the employee’s individual needs and aspirations. So, while using evaluations are a very important tool for leaders and employees alike, mentoring offers a more well-rounded and humanistic approach to professional development. 

Mentoring Remote Workers 

The two most important elements of effective mentoring relationships are consistency and continuity. Because conversations happen more organically with in-person interactions than they do online, remote mentorship must have structure for it to be effective. Trevor Larson, CEO of Nectar, a peer-to-peer rewards software developer, offered some insight into his experience mentoring his employees. “I have seen mentoring relationships fail to take off because they are unable to tread the line between being too informal and overly robotic. It is vital when forging and nurturing remote mentorships to have an agenda to work off of, but also a more flexible plan so that you have a roadmap but also room to adjust to the demands and challenges of remote work. Remote mentorship often requires that both sides allocate more time during one-on-ones to iron out development needs, which tends to be something that happens more organically in in-person relationships.” 

Listed below are some helpful tips for mentors and mentees to establish a structure for effective mentorship.

For Mentors

  1. Set goals with your employee- not just want to accomplish, but also what they want to learn. 
  2. Set regular check-ins with your employees and listen to them. Mentoring is about people, about learning, and about connection. Listen more than you speak.
  3. Allow the conversation to go in new directions. By being open to the conversation rather than sticking to a script, you can learn more about where your employee is at, while building a deeper relationship. 
  4. Understand that mentorship is about empowerment. Yes, you want your employees to do good work, but you also want them to grow as an individual. Mentorship is much more well-rounded and personal than an evaluation.
  5. Allow your mentee to sit in on high level meetings just to listen and learn. 

For Mentees

  1. Reflect on where you are at as a professional, and where you want to go. From there, set goals of what you want to learn and accomplish.
  2. Find the right mentor. This person does not have to be your immediate boss. Find someone who you want to emulate and reach out to them.
  3. Set the agenda for each meeting, so the conversations are insightful and productive. You want your mentor to feel as though their time is being valued, so come prepared with good questions. 
  4. Ask for feedback! Asking for advice is crucial in improving as an employee and it gets you out of your comfort zone. And no matter what the feedback is, thank your mentor for their knowledge, insight, and advice.

Mentorship is a vital part of professional development. Remote employees often get left out of mentorship because they are not sharing a physical space with their peers. But by setting up the correct structures of communication and support, leaders can work to foster the next generation of leaders, no matter where they are.

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Written by
Jake Hannigan

Jake Hannigan joined the VAS team in 2019, and serves as both Business Development Strategist and Education Services Manager. During his tenure, Jake has been instrumental in leading VAS into higher education. He has worked in developing each of our education products and services, including our course Moving Face-to-Face Learning Online and Streaming Curriculum Approval. Prior to joining VAS, Jake spent his career growing and developing start-ups in the education and technology industries.

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